Maintaining Mental Health in Stressful Times

Stress is part of life. We all experience stressful situations from time to time. But when stress builds beyond your ability to cope, when it starts to affect your mental and physical health, it’s time to find ways to manage it.

Causes and Types of Stress

Stress has increased globally in recent years. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, 35% of adults said they experienced frequent stress, up from 29% in 2006, according to Gallup’s 2020 Global Emotions Report. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the American Psychological Association reports that two in three adults in the US have experienced increased stress, and almost one in five say their mental health has suffered. 

Besides societal stressors like pandemics or natural disasters, “everyday” sources of stress include:

  • illness—your own or a loved one’s 
  • accidents
  • being a victim of a crime
  • relationship problems, changes or conflicts
  • professional demands
  • financial issues
  • caregiving
  • work-life imbalance 

Stress tends to fall into three categories: acute, episodic and chronic. Acute stress is usually limited to a single event, pleasant or unpleasant—a work deadline and your wedding day can cause stress in equal measures but the stress usually disappears after the event. Acute stress that’s repeated, such as a first responder might experience, becomes episodic stress. Chronic stress is stretched out over time with situations like financial insecurity or caregiving.

“The potential long-term consequences of the persistent stress and trauma created by the pandemic are particularly serious for our country’s youngest individuals [who] are facing unprecedented uncertainty, are experiencing elevated stress and are already reporting symptoms of depression.”

(Stress in America 2020, American Psychological Association)

Effects of Stress 

Our brains have been hard-wired for thousands of years to respond to a source of stress—whether a wild animal or an approaching work review—by sending hormones like cortisol and adrenaline into the body. This produces a fight-or-flight response, with adrenaline elevating your heart rate and breathing to supply increased oxygen to your muscles to meet the challenge. Cortisol amps glucose in your bloodstream, suppresses your digestive system, changes your immune system responses, and generally sends your body and brain into emergency mode.

Typically, after the crisis has passed, your heart rate and breathing slow, and bodily functions return to normal. But severe acute stress—for example, triggered by trauma—can cause PTSD that may continue for months or years. And chronic stress keeps your brain and body on high alert for extended periods, which can cause harmful effects on physical health such as: 

  • indigestion
  • high blood pressure and damage to blood vessels
  • heart attack and stroke 
  • type 2 diabetes
  • fatigue, pain, lowered sex drive and headaches
  • trouble concentrating and memory problems
  • a weakened immune system that can lead to illness and infections
  • weight loss or gain from under- or overeating

A word of caution: Seek help immediately if you experience shortness of breath; pain in the chest, jaw, shoulder, back or arm; or dizziness, sweating or nausea. These are all symptoms of a heart attack.

Mood and behavior are also affected by chronic stress, which can cause greater risk of:

  • irritability, anger and mood swings
  • substance use as a means to cope
  • listlessness, withdrawal and loss of motivation or focus
  • anxiety and/or depression

“The long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follow can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.”

The Mayo Clinic

Stress Management

Because severe or continued stress can lead to consequences like heart disease and depression, it’s important to take steps to manage it. This may sound simplistic, but it helps to identify what’s causing your stress. Check your environment at home or work. Are you putting up with noise from neighbors that makes it difficult to sleep? Taking on too much at work? Major life changes can cause unrecognized stress as you try to cope with divorce or a new marriage. An accident or job loss may cause you more stress than you realize, and uncertainty about the future can be an unrelenting stress trigger.

Plan to avoid what you can and do what you are able. You can’t control the weather, but you can make sure your home is stocked with emergency supplies to prevent the stress of running out during a storm. You may not be able to avoid an emergency appendectomy, but you can ask for help from friends when you’re recovering from one.

Stress is best managed proactively, with healthy activity. Regular physical exercise is a better approach than passively binge-watching TV. Finding relaxation through meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, massage or tai chi is more effective than using tobacco, alcohol or caffeine. Other effective stress management techniques include: 

  • maintaining a sense of humor (even if you have to write yourself a reminder!)
  • staying connected to family and friends, who are an important part of your support system 
  • practicing self-care 
  • finding joy in hobbies, reading a book or listening to music
  • cultivating good sleep and dietary habits
  • professional counseling

Developing personal strengths like problem-solving and assertiveness, reprioritizing what’s important and enjoyable, learning to say No to unnecessary demands on your time… all these can help manage your stress as well.

Stress from certain triggers are harder to manage. Fears, living with uncertainty, and limiting beliefs and expectations take time and work to transform. Therapy with a counselor can help you develop the positive mindset needed to turn things around.

Best Day’s counselors are ready to help you with stress management techniques and mental health challenges arising from stress. Our goal is for you to have the best treatment options to help you live a fulfilling, more enjoyable life.