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What is stress?

Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. It is the body’s physical response to a real or perceived threat, demand, or danger. 

Everyone experiences stress at different levels. Even when the same stressors are present, our experiences can be different. Certain groups experience higher levels of stress, for example, communities of color, LGBTQIA+, women, and parents. 

Stress isn’t always harmful. For example, think about the motivation you feel to study for your next exam, or the urge to make a to-do list on a Sunday. These are positive ways that stress can help you focus and complete tasks. But when stress is frequent and intense, it can affect your overall health, resulting in a reduced quality of life. 

This is why we want to help you get to the root cause of your stress, understand the ways it manifests for you, and learn preventative tools for coping with stress. Because you deserve a healthy, happy life.

3 Types of Stress

According to The American Psychological Association, there are three types of stress – Acute stress, Episodic acute stress, and Chronic stress.

Understanding how stress manifests in your life can help you know more quickly when you need to step in, practice prevention tools, or ask for help.

Acute stress: Otherwise known as the fight-or-flight response, this is the body’s response to a recent perceived challenge or unexpected event.

  • For example, missing a deadline, getting a speeding ticket, or having a job interview.

  • Acute stress can cause irritability, anxiety, sadness, tension headaches, back pain, stomach problems, muscle tension, and rapid heartbeat.

Episodic stress: Frequent experiences of acute stress resulting in a prolonged state of tension.

  • The symptoms are similar to acute stress but occur more often and tend to accumulate.

Chronic stress: Ongoing stress with no recovery time. Resulting from serious and long-term issues that may be fundamentally beyond our control. 

  • For example, poverty, war, chronic illness, or racism. 

  • Persistent stress can lead to acute & episodic stress symptoms, health issues like insomnia, depression, and heart disease.

the ways stress can affect you

  • Irritability or anger

  • Frequent mood swings

  • Fatigue

  • Headaches

  • Feeling depressed

  • Feeling anxious

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Jaw pain 

  • Teeth grinding

  • Tightness in chest

  • Changes in appetite

  • Changes in sex drive

  • Difficulty concentrating 

  • Change in menstrual cycle

Top causes of stress

  • Money

  • Work

  • The economy

  • Family responsibilities

  • Relationships

  • Health concerns

  • Housing costs

  • Job stability

  • Personal safety

highest rates for stress

  • Minorities

  • Women

  • Single parents

  • Caretakers

  • LGBTQIA+ community

5 Things that make you vulnerable to stress

  1. Not getting quality sleep

    I won’t be the first to tell you that sleep is SO important to our overall health, and getting consistent, quality sleep is just as important as eating well and drinking enough water. Our bodies need this time to process information and repair themselves, and when we neglect sleep, we can increase our risk of having a weakened immune system, anxiety, and depression. For many of us, not getting enough sleep is one of the first signs of emotional distress, so if this is you, don’t worry! Your awareness of this pattern means you’re one step closer to creating positive change. 

    Stress prevention strategy: Start prioritizing your sleep by creating a personalized bedtime routine. This means creating boundaries around screen time, creating a relaxing environment, practicing stretching or deep breathing techniques, and leaning into relaxation. If you currently struggle with sleep don’t expect to perfect this habit right away. Take small steps, be consistent, and do your best to show up for yourself. Click here to see an example of an anti-burnout bedtime routine.

  2. Not having a support system

    We all need a safe support system. Humans are social creatures, and without consistent social connection, we can start to feel lonely, which if prolonged, can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and unhealthy coping techniques like drug and alcohol abuse. I get it, it’s difficult to make friends as an adult! Lots of us struggle with making or maintaining friendships, because of factors like social anxiety, attachment issues, or moving to a new area. If you’ve found yourself without a support system, know that you are not alone, so don’t lose hope in finding your people. 

    Stress prevention strategy: Start combatting loneliness by thinking about the kind of friends or support you are looking for. Then, practice saying yes more. Say yes to getting coffee with your coworker, say yes to your neighborhood block party, and show yourself that you are willing to step outside of your comfort zone to bring positive change to your life. Click here to read about the 5 steps to finding friends as an adult (even during a pandemic).

  3. Experiencing a major life change

    If you’ve experienced a major life change such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss, you know the unexpected stress can be overwhelming and debilitating. This experience isn’t always easy to plan for, like a sudden car accident or illness, which is why it is so important to practice self-compassion and acknowledge what you can and cannot control. 

    Stress prevention strategy: When dealing with a major change in your life, start by setting aside time for yourself to process the changes. Practice self-compassion and sitting with your feelings to gain awareness about yourself and how you are really doing. Then, make a clear list of what is inside and outside of your control. This visualization will ease some of the stress and help you create an action plan to improve your situation.

  4. Poor physical health

    We often think of our mind and body as separate, but our mental health and physical health are interconnected. This means when we have physical health issues, we can see an increase in mental health issues and vice versa. Did you know that nearly one in three people with a long-term physical health condition also has a mental health issue? Things like genetics, low motivation, difficulty with planning, lack of support, and healthcare issues are all factors that can contribute to poor physical health, resulting in, yup, higher stress and a higher risk of mental health issues. This can be a really difficult and exhausting cycle to get out of, but with the right amount of support, self-compassion, and motivation, you can start making a positive change.

    Stress prevention strategy: If you’re worried about your physical health, and you are able to, make an appointment to see a general physician. This can be a great start in getting specific about the issues you are facing. Practice other preventative strategies like moving your body in ways that feel good to you (AKA: exercise), eating a well-balanced diet, and being mindful of any drug or alcohol usage especially smoking.  

  5. Poor diet

    I want to start this section by sharing that I do not support restricting food, following rigid food rules, dieting, or skipping meals. What I do support is exploring the ways we think about food, challenging our core beliefs around diet culture, and our relationship with eating, and ALWAYS staying compassionate, curious, and kind with ourselves. Yes, having a poor diet can directly impact your stress levels and mental health, AND, that doesn’t mean you have to start cutting out pizza and sugar. 

    Stress prevention strategy:  Instead of fearing food or feeling out of control with food, start listening to your body, eating regular meals, and learning about effective ways to stay healthy while staying clear of toxic diet culture. Remember, health is SO much more than weight loss. Follow accounts that promote a positive relationship with food. Here are a few I love: @your.latina.nutritionist, @amyharmanlmft, @drmorganfrancis, @nicolecruzrd.

More stress Prevention Tips

Here are more ways to manage stress for your mind, body, and soul. Pick and choose which ones you would like to try out. It’s okay to experiment to find the right preventative tools for you and your life. And remember, be patient with yourself because forming new habits and takes time. You won’t be stress-free overnight, but with time and consistency, you will notice a real shift.

  • Positive self-talk and affirmations

  • Breathwork

  • Healthy boundaries

  • Practice grounding techniques

  • Practice mindfulness

  • Talk it out

  • Prioritize rest

  • Practice morning pages or consistent journaling

  • Spend time with people you love

  • Social media detox

  • Practice radical self-acceptance

  • Create a morning routine

  • Spend time outside in nature

  • Stretch your body

  • Meditate

  • Limit alcohol consumption

  • Practice tapping

  • Listen to a positive podcast

  • Practice body movement in ways that feel good to you (e.g. yoga, dancing, etc.)

  • Clean or organize an area of your home

Sources: National Alliance on Mental Illness; America Psychological Association; Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; Mental Health Foundation

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