Stress: What It Is and How You Can Cope

Everyone experiences stress at some point in their life, but what is stress? And why does it impact well-being?

Stress has been defined as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” This can also include how the body adapts—positively or negatively—to demands. There is both good and bad stress and both are felt physically.

When it comes to caregiving, stress is a significant issue that experts recommend addressing in order to maintain good health. Research by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found that 35% of family caregivers have difficulty finding time for themselves, 29% of family caregivers have difficulty managing emotional and physical stress, and 35% are challenged when trying to balance work and family responsibilities. Additionally, 53% of these family caregivers said that their health had gotten worse due to caregiving and this in turn affected their ability to provide that same care.

According to 2014 statistics by the American Psychological Association and the American Institute of Stress, health (a health crisis, terminal or chronic illness) was the third cause of stress in the United States, followed by relationships (divorce, death of spouse, arguments with friends, loneliness).

Cause and Effect

There can be both physical and mental reasons for stress. Symptoms of a chronic illness can put stress on the body, but so can exercise which can have positive results. Someone might feel stress from worry over an illness or other issues, but they might also have a stress response to an overwhelmingly happy situation such as the marriage of a child or birth of a grandchild.

According to the Mayo Clinic, unchecked stress can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, as well as affect moods and behaviors and lead to anger, depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol abuse, social withdrawal and more. The American Institute of Stress provides an in-depth history of the term stress and highlights how stress affects each person differently.

The National Institute of Mental Health outlines exactly how stress affects the brain when someone is confronted with a demand: “When you face a dangerous situation, your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity.” Chronic stress can lower immunity and digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems may not continue to “work normally.”

Stress might manifest as tension in the head, neck and shoulders, fatigue, forgetfulness, feelings of anxiousness, nervousness, or irritability. The American Psychological Association and the American Institute of Stress research found that 77% of people surveyed “regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress” and 73% “regularly experience physiological symptoms caused by stress.”

Stress Management

The first step in controlling stress is recognizing what it is and what is causing it. It sounds cliché, but experts recommend simply taking a deep breath when you recognize symptoms of stress.

Some ways to reduce stress:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Tai Chi
  • Aerobic exercise such as jogging
  • Prayer
  • Eat a healthy diet that features vegetables and fruits rather than sugar or other stimulants
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as taking a walk, making time for a craft like knitting, watch a funny movie, take a hot bath, sing, get a massage, and other activities that bring you pleasure.
  • List stressors and then determine what can be changed
  • Get a good night’s sleep consistently

In some instances, it may be necessary and worthwhile to consult your health care provider for additional assistance with stress management. For example, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea, or pain from the shoulder to the arm may be a heart attack and you should seek immediate medical attention.

While stress is not entirely unavoidable in life, people can choose how they react to stress as it comes up and how they care for themselves. Those who are family caregivers can benefit from reframing their relationship as that of partners in care, so it is not just them giving, but also benefitting from shared interests, activities, knowledge, and time together—or perhaps time apart, if that is needed.

Don’t ignore your stress or hope it will just go away. Be aware of the symptoms and find positive ways to de-stress your life.

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