Stress is a modern-day malady that most of us can’t avoid. The pressure that comes from trying to juggle work, families, school and finances is something we can all relate to.
“And we can’t talk about stress without talking about the pandemic,” says Amanda Warden, a behavioral health therapist at Henry Ford Health. “That has impacted everybody and has piled on even more to everyone’s baseline stress levels.”
But even if you can’t completely eliminate stress from your life, you can take control of how you manage your stress. And that can help you avoid some its negative effects on your overall well-being.
What’s So Bad About Stress?
Being under stress on a daily basis can have negative effects on your health. Then on top of that, you may experience unexpected new stressors (losing your job, a loved one getting sick, a natural disaster). “It can be the perfect mix that pushes you over the edge,” says Warden.
The side effects of too much stress can show up in various ways. Some signs you’re not coping well might include:
- Difficulty concentrating: Stress can make it more difficult to focus and stay on task without your mind wandering.
- Digestive issues: There’s a strong connection between your mind and your gut. Being under stress can affect your digestion, leading to upset stomach, diarrhea or nausea.
- Physical tension: When you’re feeling stressed, you often hold that tension in your muscles. You might clench your jaw, furrow your forehead or tense your shoulders.
- Sleep disruption: “Stress impacts sleep and that impacts everything else,” says Warden. Your stressed-out brain goes into overdrive, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Reaching For A Drink Isn’t The Best Coping Strategy
If you find yourself pouring a glass of wine (or several) at the end of a stressful day, you’re not alone. Some studies estimate that excessive drinking increased by more than 20% during the pandemic.
And while a drink might help you relax, alcohol (or another substance) isn’t the most effective solution for managing stress. “It’s a temporary fix that can help you ignore your stress or desensitize you to it in the moment,” says Warden. “But as soon as you sober up, that problem and that stress are still there.”
Of course, drinking too much can also have many other negative health effects — including increasing your risk of certain cancers, heart disease and liver disease.
Healthy Ways To Manage Stress
Think of your stress levels as a cup of water. Every time something stressful happens, you pour in a little more water until the level gets dangerously high. “If you don’t empty the cup a little every day, the next stressor may make it overflow,” says Warden.
Emptying that cup means finding healthy ways to reduce and manage your stress — and practicing them on a daily basis. “The better you manage daily stress, the better your coping skills will be in the heat of the moment,” she says.
Some self-soothing techniques you can try include:
- Breathing exercises: Taking several deep breaths is a quick way to calm yourself in a stressful situation. Warden recommends practicing a technique called “square breathing” every day to help make it more effective when you’re under stress. To do it: breathe in to a count of five (visualize drawing one side of a square as you inhale). Hold for a count of five (visualize drawing another side of the square). Exhale for five (visualize drawing the third side of the square). Hold for five (visualize drawing the final line of the square).
- Exercising: Don’t add to your stress by making an intense gym session or long run another thing on the to-do list. Anything that gets your body moving — including a walk with the dog or playing a game with your kids ¬— can help relieve stress.
- Spending time outdoors: The change of scenery, fresh air and sunshine can help lift your mood. Even time outdoors in less-than-ideal weather can improve your mindset.
- Reviving a childhood interest: Think of activities you enjoyed as a kid — puzzles, painting, digging in the garden — and work those back into your routine. Tapping into your inner child is a great way to relieve stress.
- Fidgeting: Playing with a fidget spinner, squeezing a stress ball or rolling around some Play-Doh are great ways to distract and calm your mind. “They provide sensory stimulation and help give you a place to put your anxiety,” says Warden.
To find a behavioral health therapist or doctor at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.
Amanda Warden is a behavioral health therapist who sees patients at One Ford Place in Detroit.