Stressed? Everyone knows having a mental disorder is stressful. What some may not realize, however, is that stress itself is a mental health issue. Well…kind of. We all feel stress once in a while. Maybe you work in a fast-paced environment, have a public speaking engagement soon, or anticipate spending time with someone who tests your nerves. Regular life can seem like an endless opportunity to become worked up. The other day I had the privilege of experiencing stress myself. After spilling water on my iPhone, I took it to the Apple Store only to learn that I hadn’t backed up my contacts and had no way to retrieve them. In addition to being out $500 for a new phone, I was professionally hamstrung. I desperately needed contacts for various freelancing and musical gigs. How on Earth was I going to pay my bills? Never mind that - how could I do anything? Our society is long past the days of memorizing phone numbers or writing them down on paper. My anxious mind was already fixed upon inevitable frustration. Constantly answering calls with “I’m sorry who is this?” The hours spent looking through ancient emails and social media accounts. The lost friendships, the lost money, the lost peace of mind. Things were snowballing so badly it made me lose my appetite. After days of calling friends and tracking down clients everything was resolved… but by that time I was shaken up enough to lose hours of sleep and suffer a panic attack. Stress has real physical symptoms. Decreased energy and immune function, indigestion, sleeplessness, headaches, and even reproductive difficulties can all stem from stress. Long term stress, or chronic stress, causes the strongest bodily effects. It may even precipitate diseases. If one already suffers from physical or mental illness stress can make it worse. Cortisol is a chemical released by our adrenal glands in times of stress. Indeed, scientists dubbed it “the stress hormone” because it stimulates our body’s fight-or-flight response. While encountering a bear in the woods or dodging an off-road car, fight-or-flight is a necessary good thing. But in normal life, long periods of elevated cortisol can generate obesity, heart issues, high blood pressure, and lowered life expectancy. What if stress is hard to escape? Occasionally things like a competitive workplace or a strained relationship can seem overwhelming. In these situations it’s prudent to learn good coping techniques.
- Exercise - There’s a reason they call it “fight or flight.” If your body says it needs to take action, then take action! About a half hour of exercise each day has been shown to lower cortisol levels, alleviating stress.
- Sleep - Inadequate sleep can trigger various disorders and make stress worse than it already is. Coping is easier when the mind and body are properly rested.
- Family & Friends - Visiting a dear friend or family member is a great time to discuss stressors, explore problem solving options, and get support during hard times. It can lift one’s mood and create a more positive outlook.
- Relaxation - This could vary from person to person. Some like meditation, others like yoga, others like tai chi, etc. Even simple breathing exercises can soothe the mind and body. There are endless resources online for learning about any of these practices. Activities like meditation actually affect the brain in ways that reduce stress.