Tense shoulders, lingering headaches, sheer exhaustion, comfort food cravings…every one of us has feelings of stress occasionally. For many, these are some of the most common symptoms. But as bad as these may be, the effect that long-term stress can have on our health goes far deeper. In fact, according to a recent study by researchers at Harvard Business School and Stanford University, workplace stress is as bad for your health as secondhand smoke!
EFFECTS ON THE BODY
When we’re stressed, our muscles tend to tense up, which is how we often feel it first in our shoulders and neck. It’s also why tension-related headaches and migraines are common.
Our brains also signal the nervous system to start producing epinephrine and cortisol. When these hormones are released, the liver produces more glucose – a blood sugar that provides the energy needed to react in a true emergency. But when stress is long-term, our bodies don’t use all that extra energy so the glucose gets stored in the liver and skeletal muscles as glycogen. When our glycogen stores are at capacity, all that leftover glucose ends up stored as fat in the body. This is part of the reason why it’s common to gain weight when we’re stressed for long periods of time.
As if that weren’t enough, long-term stress can also mean long-term damage to your heart. Momentary stress triggers an increased heart rate as part of the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response – a crucial function when our reaction is needed for survival. but when you body is stressed continuously for a long period, a faster heart rate and elevated levels of stress hormones can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.
FACTORS THAT HELP MANAGE STRESS
We all experience varying levels of potential stressors. Your ability to tolerate each one without long-term stress depends on many factors including:
- Your Support Network: A strong network of supportive friends and family can be an enormous buffer. On the flip side, the more lonely and isolated you are, the greater your vulnerability to stress.
- Your Sense of Control: It may be easier to take stress in strife if you have confidences in your ability to influence events and perserveres through challenges. If you feel like things are out of your control, you’re likely to have less tolerance for stress.
- Your Attitude & Outlook: optimistic people are often more stress-hardy. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humor, and accept that change is part of life.
- Your Ability to Deal with Emotions: You’re extremely vulnerable to stress if you don’t know how to soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or overwhelmed by a situation. The ability to bring emotions into balance helps you bounce back from adversity.
- Your Knowledge & Preparation: The more you know about a stressful situations, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less traumatic than if you are expecting to bounce back immediately.
LEARNING HOW TO MANAGE STRESS
Unfortunately, some of the common ways people deal with stress can only compound the long-term damage. Healthy stress management involves either changing the stressful situation when you can, or changing your reaction when you can’t.
Healthy ways to manage your stress:
- Get moving
- Engage socially
- Set aside relaxation time
- Eat a healthy diet
- Get plenty of sleep
Understanding what is actually causing your stress can also be a huge step towards managing it. Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now and A New Earth, said, “Stress is caused by being ‘here’ and wanting to be ‘there’.”
Take a minute for that to sink in. A lot of the stress that many of us regularly face can be tied to the desire for something that we don’t currently have; more money, better job, improved relationship, the pressure for perfection, more time, etc.
The answer isn’t necessarily to stop striving for things that are important to you, but rather to take regular pauses throughout the day to appreciate the right here, right now. What parts of your life are you grateful for right now? How are you lucky or blessed?
How well do you handle the stress in your life?
- I have people I confide in when I’m feeling under pressure who make me feel better.
- I feel comfortable expressing how I feel when something is bothering me.
- in general, I feel in control of my life & confident in my ability to handle what comes my way.
- I find reasons to laugh & feel grateful, even when going through difficulties.
- No matter how busy I am, I make it a priority to sleep, exercise, and eat right.
- I’m able to calm myself down when I start to feel overwhelmed.
Each “yes” answer represents an important stress coping skill. Each “no” represents an area to work on to become more resilient.