When it comes to stress, there’s one thing everyone has in common: We all experience it.
But how we experience stress and learn to deal with it can be different for everyone. Below, Rachel Van Parys, health and wellness coordinator for Yampa Valley Medical Center, outlines what stress is and why it’s important to manage.
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What is stress?
At its core, stress is a physical reaction: When we experience a threat, whether it’s losing a job or getting stuck in traffic, hormones are released that increase heart rate and blood pressure, resulting in a fight-or-flight response.
“Years ago, if a tiger was facing you down, you’d need that stress response to either fight or run away,” Van Parys said. “Now, we’re not being chased down by a tiger, but we’re dealing with stress at work, financial stress, stress in our relationships. Those things don’t have an end point, so we stay in that hyper-vigilant state.”
But don’t get too overwhelmed about experiencing stress: It’s important to remember that stress is a natural reaction.
“We live in a society where everybody’s stressed most of the time, and we have a lot of guilt around that,” Van Parys said. “But stress is a natural response in your body, and there’s nothing wrong with you if you’re stressed.”
Van Parys is quick to point out that stress can also be a positive force, helping people concentrate and focus.
“It becomes negative if we stay amped up in that stress response for too long,” Van Parys said.
Effects of stress
Stress affects different people in different ways. It might manifest as problems sleeping, digestive issues, chronic headaches, high blood pressure, sexual dysfunction, addictions and even chronic illness.
Whatever the symptoms may be, stress is pervasive.
“Stress affects your sleep, it affects your relationships, it affects your job,” Van Parys said. “It impacts every area of your life.”
Why are we so stressed?
From living in a culture that celebrates being busy to spending hours on devices that ping us constantly with new information, it’s no wonder people are so stressed.
There are millions of reasons to be stressed at any given moment, but Van Parys sees a few broad categories of stressors: change, feeling threatened, loss of a sense of control and, interestingly, unmet expectations.
“Once expectations are not met — whether it’s in a conversation with a coworker or how you thought your day was going to look — we tend to develop a lot of stress,” Van Parys said. “We often think of stress as something that happens to us, but part of it is about managing your expectations and understanding that life is messy and complicated and finding ways to deal with that.”
How to handle stress
There isn’t a silver bullet for managing stress, but everyone can find at least one thing that helps.
Coping techniques, such as reframing an issue or focusing on what went right in your day, can help you gain awareness of stress and address causes. Relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness and deep breathing, can help you address symptoms of stress and restore balance.
“Not everyone is going to enjoy meditation or yoga,” Van Parys said. “It’s about trying different things. It’s possible to do, but it does take work. You have to put yourself first.”
The important part is finding what works for you.
“You’re never going to get through a day without running into a stressor. Even if you’re on a beach vacation, what happens if you didn’t bring enough sunscreen, or you’re next to someone listening to music too loud?” Van Parys said. “If you can learn how to manage your stress, then everything in your life is going to go a little bit easier.”
Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at email@example.com.