April is Stress Awareness Month
Between work, family, finances, health, personal safety, and politics, Americans are reporting higher levels of stress than in previous years. People across generations, cultures, genders and socioeconomic status are susceptible to stress. While the stressors may vary from person to person, the experience of stress is a biological response that is common amongst us all.
What is stress?
The stress response is our mind and body’s natural reaction to perceived threat. When the brain perceives danger, it shuts down all non-essential functioning, such as the immune and digestive systems, so all energy can be spent on survival. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released, preparing the body to fight, flee or freeze.
This system is necessary for survival, but it is meant to be temporary. Prolonged stress and increased levels of cortisol can have negative implications on our body’s essential processes.
In moderation, stress can actually be beneficial. If we perceive a stressor as temporary and within our scope of control, it can motivate us and focus our energy; this type of stress correlates with peak performance. However, long-term stressors that feel outside of our control can cause anxiety, worry, and lead to health problems.
Some common side effects of stress include:
- muscle tension
- chest pain
- loss of appetite
- angry outbursts
- sadness or depression
- drug and alcohol abuse
- social withdrawal
Because stress is an inevitable part of life, let’s take a look at what we can do to mediate the effects it has on the body and mind.
Things you can do this month to minimize stress in a healthy way:
- Recognize your stress signals- we all respond differently to stress, so it is beneficial to recognize your own triggers and your early signs of stress. Doing so allows us to intervene early, step up self-care and utilize positive coping skills
- Get outside- research shows a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress. Sunlight activates the development of Vitamin D in the body, which is connected to mood due to its relationship with dopamine and serotonin release.
- Move your body- not only does exercise decrease stress hormones, it also releases our feel-good neurotransmitters called endorphins that naturally improve mood. No matter your skill level or experience, physical activity helps to clear the mind and relieve stress.
- Make time for relaxation- meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing are just some ways you can work relaxation into your routine.
- Practice gratitude- oftentimes when we are stressed, we tend to focus more attention on the negative stuff going on. Try listing 3 things you are grateful for each morning before reaching for your phone and starting your day. This practice will help start your day on a positive note before jumping into your responsibilities.
- Eat healthy, well-balanced meals- “stress eating” is a real thing; research shows that cortisol raises appetite and increases cravings for sugary and salty foods. While these foods may provide temporary comfort, it can lead to some negative reinforcing patterns. Instead, try to feed your body with mood-enhancing foods rich with Vitamins B, E, C, magnesium and zinc. And don’t forget to stay hydrated!
- Ask for support- spending time with loved ones increases the release of oxytocin, or the “cuddle hormone.” Simply put, our brain rewards us for spending time with people we love. Oxytocin lowers stress hormones in an attempt to reach homeostasis.
- Manage your time- do you feel like there is not enough time left in the day to get all of your tasks done? Identify and prioritize everything that needs to get done and break it down into smaller steps. Recognize that things do not always go as planned, so allow for some flexibility to adjust for the unexpected. Practice saying no to avoid overcommitting yourself.
- Take breaks- 705 million vacation days went unused by Americans in 2017; this number is on the rise from previous years! While there is something to be said about productivity and achieving goals, making sure we practice work/life balance is just as important. Try taking steps this month to assure you are taking breaks during the work day. You might find that productivity, alertness and efficiency increase after a short walk or meeting friends for lunch. Have a lot of unused vacation days? April is the perfect time to start planning a summer getaway!
- Sleep- do you practice healthy sleep hygiene? Well now is a great time to start! Quality sleep is linked to optimal physical and mental health, including one’s ability to navigate stressors. Stress is hard on the body and it needs rest to recover. Aim to keep a consistent, relaxing nighttime routine (even on weekends and holidays) that signals “bedtime” to your mind and body.