Stress is your heart pounding and hands sweating right before a presentation at school or work. Stress is the emotional exhaustion you feel after prolonged overworking and sleep deprivation. Everyone has felt stressed at some point in his or her life. Stress can be beneficial. It can motivate us to set goals and accomplish them, and it can boost our productivity. However, the positive effects of stress stop after a certain point. The relationship between stress and performance is an inverted U-shaped curve, which is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. The law suggests that performance improves as the level of stress increases until reaching a point (the top of the curve) when performance starts to deteriorate as stress continues to grow. Excessive amount of stress disrupts attention and memory, therefore making you less productive.
Stress is comprised of a constellation of physiological responses. When faced with a stressful situation, your muscles tense up, breathing becomes heavier, heart pounds faster, blood vessels dilate, and hormones such as adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol are released. Your body goes into fight or flight mode. Chronic stress causes your body to be in that state constantly, which can predict negative health outcomes.
There are many ways chronic stress negatively impacts your health. It is associated with physical conditions, such as headache, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and stroke. It is related to mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It can also promote unhealthy behaviors, such as under- or overeating, substance use, and social withdrawal. Furthermore, studies have shown that chronic stress can cause long-term damage to your brain structure and function.
Reducing stress is therefore important in improving your long-term health. Here are some ways you can alleviate stress.
- Identify stressful triggers. Find out what situations cause you to become stressed by recording your stress levels and activities throughout the day. Write down all of your commitments and responsibilities. You may need to reprioritize or eliminate certain tasks that are not essential.
- Change the way you think about stressful situations. There are some common events that cause most people to feel stressed, such as death, divorce, getting married, loss of a job, starting a new job, moving, chronic disease or injury, and interpersonal conflicts. But given the same stressor, different people react differently. That difference is due to one’s appraisal of the stressor. Personalities can contribute to appraisal, but one can choose to think about a stressor as a challenge instead of a problem. Of course, this is easier said than done. It may require continuous practice to learn to evaluate situations more constructively. It is not just thinking positively; it is thinking in the most helpful way.
- Build strong relationships. Strong social support can provide you with a buffer for stress. Families and friends can listen to your problems and provide you with support and advice, thus alleviating some of the frustration you are feeling. Social support can slow down the brain circuitry that fires up during emotional pain (same as in physical pain).
- Get more sleep. The relationship between stress and sleep deprivation is bidirectional. Stress can keep you up at night, and sleep deprivation can contribute to your overall level of stress. To break the cycle, practice good sleep hygiene, such as reducing caffeine intake, developing a regular sleep schedule, eliminating screens that can trick your brain into thinking it is daytime (like TV, phone, and computer), and avoiding naps during the day.
- Exercise regularly. Regular moderate exercise can help reduce stress levels. It is beneficial for your overall physical and mental health.
- Relax your body and mind. There are many relaxation techniques you can do for yourself. They include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, and imagery. These exercises help to clear your mind, slow down heart rate, and reduce muscle tension. Below are some free online resources to help you practice these relaxation techniques.
- Get help. When you still feel overwhelmed, consult a psychologist or other mental health providers. You don’t need a serious mental health condition to seek professional help. They can help you with developing effective coping strategies.