Stress—the tense sensation that can cause feelings of frustration, anger, or nervousness.
Stress is the body’s natural response to a specific issue, challenge, or demand. Everybody has likely experienced it at one point in their life.
In little bursts, stress can help avoid danger or meet a deadline. However, when stress persists for a while (several weeks or more), it can be harmful to overall health.
Below are the different types of stress, how to recognize them, the risks they can pose to overall health, and how to manage stress to improve quality of life.
Different Types of Stress
Generally speaking, there are two different kinds of stress: acute and chronic.
Acute stress: is short-term stress that doesn’t stick around for very long.
Someone may experience acute stress from:
- Slamming on the brakes of their car
- Fighting with someone they love
- Having a lot to do and little time to do it
- Getting lost
This kind of stress helps navigate potentially dangerous situations. It can also occur while experiencing new and exciting things. Everyone has experienced acute stress at some point.
Chronic stress: is stress that lasts longer than acute stress.
Someone may be experiencing chronic stress if they:
- Always worry about the state of the world
- Have extended money problems
- Are in an unhappy marriage
- Experience trouble at work
- Care for someone with an ongoing illness
Chronic stress can last for weeks or months at a time. In some cases, individuals may become so used to operating under stress; they don’t realize it’s negatively affecting their health.
Health Risks Associated with Stress
Everyone handles stress differently. Stress levels will vary depending on the person and their coping abilities.
Some may feel more comfortable handling stress than others. But does stress impact health?
The body reacts to stress by releasing hormones, which can:
- Increase alertness
- Cause muscles to tense
- Increase pulse
These are typical reactions to acute stress and can help the body protect itself.
When someone experiences chronic stress, their body stays on high alert, even though there is no immediate danger. As this continues, it increases the risk of health problems, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Depression or anxiety
- Skin issues, such as acne or eczema
- Menstrual problems
Chronic stress can also cause pre-existing medical conditions to worsen.
Different Sources of Stress
Many situations can bring stress to the forefront of our emotions.
These situations typically have one thing in common: change. Even positive changes, such as having a baby or starting a new job, can be stressful.
It is important to remember that most stress is caused by external factors out of our control, like the COVID-19 pandemic, but can still be effectively managed.
Here are some common causes of stress:
- Loss of a job or getting laid off
- Starting a new job
- Financial woes
- Negative news media
- Recent marriage or divorce
- Having a baby
- Death of a loved one
- Interpersonal problems at home or school
- Being diagnosed with a severe illness
Learning to Recognize Stress
The first step to managing stress is to identify it.
The most important thing to remember is that everyone feels stress differently. Some people may get angry and irritable; others may lose sleep.
Some may feel their stress in their digestive system through an upset stomach; others may experience stress headaches.
Once you know how you feel stress, you can start to manage it more effectively.
One way to do this is to identify situations that cause a stress response. These situations are also referred to as stressors. Everyone has their own set of stressors. These can include:
- Health issues
- And more
Signs Of Too Much or Chronic Stress
Stress can develop in several different physical and emotional symptoms.
Some people may not even know that their symptoms are a result of stress. Here are some stress symptoms to look out for:
- Using alcohol or drug to unwind
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Frequent aches and pains
- Lack of energy or focus
- Sexual problems
- Stiff jaw and neck
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Upset stomach
- Weight loss or gain
Unhealthy Stress Relief and Coping Mechanisms
There are a handful of unhealthy behaviors people typically use to relieve stress, including:
- Drinking alcohol
- Taking drugs
- Eating too much
- Smoking/vaping tobacco
- Sleeping too much or not enough
Each of these behaviors has a way of making someone feel better in the short term. But over time, they are more harmful than helpful.
Stress, Substance Abuse, and Addiction
Someone under extreme stress may turn to drugs or alcohol for relief. The more times they do so, the more they train their brains to want more drugs whenever stressed.
Those who use alcohol to unwind after work may experience needing more alcohol over time to produce the same effect that less alcohol once had.
Stress and Relapse
People exposed to chronic stress are more susceptible to addiction as they will seek out a way to relieve stress.
Because chronic substance abuse can alter the brain pathways that deal with stress, people under chronic stress are more likely to relapse. It’s easier to return to old habits than to turn to new ones when stress is introduced.
How COVID-19 Can Increase Stress and Risk of Relapse
Because of the state of the world with COVID-19, more people are at risk of developing prolonged, or chronic stress.
Prolonged stress can increase the risk of developing a substance abuse habit and the potential to relapse.
Not only can prolonged stress increase the risk of developing a substance abuse problem, but the isolation due to shelter-in-place orders of COVID-19 can increase the chances of someone relapsing, as well.
Dual Diagnosis: Substance Abuse and Mental Health
When an individual has both a substance use disorder (SUD) and a mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, it is referred to as dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder.
The number of people with a co-occurring disorder is higher than most people think. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports:
- About 50 percent of people with severe mental health disorders are affected by substance abuse.
- Of all people diagnosed with a mental health disorder, 29 percent abuse drugs and alcohol.
- Nearly 37 percent of people abusing alcohol and around 54 percent of people using drugs also have at least one mental health disorder.
