Everyone experiences stress when they feel overloaded, overwhelmed or have trouble coping. Stress is your body’s protective mechanism to danger and distress and it honestly is essential for survival. Stress becomes problematic, however, when it turns chronic. It can lead to physical and mental health conditions, including chronic pain and disease, heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety and suicide.
You don’t have to suffer from stress. There are many natural tools you can use to manage stress and there is help available from medical and mental health professionals as well. In this article, I will discuss what stress is, its types, causes and symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and natural stress management tools.
What is Stress
Stress is your body’s natural defense mechanism when any form of danger arises. Stress quickly runs through your body creating a ‘flight-or-fight’ mechanism that aims to protects you either by staying to fight the source of danger or by running away as fast as you can.
This stress response comes with physical changes in your body. Your heart rate and alertness may increase, you start breathing faster, you may start sweating and your muscles may tighten or prepare for a fight. Your immune reactivity also speeds up, your digestive system slows down and your ability to fall asleep decreases. It makes sense; if a virus attacks your body, you need to rest, but if a bear chases you, there is no time to take a bathroom break or take a nap. Chemicals, such as cortisol and adrenaline levels also rise in your body.
Nowadays, stress comes from all areas. There are environmental stresses, such as speeding cars, loud noises, or an aggressive behavior you may be facing, as well as work and school stress, or stress from exciting events, like a first date or buying a new house.
Stress is not always bad. If there is a true danger, stress is there to protect you. The problem is that when everything is stressful, your body can’t differentiate real danger from harmless, small, everyday issues. (1, 2, 3, 4)
Types of Stress
To understand stress and know what to do about it, it is important to learn the difference between different forms of stress. (1, 5)
- Acute stress is the most common way that stress occurs. It is short-term stress that often occurs when thinking about pressures of recent or upcoming events, such as deadlines, a wedding, or an important meeting. Such stress may lead to headaches or an upset stomach, but once the event is over, it resolves and does not lead to long-term problems. Acute stress can also be caused by an accident or injury. (5)
- Episodic Acute stress is a frequently experienced acute stress. For example, if you have trouble keeping organized, you may be stressed with hard deadlines or meetings where you have to present your ideas. Those experiencing episodic acute stress tend to become more tense, irritable and worried. Their risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and chronic stress is higher. (5)
- Chronic stress is the most harmful type of stress and is a silent killer by leading to other serious health problems. Chronic stress is long-term and ongoing. Living in a dysfunctional family, having an unhappy marriage, ongoing poverty, continuous experiences of abuse, or a high-pressure job are all examples of what can lead to chronic stress. When the source of stress is ongoing and one doesn’t find a way to cope or stop the issue, the body stops seeking solutions. Chronic stress can become unnoticed. It easy to get used to the stress and start viewing it as a norm. When you see others experiencing similar situations, it’s even easier to believe it is not a big deal. The body can’t be fooled though. Chronic stress can affect someone’s overall well-being, including physical and mental health. It can lead to serious consequences, including chronic health issues, heart attacks, strokes, violent actions, and suicide. (5)
Causes of Stress
We live in a stressful fast-paced world. National stress level averages are at 5.1 on a 1 to 10 scale and rising. Stress can have many causes and it often depends on the individual. What is stressful to some, may not be stressful or as stressful to others. In most cases, people experience stress due to multiple factors such as: (1, 22)
- Job issues, job stress, job dissatisfaction
- Job loss
- School issues
- Lack of money and financial troubles
- Poverty or lack of essential resources
- Lack of time
- Family problems
- Death in the family
- Health issues (physical and/or mental health)
- Relationships, marriage, divorce, break-ups
- Abortion or miscarriage
- Pregnancy and becoming a parents
- Being unable to conceive
- Living in an unsafe neighborhood
- Driving in heavy traffic or fear of accidents
- Excessive noise, overcrowding and pollution
- Uncertainty in life
- Waiting for an important outcome
- Experience or fear of any form of abuse, violence or bullying
Stress can be caused by internal factors, such as (1):
- Internal negative self-talk
- Rigid thinking
- Inability to accept uncertainty
- Low self-esteem
- All-or-nothing attitude
- Unrealistic expectations
Sometimes the cause of stress is not clear. People with mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety may feel more stress and get stressed more easily, however, high stress can also lead to mental health issues. A traumatic event can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Factors that may influence someone’s experience with stress, include (1):
- Having or lacking a support network
- One’s sense of control
- Attitude and outlook
- Ability to deal with emotions
- Knowledge of and preparation for stress
One’s upbringing and history of trauma may also influence these factors. However, it’s possible to learn ways to manage such as actively having a positive attitude or outlook, learning to handle emotions, and preparing for stressful events in a positive manner and self-confidence to feel in control
Symptoms of High Stress
Symptoms of stress depend on the individual and the cause, type and level of stress. Symptoms of stress can differ person to person and include some or all of the following physical, emotional and behavioral effects.
