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MindFULL: What We Can Do About Chronic Stress

Illustration - An office worker lays there head down on their desk while someone hands them a document and another person points to the watch on their wrist
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The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Stress as "a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation". Despite its unpleasant nature, stress is a normal human response embedded within us to help us address challenges or threats. To a certain degree, every single one of us has experienced stress. Stress only truly becomes a problem when it is persistent and ongoing.

Unfortunately, a lot of people fall into that latter category. Stress, in itself, is normal. But ongoing, overwhelming stress is concerning because of what it can lead to for both our mental and physical health.

Not that it's something to brag about, but I feel like I'm an expert at being stressed out. It's not something I'm proud of, but I'd like to think that over time I've learned how to deal with stress in a way that keeps me from losing my head. For the last installment of the MindFULL series, let's take a look at what we can do about chronic stress, as well as what it means to leave our stress unchecked.

The Health Effects of Stress

As previously mentioned, stress is a normal and unavoidable part of life. As long as we keep living, we will experience stress at some point or another. The problem lies, however, in the extent of stress we're experiencing and what we do (or don't do) to cope.

Short-term stress is fine, but long-term stress is generally harmful. Chronic Stress is stress that interferes with our ability to live a normal life for an extended period. Some effects of Chronic Stress include fatigue, inability to concentrate, and irritability.

We already know that Chronic Stress can bring about issues of mental health, such as anxiety and depression. However, we must also acknowledge that Chronic Stress can take a toll on our physical well-being with headaches, muscle tension, and heart disease. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the long-term activation of the stress response system and overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can heavily disrupt the body's processes.

A mentally exhausted young woman lays her head on the table while her puppy looks up at her with concern.
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The most commonly known effect of Chronic Stress is hypertension (high blood pressure). When stress reduces, blood pressure can return to its normal levels. However, it is important to note that spikes in blood pressure can cause heart attacks or strokes. Over time, this type of spike in blood pressure can cause damage to our heart and kidneys.

Have you ever met someone who was visibly stressed and seemed to have a lot going on at once in their lives? You may have noticed that this person may have been "fighting a cold" for a solid month or losing their hair, which is no coincidence. In addition to heart disease and headaches, Chronic Stress can also suppress our body's immune system. This means that someone constantly under stress may have difficulty recovering from illnesses, even the common cold.

Identify The Source

Part of treating our stress is identifying what is causing us to be stressed out in the first place. We can acknowledge that some aspects of life, such as employment, are not avoidable for most of us. There's a stressful job, but then there's one that's so stressful that it disrupts your ability to concentrate, sleep, eat, etc. You must dig deeper than just "it's my job" or "it's my kids". Here's an example:

"My job is stressing me out" --> "The unrealistic expectations from my manager, the long hours, and the lack of understanding/courtesy of my superiors is stressing me out".

Most of us can't just stop working a job, but if we must work we should be able to do it at a place that pays a living wage while also offering us a challenge and a chance to grow.

There can be other stressful factors in our lives such as too many commitments, insufficient help around the house or with child care, financial issues, etc. This is why it is important to understand that there's usually an underlying source of stress, rather than just the problem we see in front of us. There was a time when I thought writing was stressing me out when it was my lack of confidence and time management within writing that gave me stress. It may help to list out all of your current commitments and figure out your highest priorities. What is a commitment you have that isn't essential and can be delegated to someone else? Who do you have in your life that could relieve some of your responsibility for certain tasks? What are some things that you may need to give up for the time being? We need to reflect on our state of mind throughout the day. When you feel stressed, try writing down your exact thoughts. What triggered your stress? Was it a person, an event, etc.?

A young woman sits criss-crossed on the floor while listening to music wearing headphones.
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Control Your Emotions

When I say "control your emotions", please note that I'm not saying to "repress" or "hide" them. Emotions are important and they are what makes us human. However, when we allow strong emotions like anger or sadness to make our decisions, we are asking for more stress.

Certain practices like meditation or deep breathing are a great way to get in tune with your emotions, namely emotions that can affect our health when unchecked (i.e. anger). What do you currently do when you're angry about something? Some healthy ways to blow off steam include working out, taking a walk outside, meditating, praying, journaling, etc. The fact is those feelings have to have somewhere to "go". When you hold on to anger, you're much more likely to suffer from the previously mentioned health issues.

Give Your Mind Some Rest

One of my pet peeves is leaving a laptop on for several days. You can't leave your computer running without shutting down over an entire week and then expect it to function properly. Some of us are exactly like an overextended work laptop: running and running without time to shut down or reboot.

I had the pleasure of going on a mini vacation down to Atlanta with my husband in May. After those few days, I spent the rest of the week off from work. Despite not doing anything "extravagant" for my vacation time, I thoroughly enjoyed resting, reading, hanging out with my dog, etc. While I still wasn't looking forward to going back to work, the point is that I felt a lot better than the following week of taking time off.

Even if you don't necessarily have the means to take an extensive amount of time off from work, you can aid in giving your mind rest with healthy practices like cutting back on caffeine and giving yourself a chance to get a sufficient amount of sleep. Something that has been helping me recently is getting off my cell phone when I'm in bed; I've been using that time to read or just lay there and allowing my mind to power down for the night.

In all honesty, a lot is going on in the world to be stressed about. However, I think more than ever we need to be mindful of what is within our control vs. what isn't. If it's something that I can't help or contribute in any way, my next move is to breathe deeply and pray. I know this isn't everyone's method, but it's mine and I have to say that it helps me a lot in times where I feel the stress of life is overwhelming.

I hope you all have enjoyed the MindFULL series and were able to learn more about what we can do about our mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. I hope you can enter the month of June (as well as the last half of the year) with a mind that is positive and at peace.

Thanks for reading!



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