What Is Stress and How Does it Work?
Stress is a feeling of pressure or tension that’s created when we react to the events around us. Stress is our body’s way of reacting to a challenge and preparing to meet a tough situation with heightened focus and alertness. Stress can be created by all sorts of situations — things like making a class presentation in your toughest subject, or having tensions between family members, or even preparing for the holidays can all increase stress levels.
The brain responds to stress by activating the nervous system and specific hormones to produce more adrenaline and cortisol to be released into the bloodstream. These hormones speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. These internal physical changes prepare a person to react quickly and effectively to handle the pressure of the moment. This is called the stress response.
Working properly, the body’s stress response enhances a person’s ability to perform well under temporary pressure. But the stress response can cause problems when it overreacts or fails to turn off and reset itself. And stress doesn’t always happen in response to things that are immediate or that are over quickly. Ongoing or long-term events, like coping with your parents’ divorce or moving to a new school, can cause long-term stress.
Long-term stress is difficult to live with. The nervous system senses continued pressure and may remain elevated and continue to activate extra stress hormones over an extended period. This can wear out the body’s reserves, leave you feeling drained and overwhelmed, weaken your immune system, and cause other health problems.
Control Your Stress
What can you do to deal with, or avoid altogether, a stress overload? The most helpful way to deal with stress is figuring out how you best manage the stress that comes your way with any new situation. For some, listening to a favorite playlist or a few minutes of quiet and calm are enough to get rid of excess stress. For others, however, it takes more work and the help of others. Stress-management skills are most effective when they’re used regularly, not just when your stress is high – practice makes perfect!
In Europe, the word “holiday” is used interchangeably with “vacation”. For most of us, however, the holidays are not as relaxing or as rejuvenating as a vacation. The holidays present a dizzying array of demands — parties, entertaining, baking, and cleaning, to name just a few. Being realistic, planning ahead and seeking support can help ward off excess stress.
Too often we take holiday stress for granted. What’s worse, we often have higher expectations for this season than for any other time of the year. Planning for the holidays can leave us feeling impatient and cranky, especially when the best-laid plans don’t live up to our expectations.
Tips for Stress Management:
- Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget.
- Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends, and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That’ll help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. And make sure to ask for volunteers to help with party prep and cleanup. You’ll be surprised at how much people want to help!
- Learn to say no. End the overscheduling! Saying yes, when you should say no, can leave you feeling overwhelmed. Friends, family, and colleagues will understand if you can’t participate in everything. Decide in advance what activities are most important to you, and politely decline all additional invitations and requests.
- Be realistic about yourself and about others. There is no such thing as perfection. So don’t try to be perfect, and don’t expect others to be perfect either. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones.
- Get some sleep! Sleep helps keep your body and mind in shape, making you better equipped to deal with any negative stressors.
- Relax, chill out. The body’s natural antidote to stress is called the relaxation response and it creates a sense of calm. Learn some simple relaxation breathing exercises and then use them when you’re caught up in stressful situations.
- Treat your body well. Don’t let the holidays be the excuse for excess – stick with your healthy habits!
- Regular exercise can help manage stress. (Excessive or compulsive exercise can contribute to stress you already have, or create stress all on its own, so use moderation.)
- Eat well to help your body get the fuel it needs to function best. Your body needs a balanced diet, vitamins, and minerals more than ever when under stress.
- Before attending holiday parties, eat a healthy snack so you aren’t hungry when you arrive. You won’t be so tempted to go overboard on sweets.
- Think positive thoughts. Your outlook, attitude, and thoughts influence the way you experience things. A healthy dose of optimism can help you make the best of stressful circumstances. Everyone can learn to think like an optimist!
- Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can’t be with loved ones, realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. Don’t force yourself to be happy, just because it’s the holiday season.
- Solve the little problems. Learning to solve the smaller, everyday problems (that over time can add up to much bigger problems) can give you a sense of control which can reduce stress.
- Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable, and unable to face your daily routine. If these feelings last for a while, contact your RAHS Health Center.