As busy parents, we know that stress is unavoidable. It can come upon us at various levels almost daily, or multiple times per day. And most of the time we don’t particularly like it. You may perceive stress as something to avoid, but the fact is that stress is a constant. It is always present in one form or another and can’t be eliminated. Unlike other health problems, the effects of stress may not produce obvious symptoms. But this insidious condition is constantly at play in our lives influencing our health and well-being in many ways.
The sources of stress might include financial worries, demanding careers, family conflict, health issues, academic pressures or just everyday hassles. These can all wear on our bodies and minds to contribute to our overall health. Even changes or experiences that might seem positive such as a job promotion, moving to a new home, or having a baby can raise the stress-o-meter, sometimes leaving you feeling overwhelmed. No matter what the cause of stress, when it shows up it will usually make you just feel bad.
The Damaging Effects of Stress
So by now, we all realize that stress can cause discomfort. But did you know that ongoing stress can lead to more serious damage? Stress can do a lot more than make you anxious or overwhelmed. It can also take a toll on your body and affect your overall health too.
The feelings of anxiety and agitation that occur when you’re feeling stressed are caused by increased cortisol levels. Cortisol (the “fight or flight” hormone) is produced when your body feels like there is danger nearby. It sends messages to your brain to make a decision and tell your body whether to take on this perceived danger or stop all activity and run for the hills.
Put another way, when cortisol rises, other body systems shut down. You might have experienced this feeling before if you’ve ever been in a dangerous situation and felt your digestion or focus went off track. Or maybe you’ve experienced a headache during a stressful event. Cortisol likely played a role in these things happening to you.
In addition, when cortisol is elevated for a long period of time, it may work on weakening your immune system, causing you to get sick more easily or often, or be unable to recover for a longer period of time. You may also have difficulty sleeping or just feel drained and “out of it.”
Chronic Stress and Imbalance
When your body is under the influence of cortisol for extended periods of time, chronic issues may develop. Mentally it may manifest as anxiety, depression, or even thought disturbances (but that’s not common). Physically, out-of-control stress can trigger health issues such as high blood pressure and blood sugar imbalances. These can all be direct or indirect results of long-term stress. Attempting to deal with these conditions can lead to even more stress, relationship difficulties and even problems in your career or work, leading to a vicious cycle.
What Can You Do About Stress?
What you do about the stress in your life depends on your circumstances. The first step is to identify the source (or sources) of the stress you experience. Once you know why you’re stressed, it will be easier to decide what kind of action to take. Some ways to get relief from stress include:
- Practice yoga
- Eat an “anti-stress” diet
- Take time to relax with family and friends
- Take time for self-care
- Focus on what’s going right
- Use essential oils for stress-relieving aromatherapy
Keep in mind, though, that you don’t want to try to manage your stress yet another source of stress! In other words, instead of focusing on the stress, put your efforts into focusing on the positive aspects of your life. You may find that adopting a positive mindset, reducing the number of negative thoughts you allow to creep in every day, and making simple shifts towards more healthful behaviors can help to reduce your stress. Start small and over time, you’ll build up a repertoire of stress-busting habits and behaviors that work for you.
Alicia Hyatte is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Family Wellness Expert, and Health Educator. She creates impactful, evidence-based health and wellness content and programs for individuals, families, and communities.