Physical effects of stress:
- Cramps or muscle spasms
- Muscle aches
- Sleep difficulties
- Back pain
- Chest pain
- Stomach pain
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Lower immunity
- Erectile dysfunction
- Pins and needles feeling
- Nervous twitches
Emotional Symptoms of Stress:
- Concentration issues
- Feeling insecure
- Lack of interest
- Fears and phobias
Behavioral Symptoms of Stress:
- Food cravings, eating too much or too little, emotional eating, binge eating
- Sudden angry outburst
- Drug or alcohol use, misuse or abuse
- Nail biting
- Frequent crying
- Social withdrawal
- Relationship problems
- Verbal or physical violence
Diagnosis of Stress
A diagnosis of stress is not clear and cut as it is not only complex and depends on many factors, but is not a medical condition itself. Your doctor or mental health professional may diagnose stress or identify stress as the cause of your physical and/or mental health issues by assessing your symptoms and asking about your life events. Questionnaires, biochemical measures and physiological testing may be involved along with a face-to-face, detailed evaluation.
Treatment and Management of Stress
Treatments and management of stress differ case by case. They can include medication, therapy, self-help and natural stress management methods. All of us experience stress in our busy modern day life. Even if you are not experiencing physical or mental health issues as a result of stress, learning how to manage and respond to stress is extremely important to prevent health issues in the future and lead a happy, healthy and fulfilling life. (1, 6, 7, 8, 9)
Medication for Stress
Your doctor cannot prescribe medication for stress itself. Sorry, there is no magic fix to make your demanding boss, marriage difficulties or financial troubles disappear.
If there is an underlying medical cause of stress, such as a mental health condition like depression or anxiety, your doctor may prescribe antidepressants or other medication. If you’ve developed a mental health condition as a result of stress, you may be prescribed medication as well. Medication for mental health issues is usually used in combination with therapy to help you respond to stress better and to change your thinking and behavior.
If you have a physical health condition as a result of stress, medication may be required. Remember, the medicine will not make the stress go away. It is important that you learn how to manage your stress levels so your health doesn’t decline further but can improve instead.
Therapy for Stress
Whether or not you have a mental illness and/or take medication for it, therapy or counseling can be helpful to learn some new skills to cope with, manage and respond to stress.
It can teach you how to better deal with your emotions or negative thinking, change your behavior and build self-esteem. It can help uncover and work through trauma, childhood issues, unknown triggers, emotional woes and daily stress. You can learn communication and relationship skills to improve your marriage, romantic relationship, friendships and other personal or professional relationships.
Simply talking with a supportive, unbiased professional can be helpful.
If you are not up for therapy or counseling, you may consider spiritual counseling, life coaching, or peer support groups.
Calling or texting a hotline is also available for your in any stressful, difficult or crisis situation or whenever you need to talk to someone. You can find a list of relevant hotlines here: http://www.pleaselive.org/hotlines/
Natural Stress Management
The good news is that there are a number of natural stress management tools and methods you can learn and use by yourself.
