Everyone experiences stress at some point in their life, whether it's related to work, family life or health. While occasional feelings of stress are normal and generally harmless, long-term stress can have a negative effect on your overall wellness.
However, stress doesn't have to take over your life. Read on for more about what stress is and when it can be good for you as well as five easy ways to reduce stress.
What is stress?
Stress is your body's normal response to something that is perceived as a threat, says Dr. Frank Drummond, national medical director for Behavioral Health at HCA Healthcare. It is a hormonal reaction that can cause an increase in heart rate and racing thoughts. Stress can sometimes be confused with anxiety, which is a residual effect of stress that involves a heightened sense of nervousness or feeling like something bad is going to happen.
"You can't really avoid basic stress," Dr. Drummond says. "If you are in the world, you are subject to stress."
Not all stress is bad, however. There is a form of stress, known as eustress, that can actually be good for you.
"Positive stress is stress that is motivational, that comes from a place that drives you to be a better person, to work on yourself or to stop some behaviors," Dr. Drummond says. This type of stress acts as a sort of "course correction" that helps you move in a different direction when you realize things aren't currently working out for you.
What are the long-term effects of stress?
Too much stress over an extended period of time can cause a number of issues, including anxiety, depression, headaches and sleep problems. People who are constantly stressed may also struggle with memory and concentration.
"Because their brain is so preoccupied with having to worry about the things that keep triggering them, their normal way of processing information is interrupted," Dr. Drummond says. People who are constantly stressed often have trouble holding on to information or remembering what someone said shortly after they've said it.
Chronic stress can also increase the risk of serious health problems like heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke.
5 tips to help reduce stress
Although stress is inevitable, you can take steps to improve your overall stress level. Here are some easy ways to reduce stress.
Exercise not only increases your overall health, but it can also help reduce stress as well. Working out helps lower the levels of stress hormones like cortisol in the body.
"Regular aerobic exercise reduces your cortisol and increases your positive hormones, which are endorphins or oxytocin. That's one physical thing you can do to reverse the physical impact of stress on your body," Dr. Drummond says. Studies have also shown that exercise can improve cognitive function, which can help with memory and concentration.
Meditation can be helpful for quieting your mind and letting go of the things that are stressing you out. And you don't need any fancy or expensive equipment to meditate. There are resources like apps, podcasts and guided meditations that can help if you have trouble meditating on your own. If you're struggling with meditation, try to start with five minutes a day (or however often you can manage) and work your way up as you get more comfortable with it.
3. Lifestyle changes
Lifestyle changes can have a big impact on your stress levels. If there are certain areas of your life that are more stressful than others, such as your job, it can be beneficial to consider changing your situation. These don't have to be big changes, though. Even small changes like journaling every morning or finding ways to incorporate more humor and fun into your everyday life can be helpful for dealing with stress.
Asking for help can be hard, but if you get to a point where you feel like you can't manage your stress by yourself, therapy can make a big difference.
"Talk therapy is a way to unstick things that are stuck in your mind that are unhealthy," Dr. Drummond says. "Therapy should not be underestimated as a tool to reduce the ongoing effects of stress." A therapist can help you find healthy ways to manage your stress and provide an objective listening ear if you find it difficult to talk to people around you.
Our diets have just as much of an impact on our mental health as they do on our physical health, and maintaining a healthy diet can make a significant difference in how we feel. People whose diet is heavy in processed foods and added sugar are more likely to experience higher stress levels. Not eating enough foods that are nutrient-dense can also put you at risk for deficiencies in nutrients that regulate mood and stress, such as B vitamins and magnesium.
Find coping mechanisms that work for you
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of mental health and the physical and mental effects that stress can have on us. "What I think we've learned about ourselves in the past year is that anxiety and stress are normal, and how you manage them has a big impact on yourself and your personal happiness, as well as your family," says Dr. Drummond. "It's important to know what your limits are, what your coping mechanisms are, and what works for you."
Not everyone reacts to stress in the same way, and what works for someone else may not work for you. But it's important to be aware of when you are stressed and try to take steps to reduce it however you can to avoid long-term negative effects. Be sure to check in with yourself regularly to see how you feel, and take note of where you need to make adjustments. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it.