Over the past few months, I’ve learned how insidious stress really is. That it causes short- and long-term health problems. That it makes me more vulnerable to depression and anxiety disorders. And that those of us who suffer from chronic stress may not feel stressed because we don’t remember what it feels like not to be stressed.
Identifying and coping with stress is an important way to protect our mental health and the mental health of the people we spend time with. How many physiological signs of stress do you have?
You May Be Stressed If…
- You can’t sit still.
- You have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep.
- You often feel hot or sweaty even when the weather is mild or you have been sitting still.
- You sometimes feel dizzy, light-headed or faint for no clear reason.
- Your balance is off—you’ve become wobbly or unsteady.
- Your chest feels tight or your heart seems to pound. (Make sure you see a doctor to rule out problems with your heart, lungs, or digestive system.)
- You have frequent indigestion or burping regardless of what you eat.
- Your face flushes easily.
- You feel like your judgment or memory has clouded.
- 10. You find yourself reacting defensively to how many of these symptoms describe the way you feel.
When I was in high school, I started to have unexplained chest pains. After the cardiologist, pulmonologist, and gastroenterologist couldn’t find anything wrong with me, my doctor shrugged. “Maybe it’s stress,” he said.
I didn’t feel stressed. I couldn’t think of any reason I should be stressed. So I was as dismissive of his advice as he seemed to be of me. If I taken him seriously (or if he had been a little less condescending), I might potentially have gotten help for my anxiety and depression many years ago.
What to Do about Stress?
When it comes to coping with stress, sometimes the solution can add to the problem. After all, changing your lifestyle can be pretty stressful. Start small with these four suggestions that
- Make time for yourself. Most of the women I know tend to make themselves their lowest priority. But I learned the hard way that ignoring my physical and mental health can have very real costs that my whole family must pay. To protect my sanity, I now have a sitter who comes for an hour after school three days a week and my husband makes sure I get a “Mom’s morning out” every weekend. Even though I sometimes feel selfish, my husband says I’m a happier, better mother and wife when I come home–and that makes him happier, too!
- Exercise. Exercise not only increases the happy-making endorphins in your brain, it actually retrains your body to cope with stress better. If the very idea of adding exercise to your day sounds stressful, find small ways to make aerobic activity part of your life. For example, my family goes for a fast-paced walk most evenings.
- Set a regular schedule. Whether or not you realize it, your brain can only handle so many decisions before it starts to feel stressed. Instead of deciding what to make for dinner each night, plan a menu a week or even a month in advance. Or, if you have a family, set up a routine for your family by day and by week that balances everyone’s different needs. Keep in mind that you may need to eliminate some activities from your family’s commitments, so you’ll want to discuss the schedule with your partner and any children old enough to understand. Be sure to include some form of personal time and exercise for every member of the family.
- See a therapist. You don’t have to be crazy to see a therapist. In fact, these professionals are great resources to help you change the way you manage and feel about stress. If you add personal time, exercise, and more consistency to your life and still have several physical symptoms of stress, it may be time to reach out for a little help. My most positive experiences have been from therapists who practice cognitive behavioral therapy (C.B.T.) or mindfulness. These two inter-related techniques help you change your life for the better, rather than focusing on the past. (Believe it or not, many insurance plans cover at least part of the cost of a therapist. You can find a therapist on Psychology Today by entering your zip code. Use the criteria on the left sidebar to narrow your search by insurance coverage or type of therapy.)
How do you deal with stress in your life? Is it working? Let us know in the comments.