Everyone has experienced stress at some point in their lives, and many of us have experienced long stretches of stress that seemed endless and left us increasingly drained and worn out. While stressful situations are often impossible to avoid completely, there are steps you can take to help manage long-term stress in meaningful, effective ways.
April is National Stress Awareness Month, and it’s important to know the negative effects of stress and what you can practically do during times of long-term stress.
What is stress?
“Stress is a normal human response that occurs during changes or challenges,” said Shelby Wiersema, occupational therapist (OTRL) at Holland Hospital.
During stress, our body releases hormones that help us react quickly, often referred to as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This is characterized by rapid heart rate, increased muscle tension and quick, shallow breathing. Stomach digestion also slows down, while vision and hearing get sharper.
“Stress can be really helpful at times, but many of us are experiencing long-term stress without the breaks we need,” says Wiersema.
Situations like financial problems or workplace stress can raise our body’s cortisol levels over a long period of time, leading to inflammation and high blood pressure, which keeps cortisol levels elevated in a vicious cycle. This can lead to long-term health issues, including:
- Sleep disturbances
- Cardiac issues
- Digestive disorders
- Back and neck pain
- Chronic fatigue
- Increase in substance use
- Lower immune function
- Social isolation
- Headaches or migraines
Managing long-term stress.
- Sleep. Get seven to nine hours of sleep and avoid substances that disrupt the quality of sleep like alcohol, nicotine or caffeine six hours before bed. Develop a healthy, relaxing routine before bed that might include taking a shower or reading a book to cue your body that it's time for sleep.
- Movement. Wiersema recommends moderately intense activity for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. “Activity can be going for a fast walk, pushing a lawnmower, gardening or swimming,” she says. Weirsema also recommends stretching and yoga, which are shown to help release tension.
- Nutrition. Minimize highly processed foods and incorporate more whole, plant-based foods like leafy green vegetables and colorful fruits.
- Healthy leisure. “Find things that boost your mood,” says Wiersema. Think about what gets you in a flow state and participate in hobbies that bring joy.
- Mindfulness. “Mindfulness is focusing on the present moment in an intentional and nonjudgmental way,” says Wiersema. Breathe in for five counts and out for seven to start stimulating the relaxation response in your body.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. Start with your toes and work up through each muscle of the body, tensing as you inhale and releasing the tension as you exhale. This trains your body to pay attention to how tension and relaxation feel in your body.
- Guided imagery. Practice imagining that you are someplace peaceful and safe and calming, like by the beach or in the mountains, “Picture what you would see, smell or touch,” says Wiersema. “Try to totally bring yourself there.”
Where can I learn more?
Holland Hospital Behavioral Health Services offers a broad range of inpatient and outpatient mental health services that treat the whole person—mind, body and spirit. If you feel that you may need formal treatment for long-term stress, contact your primary care provider. They can help come up with an individualized plan for you that may include a referral for the services provided at Holland Hospital.