Stress is a part of life for just about everyone. Sometimes it is not easy to recognize stress because we are caught up in the flow of life. The things in your life that cause you stress are called stressors.
Often, stressors are things you cannot control. These could be events (like losing a job) or conditions in your life (like not getting along with a family member). Your responses to these stressors are your stress reactions. These are different for all of us. For example, if you hate your job, losing it can make you feel free. For someone else, losing a job may be terrible.
Although stress happens first in the mind, it has strong effects on the body. Stress can damage your heart health. Sudden intense stress increases the short-term risk of heart attack. Too much stress over a long time (months to years) is called chronic stress. It can also increase the risk of coronary artery disease.
Recognizing your stress reactions
Everyone has his or her own individual stress reactions. Think for a moment about when you are stressed out or upset. What happens to you?
- Do you have trouble concentrating?
- Do your thoughts race, or freeze up?
- Do you start to think “the worst”?
- Are you more likely to see yourself, your future or other people negatively?
- Does stress lead you to have angry, anxious or sad feelings?
- How do you feel physically?
- What happens to your breathing?
- Are your muscles tighter?
- Does that create pain anywhere, like headache, back or jaw pain?
- What happens to your sleeping patterns?
- How does your stomach feel?
- Do you sweat, have dry mouth, diarrhea or constipation?
- What happens to your heart rate?
- If you measured your blood pressure, what would you see?
Behaviour and actions:
- How do your habits and behaviours change?
- Do you eat more or have more junk food and sugary drinks?
- Do you stop exercising? Do you start smoking? Drink more alcohol, use prescription or non-prescription drugs?
- Do you become nervous or keep to yourself?
- Is there anything else you notice?
All these signs point to something real that you can feel: your mind and body are connected. Stress happens first in the mind, but has effects all through the body, including, of course, the heart and circulatory system.
How can I manage stress?
It may be possible to change or remove the stressor – for example, you may be able to change your job, your work schedule, avoid difficult people or unpleasant situations.
But in many cases removing the stressor is not possible. In this situation, you need to change your stress reaction. Here are some strategies to help you:
- Mental responses: You cannot control all parts of your life, but you can control your response to stress and keep a positive attitude. Identify your “thought habits” that can make stress worse (most of us have a least one). Here are a few examples:
- Deciding right away that it is going to be really bad, without even looking closely at the facts
- Looking only at the bad parts and not seeing the good
- Worrying about problems that are really not yours.
- Emotional responses: Figure out your emotional reactions to stress and talk about them.
- Physical responses: Try deep breathing and relaxation exercises.
- Behavioural responses: Decide what you can change about the stressor – for example, you may be able to change your job, your work schedule, avoid difficult people or unpleasant situations. Take action and do it. Keep up your healthy habits. Spend time with friends and family.
What else can I do to have less stress in my life?
- Take care of your health and lifestyle.
- Do what your healthcare team suggests.
- Follow a healthy, balanced way of eating.
- Watch how much alcohol you drink.
- Cut down or stop the use of stimulants such as coffee, tea, chocolate, soft drinks and energy drinks.
- Get enough sleep.
- Exercise regularly and be physically active.
- Quit smoking.
- Make sure you have enough rest.
- Take time for relaxation.
- Practice deep breathing and relaxation exercises, meditation or yoga.
- Laugh and use your sense of humour.
- Make sure you have time for fun.
- Do only one task at a time instead of multitasking.
- Set goals you know are reachable to avoid feelings of frustration and failure.
- Learn to say no and get other people to help.
- Talk about your needs and emotions. Let yourself cry.
- Don’t get upset about things you cannot control. Let them go.
Read more about stress and learn what stresses you out, and what you can do to prevent your stress from affecting your health.
Free online cognitive behavioural therapy for people with chronic health conditions.