Boy, did cavemen have it easy.
Sure, getting chased by a sabre-toothed tiger was stressful. But it was also simple. You either turned and fought, or you found a place to hide. Either way, it was over in a few minutes. And once the tiger was gone, you could relax again.
Fast forward to now.
Life doesn’t let up. We can’t relax. Our phones ring. Our watches tell us how late we are. Traffic keeps us from getting where we need to be. We’re bombarded by worrying economic news. The things that cause us stress today can feel as real as that sabre-toothed tiger chase—only the tiger never leaves.
That stress we face would be hard enough to deal with if it were all in our minds. But stress doesn’t stop there. It triggers significant physiological changes in our bodies as well. And when stress is constant, those changes can lead to serious health issues.
How Your Body Changes Under Stress
When you’re under stress, your body has to adapt quickly. It does so by flooding your bloodstream with a cocktail of chemicals, including adrenaline and cortisol. Those chemicals produce a lot of changes at once. Some of those changes include constricting the pupils of your eyes so you can focus on what’s immediately before you; opening up your lungs to pump more oxygen into your blood; raising your blood pressure; and converting your stored energy reserves into strength and stamina.
Say you’re running from a sabre-toothed tiger—or facing any life-threatening situation. Your stress reaction kicks in. Your body changes to handle whatever’s coming at you. In short bursts, that reaction is just what you need to handle the danger. And in normal situations, the danger eventually passes, giving your body a chance to return to normal.
But what happens when the stress never lets up? In our hectic modern lives, we can get one stressful event piled on another—and the results can be disastrous.
Stress Can Lead to Serious Health Issues
When your stress levels stay high, your body keeps producing cortisol. And while cortisol is crucial to your short-term stress response, it can harm your body over the long term. A potent anti-inflammatory, cortisol actually lowers your immune response, leaving your body less prepared to fight infection.
Beyond that, chronic stress has been linked to depression, back pain, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart attacks, among a host of other debilitating health conditions. People who endure stress on a constant basis, according to many studies, have a shorter lifespan and deal with more health problems during their lives.
Chronic stress can rob you of one of your most valuable possessions: your good health. Stress may not kill you, but it can make the things that do kill you that much more deadly. So why not just tackle the problems that are causing that stress? Once they’re resolved, the stress should be gone, right? But all too often that’s easier said than done. Some of the most common causes of chronic stress—like those in the following list—often have no easy solution. While the problems that cause stress aren’t always easy to resolve, dealing with the stress they create—and reducing its impact on your life—is doable. And learning to better deal with that stress could be one of the healthiest decisions you’ve ever made.
Common Causes of Chronic Stress
• Chronic health concerns
• Emotional illness
• Troubled family relationships
• A major life change, such as a death or loss of employment
• Conflict over beliefs and values
• Financial trouble
• Unsatisfactory work environment
Cutting Stress Out of Your Life
How would you feel with less stress? More free to act on your own, perhaps. More positive about the challenges you face, with more energy to pursue new solutions. You’d be better-equipped to deal with life as it happens. But there’s more: by staying free of stress, you may actually be contributing to a longer life and fewer health concerns. Are you feeling more stress than you should? It’s time to start dealing with that stress in positive, healthy ways.
Here are a few ways to do it.
1. Know what you’re up against. It’s not always obvious what’s causing that stress. But identifying the cause puts you into position to resolve it. Being able to take action is a great stress reliever.
• Recognize the symptoms of stress. Your performance at work might be suffering, for example. You might be more irritated than usual. Often, these negative changes are due to stress.
• Backtrack. When did you start feeling like this? Can you put your finger on what’s perpetuating the negative feelings? Get out a calendar, look through your journal, and put a name on the cause.
• Resolve to take stress out of the equation. If you can pinpoint exactly what is making you feel stressed, you can figure out why as well. And once you know why a certain situation is causing you stress, you can take direct action to neutralize the stressfulness.
2. Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is a leading cause of chronic stress—as well as a common symptom. In fact, not getting enough sleep might be the only thing causing your chronic stress! By contrast, adequate sleep is a natural stress reliever and energizer, keeping you well-equipped to handle the everyday challenges of life.
• Make sleep your top priority—ahead of browsing the Web, watching TV, reading, or any other activity that keeps you up later than you should be. Set a regular bedtime and don’t let anything get in the way of it.
