The facts on stress

When’s the last time you felt really stressed? Might not have been too long ago. Let’s take a look at stress, from the good to the bad and everything in between.

Everyone experiences stress at one time or another and, over the past year, there have been many reasons to be stressed. So what exactly is it?

Stress is defined as “something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety.” Basically, it’s how your brain reacts to a demand of some sort. Stress can be triggered by any number of things, including both positive and negative change.

Here’s a look at five things you might not know about stress:

1. Stress is not all bad. Our bodies come with a built-in stress response, which helps us respond in dangerous situations.

You’re probably familiar with the “fight-or-flight” response that occurs when you encounter a perceived threat. When you’re stressed, your body produces more of certain hormones and, in general, your body speeds up. Your pulse gets faster, your breathing quickens and your brain uses more oxygen.

These are all ways your body tries to protect itself — and when you experience these effects for a small amount of time, your immune system is boosted.

It’s only when you experience prolonged stress that those same positive effects begin to take a toll on your body. At that point, your immunity actually lowers and the systems of the body don’t work as well.

2. There are different kinds of stress. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines three types of stress: acute, episodic acute and chronic. What’s the difference?

  • Acute stress is the most common, and it is triggered by normal daily demands and pressures. It occurs on a short-term basis and can cause anxiety or depression, muscle pain, digestion issues, and increased blood pressure, among other symptoms.
  • Episodic acute stress is the same as acute stress, but it occurs on a more frequent basis. When stress begins to affect you on most days, it’s episodic. If you experience episodic acute stress, you’ll likely feel short-tempered, irritable or persistently worried. You may have tension headaches, high blood pressure or even chest pain.
  • Chronic stress takes stress one step further. It occurs when a person can’t see his or her way out of a terrible situation, such as poverty, a bad marriage or a hated job. Chronic stress can lead to heart attack, stroke, violence or even suicide.

3. Americans are stressed. A 2015 study from the APA found that nearly 25 percent of American adults report that they experience “extreme stress.” That same study found that the average person ranks his or her stress as a 5.1 on a 10-point stress scale.

What’s stressing us out? That varies a good bit from person to person, but common sources of stress include money and the economy, our jobs, family responsibilities, and health concerns.

4. A healthy lifestyle can help manage stress. Taking care of yourself is vitally important. Some basic lifestyle habits can help you manage stress you experience:

  • Exercise regularly. Find a physical activity you love, and stick with it. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise on at least five days of the week.
  • Find a way to relax. For some people, meditation helps. For others, the thought of meditation makes them anxious. It doesn’t matter which calming activity you choose, just choose one and devote a few minutes to it daily.
  • Take breaks. During your day, be sure to schedule yourself time away from your computer, your work environment and even your family. That time allows you to decompress and refocus.
  • Eat a balanced diet. A healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy greatly benefits your body. And certain foods, such as green, leafy vegetables, blueberries, salmon and dark chocolate, can even help reduce stress.

5. But some “coping” mechanisms can make it worse. It might seem like smoking and alcohol consumption help ease your stress. In reality, they can make you more sensitive to stress. Indulging your cravings for foods that aren’t so good for you, eating too much, and over doing it with television or sleep can make stress worse.

Not sure if what you’re feeling is normal stress? Talk with your doctor. Need a doctor? Find a primary care provider here.