At times, people will use stress and anxiety interchangeably. While they are similar, they are not the same. However, anxiety and chronic stress can appear the same through the symptoms that each exhibit.
Stress is caused by a stressor, change, or significant challenge. Anxiety is a stress response that continues after the stressor is gone, or in fear of a future stressor.
Discovering Healthy Ways to Deal With Stress
While the temptation to reach for unhealthy coping mechanisms can be hard to resist, but it can be more beneficial to participate in healthier ways to deal with stress.
Remember, if you are struggling with managing your stress alone, there are resources available to help.
Speak with your doctor about your concerns and consider seeing a therapist who can help you develop ways to identify and deal with stress.
The Role Of Resilience in Stress Reduction
No matter how much stress someone faces, they still manage to get through it due to their resilience.
Resilience is the ability to cope with and bounce back from stress and problems.
Everyone experiences periods of worry, stress, and psychological pain in their lives. Moving past these periods involves resilience.
Resilience isn’t a way to avoid stress, but the ability to persevere and continue to function effectively despite failures, setbacks, and losses.
While some tend to be more resilient than others, resilience is not a trait someone is born with. It is a response that can be learned and strengthened over time.
8 Ways To Manage Stress and Build Resilience
It is not always possible to avoid stress, but you can take steps to handle stress positively.
Participating in the following actions can help build your resilience by increasing the levels of “good” or tolerable stress and decreasing debilitating stress.
Apply the following tips to help with daily stress management.
1. Plan Out Your Time
Planning out your time and staying organized can help reduce daily stress. Think ahead about how you are going to spend your time.
Remember to stay realistic about how long each task will take to finish. Write up a to-do list and prioritize the items you need to get done first.
This can help plan out precautions needed for COVID-19. Like when you need to bring a mask and what the lines will look like when you get there.
2. Deep Breathing, Meditation, and Yoga
Many people have used yoga and meditation to relax and center themselves.
Today, many addiction treatment facilities incorporate deep breathing techniques into their therapies, particularly in cognitive behavioral therapy.
Continued yoga and meditation can help relax muscles and clear the mind. Muscle relaxation is especially helpful for people dealing with stress, as it can cause their muscles to tense up.
3. Create Something
Creative tasks like drawing, coloring, learning to play an instrument can help turn off the brain, and help individuals focus on the moment.
Extended concentration on tasks that you find enjoyable can help the stress center in the brain shut down and get some rest.
There are countless things you can do, including but not limited to:
- Working on cars
- Listening to music
The only limit is your imagination!
4. Make Time for Play
Work is a common source of stress for most people. A study found that people who play with a fidget spinner or a slinky at work improved their focus, ease anxiety, and boost their creativity.
Doodling also showed to improve memory. Experts theorize that playing and being creative can help people stay present instead of daydreaming during boring situations.
5. Practice Healthy Eating
Like the brain, the gut has its own nervous system that sends information to the brain through the vagus nerve.
When someone eats poorly (i.e., mostly processed foods, sugary drinks, and fast food), they are more likely to struggle with mental health issues.
Researchers are still not sure how exactly diet affects mental health, but they know that when someone eats well (i.e., whole grains, unprocessed foods, and water or sugar-free fruit juices), they tend to feel better mentally.
Because diet is one of the easiest things to adjust on your own, it may be one of the most effective ways to help lower stress levels.
6. Move Your Body
Countless sources tell us exercise is a great way to relieve stress. Depending on your physical activity level, you may want to start small with a daily walk at lunch.
Think of sweat as stress leaving your body. When you are more physically active, your brain releases endorphins, which improve your mood.
Here are some ideas:
Find something you love doing. The more you enjoy the activity, the more likely you are to participate in it regularly.
8. Find Additional Support
Finding and embracing a support network can be a vital part of relapse prevention and stress management.
You can find support from friends, family, and support groups like 12-step meetings. Because of COVID-19, several support groups have gone online.
If you cannot attend a group in person, but you have an internet connection at home, you can join an online group instead.
If you don’t have luck finding a support group in your area, you can connect with others from all over the world.
One place to find these meetings is SMART (Self-management and Recovery Training) Recovery: https://www.smartrecovery.org/smart-recovery-toolbox/smart-recovery-online/.
Benefits of Lowering Stress Levels
Overcoming stress can significantly improve someone’s overall quality of life. There will always be something to stress over; however, managing stress can help:
- Improve sleep
- Control weight
- Become sick less frequently
- Recover from sickness more quickly
- Decrease muscle tension
- Improve mood
- Get along better with family and friends
Stress Management: When To Seek Help
Being honest with yourself is probably the most crucial part of stress management and relapse prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you or someone you love are experiencing suicidal ideation or consuming thoughts you can’t break out of, it is time to enlist additional assistance.
There is no shame in needing additional help to get through a rough patch in your life. If the suggested tasks in this guide are not something you think you can manage at this time, that’s okay.
Go at your own pace, and acknowledge when you need outside help. Enrolling in counseling can help get you the extra support you need. There are several ways to do this virtually, if required.