When Stress Becomes Harmful

“I am stressed” – we often say to ourselves and others. Given the amount of demands placed on us from day to day, that is probably true. We have jobs to attend, families to take care of, bills, and other responsibilities. In addition to daily life, there are global stressors – such as COVID-19 – that have disrupted the world. It is a lot. Long-term stress has been linked to serious health consequences. In these times of stress, it might interest you to know what stress is, when stress becomes harmful, why it is important to manage it, and how to manage it.

What Is Stress?

It’s important to know what stress is and how stress can manifest within your body. MedlinePlus defines stress this way: “Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension.” More specifically though, there are two types of stress: acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is stress that goes away quickly, like the stress you feel when getting on a rollercoaster or trying something new for the first time. Chronic stress is stress that lasts for a longer period of time and you might even “get used to”, like the stress you feel concerning financial difficulties, relationship issues, or work conflicts.

How Stress Manifests Within Your Body

In order to understand how stress manifests within the body, we need to walk through the biological aspects of experiencing stress. When your body is introduced to a stressor:

  1. Cortisol is released into the bloodstream.
  2. Cortisol travels throughout your body impacting all of your systems, including your respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems.
  3. As cortisol interacts with these different systems, it affects the symptoms you experience. Often your body might experience tightness, pain, cramping, heavy feeling, burning sensations, nausea, sweating, and more.

Why Is It Important To Manage Stress?

One thing to keep in mind is that stress is not necessarily always a bad thing. These mechanisms within our bodies are innate and protective. When your body perceives a threat in the environment, it increases adrenaline and cortisol – causing your brain to follow a series of processes that helps you decide how to react to the threat. This is commonly referred to as fight, flight, or freeze mode. This is a good thing when you are in danger. Most of the time, stress in the body returns to baseline after an acute stressful event and no issues continue. However, chronic, extended exposure to stressful situations results in ongoing stress responses in the body. According to The Mayo Clinic, extended periods of excess cortisol in the body have been linked to:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

Managing stress is key in maintaining physical and emotional health.

Coping With Stress

You may find yourself reading this and asking, “Am I Stressed?” or noticing yourself experiencing any of the symptoms listed above. Try taking this free quiz based on a scale created at the University of South Whales to determine if your stress is negatively impacting your life.

The question now is are you too stressed? Stress is a normal part of life, and it is normal to experience stress from time to time. The important things to ask yourself are “How often and how long do I stay stressed?” and “How am I recovering and coping with this stress?” How you cope with stress is the most important part. Below are some stress relief strategies that could help you reduce your amount of stress to a more manageable level:

  • Stop what you are doing (even right now) and take a deep breath
  • Take breaks to help you refocus (Examples: Stretch, Take a walk, Stand up, Eat a snack, Drink some water)
  • Exercise
  • Talk to a friend or loved one
  • Play a game
  • Take a hot shower or bath
  • Light a candle
  • Spray your favorite scent (Examples: Perfume, Cologne, Air freshener)
  • Meditate
  • Make a task lists with your high priority task

This list contains just a few things that can help you get started reducing your stress. Once your stress has reduced a bit, you might find it becomes easier to problem solve those things triggering your stress.

Counseling & Stress

As you can see, it is important to keep stress levels at a minimum for long periods of time. Counselors are trained professionals who can assist you in managing stress in your life. If you are having a hard time coping with stress, you may benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional. A counselor can help you determine what is causing your stress, teach you coping skills, and more. Garrett Counseling has counselors to help with stress in Jacksonville, Albertville / Boaz, and Huntsville, as well as online via telehealth. You can begin your counseling journey today by calling (256) 239-5662 or by clicking here.

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This article was written by Jessica Mentzer, a mental health professional at Garrett Counseling in Huntsville, AL.