• Put a kibosh on the caffeine. Caffeine creates a vicious cycle—it keeps you up longer at night, which means you drink caffeine to stay awake during the day, which keeps you up longer at night…and on and on.
• Get your exercise. Taking time to exercise and stretch out eases muscle tension and helps you sleep better.
• Don’t bring work to bed. When you get into bed, get in to go to sleep. Leave your work at your desk. Make your bed a haven of relaxation.
3. Walk away from fights. Letting yourself get provoked—whether it’s an actual physical confrontation or the latest round of a long-term argument—sends stress levels skyrocketing. And if you can’t let go of the anger, your stress levels stay elevated.
• Don’t escalate the conflict. It’s easy to want to defend a point or throw in one more jab. But it’s a lot more healthy to stay silent, back away, apologize, and even forgive negative behavior directed at you. Once you’re out of the fight, the stress can evaporate.
• Yoga can work wonders. It’s a great way to calm your body and mind, let go of anger, clear your perspectives, and improve your mood.
• Make time to meditate. Even a short meditation session allows you to stop fixating on negative thoughts and focus on what needs to be done to solve a problem.
• Get counseling when you need it. A professional can provide crucial help and guidance when your anger or anxiety is too much for you to handle on your own.
4. Face your fears. Sometimes, the scariest things get less scary—and cause you less stress—the more you confront them.
• It’s normal to have fears. Everybody has them. Everybody feels anxious, awkward, and scared at different times. Find someone you trust and have a good talk about dealing with fears.
• Fears aren’t always conquered by meeting them head-on. Try writing down a fear you have and then writing three or four bite-sized steps you can take to conquer that fear. Often this will turn a seemingly impossible roadblock into a manageable set of problems.
• Focus on the benefits. How could conquering a fear help you grow? Concentrate on what you will gain from the experience, not on the difficulty. Set goals and focus on achieving them.
• Separate fact from fiction. Are you imagining more negativity in what you fear than what is actually there? An honest assessment of what you are facing can take some of the teeth out of it.
5. Cultivate a network of support. One big source of stress is loneliness. It’s human nature to want to be with others. But merely knowing people isn’t enough. A trusted network of support is crucial to keeping stress under control.
• Reach out to help. The surest way to surround yourself with people you can rely on is to find ways you can help them first. Service takes your mind off your own problems and gives you something constructive to do. And service generates goodwill like nothing else can.
• Cultivate friendships when times are good. Hang out. Get involved in each other’s lives. Explore similar interests. A healthy relationship is wonderful to have anytime, and a lifesaver if times get tough.
• Be open. Build trust with those close to you. Share your feelings openly, and try to be a good listening ear. Let others into your life.
6. Take Care of Number One. If you’re not looking out for your own wellbeing, the world around you gets harder to deal with. Getting exercise and the right nutrition helps you feel better physically and have a more positive outlook.
• Plan for better nutrition. Add healthier foods to your menu. Replace chips and cookies with your favorite veggies and fruits. And fill in the nutritional gaps with a good multivitamin and mineral supplement.
• Start an exercise routine. It can ease muscle tension and give you more energy. Even if you aren’t up to running a triathlon yet, a moderate amount of daily exercise is a great mood enhancer.
• An ounce of prevention. Regular checkups can catch health problems before they get worrisome and when intervention and treatment are less life-disrupting.
7. Plan ahead and move ahead. Knowing what’s ahead of you—even knowing what you’re going to get done one day at a time—is a great stress reliever.
• Break it down. The process of making a daily plan can turn problems from big, terrifying unknowns into sets of manageable tasks.
• Make the effort. The more you put off getting started, the more helpless you feel, and your stress level increases. On the other hand, if you get to work and keep at it, you feel more empowered, and chances are your stress level comes down.
• Reward your successes. The simple act of checking off completed tasks is a big endorphin rush, and a great stress reliever. Celebrating your milestones gives you an even greater sense of accomplishment. Is your life ever going to be free of challenges? Of course not. It’s impossible to tell what’s around the corner. But you can decide how each challenge will affect you. Learn how to manage stress, and rather than getting you down, those challenges might even start to look like opportunities.
The bottom line—the less stress in your life, the happier and healthier you’ll be.