Stress affects everyone. It impacts the mind and body in direct and powerful ways. Stress saps our energy and contributes to fatigue, negative thinking, and distressing emotions, including anxiety, fear, frustration, anger, self-pity, and depression. Ongoing stress makes us more susceptible to emotional imbalance, illness, and disease. Numerous medical conditions are caused or exacerbated by stress, including hypertension, heart disease, and cancer. It can play a major role in beginning involvement with alcohol and other drugs, and in continuing that involvement. For people in recovery, stress is frequently involved in the process of relapse.
Stress is frequently talked about, but what exactly is it? Stress is an imbalance between your current coping abilities and the expectations or demands placed on you, including demands that you place on yourself—both real and perceived.
Stress arises from positive as well as negative events
It’s important to understand that stress doesn’t only come from negative or problematic experiences. Positive experiences can also create considerable stress. Graduating high school or college, starting a new and promising job, getting married, having a child, buying a house, and planned relocations are all generally positive events. However, they also represent significant life changes that, for most people, are naturally and normally quite stressful. For most people, change—even when it is extremely positive—creates stress.
Stressors—the factors that generate stress—take three fundamental forms:
- Internal: Primarily “self-inflicted” based on self-imposed expectations, values, or standards that you (e.g., perfectionism) or others (e.g., other people are supposed to behave a certain way) “should” or “must,” maintain.
- External-Interpersonal: Based on interactions and relationships with others—tension, conflicts/arguments, abuse, violence between people who know one another.
- External-Impersonal: Environmental—weather, natural disasters, wars, random acts of violence, big-picture political-economic circumstances, etc.
Stress, anxiety, & fear—oh my!
Fear, anxiety, and stress are a vicious triangle—they contribute to and reinforce each other. The more fear and anxiety people experience, the more stressed out they tend to be. And, the more stressed out people are, the more anxious and fearful they tend to be. Stress automatically and unconsciously activates the systems in your body involved when quick response and rapid action are required. These include survival-oriented fight-flight-freeze reactions to perceived threats.
These fight, flight, or freeze stress reactions are your body’s way of protecting you in the face of actual threats to your safety and life. However, the stress-activated responses of the brain and body don’t differentiate between physical and emotional threats, or between dangers that are real or imagined. When you’re stressed over a busy schedule, an argument with a friend, coworker, partner, or child, a traffic jam, or your monthly bills, your brain and body react essentially the same way as they would if you were facing a life-or-death situation that requires a flight or fight response.
Chronic, ongoing exposure to stress interferes with your attitude, social and family relationships, work, and health. Regardless of whether you are in actual physical danger or simply feel like you are—chronic stress negatively affects nearly every system in your body. It can raise your blood pressure, suppress your immune system, increase your risk for heart attack and stroke, and speed up the aging process.
The symptoms of excessive stress can include:
- Mental—forgetfulness, cynicism, negativism, self-criticism.
- Emotional—irritability, low frustration tolerance, decreased empathy, anxiety, depression.
- Physical—fatigue, tightness of neck or back, stomach aches, headaches.
- Behavioral—interpersonal conflict, proneness to accidents, decreased productivity, sleep disturbance (increased or decreased sleep), appetite disturbance (eating more or less), decreased involvement with others, or isolation.
Like other repetitive experiences, long-term stress rewires the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to fear, anxiety, depression, and yes, more stress. As a result, learning and practicing ways to facilitate relaxation in order to counteract the stress you experience is vital to health, balance, and healing.
Self-Calming: Managing and decreasing your stress (and fear and anxiety)
There are many methods and practices that can help you manage and reduce your level of stress. All of these represent tools to help you self-calm. Self-calming practices generally combine intentional breathing and focused attention to help relax and quiet the mind and the body. Intentional breathing is only one of a wide variety of practices that you can learn to activate your body’s relaxation response. The relaxation response is the physiological opposite of the stress response that triggers fight-flight-freeze reactions.