- Exercise is a powerful stress reliever that releases happy chemicals known as endorphins in your body. It can relieve anxiety, lift your mood, aid sleep and help with pain. Exercise can help with the mental processing of stress as well. (1, 10, 11)
- Yoga is more than exercise, but a fantastic tool to help with the mind-body connection. It can help you to slow down, be present, be in your body, relax, stretch out, control anxiety, help with sleep and achieve physical and psychological balance. If you are not into yoga, tai chi can bring you similar benefits. (1, 11, 12)
- Meditation can help you deal with anxiety, worry, stress and sadness. Through meditation, you can find balance, a peace of mind and be in the present. It can help with mindfulness, becoming more attentive, ending addictions and improving mental health. What you practice during meditation, yoga or tai chi can translate into your real life and help you feel more relaxed and emotionally stable when real life stress arises. (1, 13, 14, 15)
- Acupuncture treats imbalances of your body by stimulating meridian points with tiny needles. It can do wonders for your health, including regulating your nervous system, improving your hormonal health, balancing your blood sugar, and boosting your mood. (16, 17)
- Nutrient-Dense Whole Foods Diet is essential to a stress free life.Your body needs a steady supply of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fats, proteins and carbohydrates. A body that is not fed well can become compromised during times of stress, whereas a well-nourished body can help you respond to and deal with stress better. Avoid processed food, refined sugars, and stimulants, but focus on mostly plant-based, real, whole foods instead including greens, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans and whole grains. Adaptogen herbs, such as ashwagandha and maca can also be helpful to fight stress and balance your hormones naturally. (1)
- Essential Oils such as lavender, frankincense, bergamot and myrrh can help you fight stress. They can help sleep, digestion, relaxation, reduction of inflammation, immunity, hormonal balance and pain. (18)
- Time in Nature helps you gain a fresh and new perspective. The fresh air can help you clear your mind, uplift your mood, engage your senses and help sleep. Time in nature can help you realize how large the universe is and put your worries into perspective. Nature is also a perfect place to exercise, meditate, relax, or connect with others. (1, 19)
- Being Social with other people face-to-face can trigger hormones that relieve stress. A smile or hug can mean the world and uplift your mood. A good conversation can help you gain new perspective, feel heard and find support. Having a social life can help you create close relationship and a supportive network of people who can lift you up and be there in time of crisis. Being there for your friends and family can also help you feel better. (1, 19)
- Journaling is one of the most effective ways to release what’s on your mind. It is the perfect way to track your emotions, identify your triggers, work through your trauma, deal with and release your emotions, discover your inner self, find answers to your own questions, forgive, and find gratitude. There are many ways to journal. You can free write, use prompts, keep a gratitude journal, track your emotions and symptoms, list your desires, set goals and so on. It may be best to keep several journals for different purposes. Handwriting is the best, but if you want to you can type on your computer or phone or even keep a video or voice diary. (20)
- Breathing exercises are powerful tools to override the symphathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. It can activate your parasympathetic nervous system that helps you to relax and remain in control. You can combine breathing exercise with yoga, meditation, exercise, and time in nature. When you are stressed, just take a few deep breathes to slow down and regain balance and calm. (21)
- Sleep is important for your physical and mental health. When you are under chronic stress, your sleep may become compromised, it may become interrupted or you may have trouble falling or staying asleep. Develop a night-time routine. Turn of all technology, meditate, journal, color, have a caffeine-free herbal tea, perhaps read a book or connect with a loved one or pet. Make sure to get as cozy as possible. Make sure you have a comfortable pillow and blanket and have no distractions around your bed. Don’t be stressed if you can’t fall asleep right away. Take a few deep breaths, bring your imagination to a happy place and relax. (1)
While its impossible to avoid stress, you don’t have to suffer from physical and mental health consequences. Using these simple natural stress management strategies you can learn to cope with and reduce stress better. Seek help from medical doctors and mental health professionals as needed to treat underlying health issues and potential health consequences of stress.
I hope you’ve found this article helpful. Comment below, I want to hear your thoughts, feedback, experiences and feedback regarding stress.