Research has shown that stress can sometimes be positive. It can make you more alert and help you perform better in certain situations. 2 However, stress has only been found to be beneficial if it is short-lived.
What happens to my body when I experience stress?
Hormones called adrenaline and noradrenaline raise your blood pressure, increase your heart rate and increase the rate at which you perspire. This prepares your body for an emergency response. 8 These hormones can also reduce blood flow to your skin and reduce your stomach activity. Cortisol, another stress hormone, releases fat and sugar into your system to boost your energy. 9
As a result, you may experience headaches, muscle tension, pain, nausea, indigestion and dizziness. You may also breathe more quickly, have palpitations or suffer from various aches and pains. In the long-term, you may be putting yourself at risk from heart attacks and stroke. 10
All these changes are your body’s way of making it easier for you to fight or run away and once the pressure or threat has passed, your stress hormone levels will usually return to normal. 11 However, if you’re constantly under stress, these hormones remain in your body, leading to the symptoms of stress. If you’re stuck in a busy office or on an overcrowded train, you can’t fight or run away, so you can’t use up the chemicals your own body makes to protect you. Over time, the build-up of these chemicals and the changes they produce can be damaging for your health. 12
What are the behavioural and emotional effects of stress?
You may experience periods of constant worry, racing thoughts, or repeatedly go over the same things in your head. You may experience changes in your behaviour. You may lose your temper more easily, act irrationally or become more verbally or physically aggressive. 14 These feelings can feed on each other and produce physical symptoms, which can make you feel even worse. For example, extreme anxiety can make you feel so unwell, that you then worry you have a serious physical condition.
Stress may be caused either by major upheavals and life events such as divorce, unemployment, moving house and bereavement, or by a series of minor irritations such as feeling undervalued at work or arguing with a family member.16Sometimes, there are no obvious causes.
Tip: Identify the sources of stress in your life
Stress management starts with identifying the sources of stress in your life. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. While it’s easy to identify major stressors such as changing jobs, moving, or going through a divorce, pinpointing the sources of chronic stress can be more complicated. It’s all too easy to overlook how your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors contribute to your everyday stress levels.
Start a stress journal
A stress journal can help you identify the regular stressors in your life and the way you deal with them. Each time you feel stressed, keep track of it in your journal or use a stress tracker on your phone. Keeping a daily log will enable you to see patterns and common themes. Write down:
How to Set Yourself Up to Deal With Stress
“It’s important to understand that when it comes to stress and its impact on health, you may want to think about trying longer-term strategies and changes in lifestyle,” says Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an assistant physician and clinical researcher at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
A healthy lifestyle — eating well, getting high-quality sleep, staying hydrated, and exercising regularly — can buffer you against the wear and tear of stress, says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Jewish Family Services of Greenwich in Greenwich, Connecticut. These steps don’t eliminate the challenge. But they will ensure your strongest, calmest, most rational self shows up to meet whatever obstacle you’re facing.
If, for example, you got a good night’s sleep, you spent an hour doing a workout you love after waking up, and you ate a satisfying breakfast, a midmorning crisis at the office is likely going to feel a little less hair-raising than if you were feeling sleep deprived, hungry because you skipped breakfast, and burned out because you haven’t made it to your favorite Pilates instructor’s class in so long.
Research indeed backs this up. One study that looked at how regular self-care practices helped medical students cope with stress during their early years of training, for example, found that those who reported more regular self-care routines also reported feeling less stressed and having a higher quality of life, according to data published in 2018 in the journal BMC Medical Education.
A study published in Frontiers in Physiology found that participants who exercised at least once per week had modest protection against the negative consequences of stress (with stress being measured by heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol, and self-reported mood).
As far as exercise goes, just make sure it’s something you enjoy. “Exercise doesn’t have to be intense, and you don’t have to join a gym,” Dr. Haythe says. “I tell my patients to buy a pair of sneakers and start walking for 15 to 20 minutes a day.”
The United States of Stress
Tip: Practice wherever you are
Quick stress relief at home
Children and relationships. Prevent losing your cool during a spousal spat by squeezing the tips of your thumb and forefinger together. When your toddler has a tantrum, rub lotion into your hands and breathe in the scent.
Quick stress relief at work
Quick stress relief on the go
Public transportation. Take a break from reading, cell conversations, and music to tune into the sights and sounds around you. Try noticing something new, even if you’re on the same old bus ride.
Running errands. Wear a special perfume or lotion so you can enjoy it while you rush from place to place. Carry a stress ball in your pocket. Take a mental “snapshot” or “postcard” at each destination.