Evolution was pretty savvy about the danger. See a saber-tooth tiger, get moving! Today, flight—or fight, if necessary—still triggers major bodily changes, such as:
- Sugars in the bloodstream increase to supply energy
- Muscles tense so they’re poised for action
- Heartbeats faster to get blood pumping
- Digestion and other functions slow to save energy needed elsewhere
The problem is that our brains react to ominous loads of laundry and upcoming dentist visits like they were vicious predators. And the onslaught of today’s stressors is fairly nonstop. When our bodies stay triggered for too long, lots of possible health problems can develop or worsen.
Stress may contribute to:
- high blood pressure
- heart disease and stroke
- decreased immune defenses
- stomach problems
- poorer brain functioning
Stress also can lead to serious mental health problems, like depression and anxiety disorders. Of course, you can’t necessarily remove the sources of stress. But you can figure out ways to cope better with whatever comes your way. And decades of research suggest which steps are most likely to work.
Are You Too Stressed?
Your stress reaction can boost your performance and get you through a crisis. But too much stress can lead to serious problems.
If you’re concerned about your well-being, take a look at the symptoms of stress overload:
- loss of concentration
- difficulty making decisions
- inability to control anger
- increased use of alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes or drugs
- increased or decreased eating
- feeling overwhelmed
- thinking often about what you need to do
What you can do
Reducing your stress levels can not only make you feel better right now but may also protect your health long-term. In one study, researchers examined the association between “positive affect” — feelings like happiness, joy, contentment, and enthusiasm — and the development of coronary heart disease over a decade. They found that for every one-point increase in positive effect on a five-point scale, the rate of heart disease dropped by 22 percent. While the study doesn’t prove that increasing positive affect decreases cardiovascular risks, the researchers recommend boosting your positive effect by making a little time for enjoyable activities every day.
Other strategies for reducing stress include:
- Identify what’s causing stress. Monitor your state of mind throughout the day. If you feel stressed, write down the cause, your thoughts, and your mood. Once you know what’s bothering you, develop a plan for addressing it. That might mean setting more reasonable expectations for yourself and others or asking for help with household responsibilities, job assignments or other tasks. List all your commitments, assess your priorities and then eliminate any tasks that are not absolutely essential.
- Build strong relationships. Relationships can be a source of stress. Research has found that negative, hostile reactions with your spouse cause immediate changes in stress-sensitive hormones, for example. But relationships can also serve as stress buffers. Reach out to family members or close friends and let them know you’re having a tough time. They may be able to offer practical assistance and support, useful ideas or just a fresh perspective as you begin to tackle whatever’s causing your stress.
- Walk away when you’re angry. Before you react, take time to regroup by counting to 10. Then reconsider. Walking or other physical activities can also help you work off steam. Plus, exercise increases the production of endorphins, your body’s natural mood-booster. Commit to a daily walk or other forms of exercise — a small step that can make a big difference in reducing stress levels.
- Rest your mind. According to APA’s 2012 Stress in America survey, stress keeps more than 40 percent of adults lying awake at night. To help ensure you get the recommended seven or eight hours of shut-eye, cut back on caffeine, remove distractions such as television or computers from your bedroom and go to bed at the same time each night. Research shows that activities like yoga and relaxation exercises not only help reduce stress but also boost immune functioning.
- Get help. If you continue to feel overwhelmed, consult with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional who can help you learn how to manage stress effectively. He or she can help you identify situations or behaviors that contribute to your chronic stress and then develop an action plan for changing them.