Stress Awareness Month. Here’s how to tell if it’s getting bad

We all experience stress at different points in our lives. When does it become a problem that needs intervention? 

What symptoms should people watch out for? How does long-term stress affect your health? How can we distinguish between healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms? What are some techniques for addressing and preventing stress?

Get it straight from CNN Medical Analyst Dr Leana Wen. She is an emergency physician and health policy and management professor at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health [1]. Her previous experience includes serving as Baltimore’s Health Commissioner and Chair of Baltimore’s Behavioral Health Systems.

What is stress?

According to Dr Wen, there is no single definition of stress. The World Health Organization defines it as worry or tension caused by a problematic situation [2]. 

Many people experience stress as a mental or emotional strain. Stress can also manifest physically in others. 

Natural reactions to stress are normal. We respond to challenges and perceived threats as a human response. 

It is possible to experience some stress in a healthy way, and it can motivate us to fulfill our obligations. Having a deadline can motivate us to study for a test or complete a project on time. We all experience some level of that kind of stress from time to time.

Why can stress be a problem?

It is the same human instinct that drives us to work harder and finish a project that can also result in irritability, anxiety and inability to relax. A headache, upset stomach or difficulty sleeping are some of the physical reactions some people experience. People with pre-existing behavioral health conditions, such as substance use, can experience anxiety and depression as a result of long-term stress.

Stress Awareness Month. Here's how to tell if it's getting bad

Stress symptoms you should be on the lookout for

Aside from feeling irritable and anxious, people experiencing stress may also feel nervous, uncertain and angry. In addition to feeling unmotivated, they are often tired, overwhelmed and burnt out. In stressful situations, people often report feeling sad or depressed.

Anxiety and depression are separate medical diagnoses. It is possible for someone suffering from depression and/or anxiety to have their symptoms exacerbated when they undergo times in their lives with additional stress. Depression and anxiety can also be caused by long-term stress.

In general, stress is an external response to an issue, whereas anxiety and depression are internal responses. A project deadline could be an excellent external cause, motivating you to complete the task. 

There could also be negative emotional stress, like an argument with a romantic partner or concerns about financial stability. As soon as the situation is resolved, the feeling of pressure should disappear.

In contrast, anxiety and depression persist over time. You can still feel apprehension, unworthiness and sadness after an externally stressful event has passed.

Health impacts of long-term stress?

There can be long-term consequences to chronic stress. Studies have found that it may increase heart disease and stroke risks, according to Dr Wen [3]. There is also a decreased cognitive function and a worse immune response associated with it.

A person experiencing stress is also more likely to indulge in unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, excessive drinking, substance abuse, lack of sleep and inactivity. These lifestyle factors consequently can lead to worse health outcomes.

Techniques to help in addressing stress

First, awareness is essential. Know your own body and your stress reaction.

Anxiety and stress can be eased when you anticipate a stressful situation and prepare for it. The second step is to identify symptoms.

As an example, suppose you know that you get agitated and your heart rate increases when you are stressed. Then, you can identify symptoms as they occur and become conscious of the stressful situation as it unfolds.

The third step is to know what techniques work for you in terms of stress relief. Meditation is a popular practice for some people. Exercises like those, as well as deep breathing activities, are good to try.

Dr Wen recommends swimming as a great stress-relief exercise. Combining aerobic exercise with high-intensity regimens can also help relieve stress.

Stress Awareness Month. Here's how to tell if it's getting bad

There are many other techniques that people use to help themselves. There are people who clean their homes, organize their closets and take care of their gardens. While others walk in nature, write in journals, knit, play with their pets or cycle.

Incorporate some of the practices that work for you into your routine and experiment with what works. In times of stress, they can be good tools to rely on that you know will help.

Unhealthy coping strategies people should avoid

In the short term, people turn to things that can make things worse in order to make themselves feel better. Drinking excessively, using drugs and smoking are unhealthy coping mechanisms.

The same goes for staying up all night, binge eating and venting your frustrations. When these have been your go-to coping mechanisms in the past, you should reconsider them.

When to seek help

You may be experiencing signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental disorders if stress is persistently interfering with your work, social or personal life. In that case, it’s time to ask for help.

Consult your primary care physician about getting a referral to a therapist. Alternatively, your workplace may have an Employee Assistance Program. As we strive to improve our physical and emotional health, we should recognize what reduces and alleviates stress.


Photograph: nina_p_v/Envato
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