Are you overwhelmed by what is going on around you? Do you experience frequent tension and feel as if you can never fully relax? If so, you may be experiencing stress.
What is stress?
Stress is a normal reaction that everyone experiences from time to time. The National Institute of Mental Health defines stress as “The physical or mental response to an external cause”. Life is ever-changing, so it is natural if you are familiar with stress. When changes come and challenges arise, stress can be momentarily helpful, but extended periods of stress can be a cause for worry.
Your body is built to deal with stress. During a perceived moment of stress, your sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight-or-flight response. This response causes a release of hormones and is designed to help your body protect itself. Picture this – you wake up in the night and see a figure standing next to your bed in the dark. You panic for a moment then realize it is your child. You may grasp your chest, let out a sigh of relief, and realize your heart has begun to race. These feelings come from the fight-or-flight response. Your body sensed a potential threat and got ready to protect you.
What causes stress?
Stress can arise from many different circumstances in our lives. Certainly, negative changes in our lives produce stress: Losing a job, a change in family structure, or being diagnosed with an illness. These are all scenarios you would expect to result in stress. But stress can even come from positive moments in our lives. Having a baby, going on vacation, or hosting a dinner party are all enjoyable things that can cause stress.
Motherhood certainly has its fair share of stressful moments. Having a sick child and waking up in the night to care for them, a crying child who is unable to verbally express what is wrong, or a child sustaining an injury can all lead to acute moments of stress. The fight or flight response kicks in and allows your body to do mentally and physically what needs to be done at that moment.
Is your body experiencing too much stress?
When experiencing momentary stress, the feeling will likely pass as the situation improves. Chronic stress, on the other hand, may continue for weeks to months. If chronic stress is not properly managed, your health can start to become affected. According to the Mayo Clinic, stress that’s not dealt with can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity, and diabetes. Many people overlook how stress is affecting their own lives because they are frequently caring for others.
Stress can seep into many parts of our lives and affect us in different ways. Emotional, mental, physical, and behavioral symptoms may begin to surface. Common symptoms include:
- Upset stomach
- Sleep difficulties
- Depression, anxiety, or sadness
- Weakened immune system
- Muscle tension
- Sexual difficulties
- Abuse of drugs or alcohol
- Forgetfulness or memory problems
- Weight gain or loss
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Distancing oneself from others
How is stress diagnosed?
Stress is hard to determine and can even be hard to describe due to its unseen nature. It is subjective- meaning it is based on feelings instead of facts. There is no test to measure your stress level or diagnose you with stress. Discussing your symptoms with your doctor can help them best understand what you are experiencing.
Strategies for managing stress
- Be self-aware. Work on becoming more aware of the factors that cause stress. This can help you address the root cause of stress as soon as you become aware of its presence.
- Lean on your support system. Be vulnerable with someone you trust and let them know how stress is affecting you. They can offer support and advice or help just by listening.
- Get outdoors. Take time to go outdoors and refresh your mind. Spending time in nature is known to improve mood and mental well-being.
- Exercise. Being physically active causes your body to produce endorphins. These are natural “feel good” chemicals released in response to stress that can improve your mood and state of mind.
- Practice relaxation techniques. Deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness are all calming exercises used to reduce levels of stress.
- Know your limits. Learn how to say no to tasks that will cause you to become overwhelmed. If you have already taken on too much, try asking someone you trust to help ease your mental or physical load.
If these strategies are not helping to relieve your stress, and it is affecting your health, it may be time to talk with your doctor. They can advise you on treatment options and provide referrals, if necessary.
- MedlinePlus. Stress and your health. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003211.htm. Accessed December 16, 2023.
- Cleveland Clinic. Stress. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11874-stress. Accessed December 16, 2023.
- National Institute of Mental Health. I’m So Stressed Out! Fact Sheet. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/so-stressed-out-fact-sheet. Accessed December 16, 2023.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Manage Stress. https://health.gov/myhealthfinder/health-conditions/heart-health/manage-stress#the-basics-tab. Accessed December 16, 2023.
- Mental Health Foundation. Stress. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/a-z-topics/stress. Accessed December 16, 2023.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Stress. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/stress. Accessed December 16, 2023.
- Cleveland Clinic. Endorphins. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/23040-endorphins. Accessed December 19, 2023.
- American Psychological Association. Nurtured by nature. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature. Accessed December 19, 2023.
- Cleveland Clinic. What Happens to Your Body During the Fight-or-Flight Response? https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-to-your-body-during-the-fight-or-flight-response. Accessed December 19, 2023.
About the Author, Holly Stout, RN, BSN
Holly Stout, RN, BSN is a registered nurse who has been practicing since 2014. Her clinical experience includes gastroenterology, postpartum/nursery, and obstetrics and gynecology. She is currently a freelance health writer and stay-at-home mom. Holly has a love for patient education and uses her writing career to inform and educate consumers.