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We all have stress in our lives. Stress is caused by physical, emotional, or mental demands. It can be triggered by any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. And let’s face it: most of us are under a lot of demand! 

Stress can stem from anywhere including work, school, family, friends, and activities. When the level of demand on us is consistently above our capacity to meet it and stays that way for a prolonged period, we experience negative consequences. This may manifest physically as aches and pains or mentally as feelings of sadness or anxiety. People often refer to this as “feeling stressed out.”

Summit Health cognitive behavioral therapist, Nicole Swain, MA, LPC, NCC, ACT, explains what happens to the brain when a person experiences ongoing stress. “There is a disruption in the regulation of synapses (connections) in the brain that regulate brain chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which over a prolonged period of time, can lead to a greater risk for the development of clinical depression and anxiety,” she says.

“At its worst,” she adds, “prolonged unmanaged stress can lead to people experiencing symptoms of hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness which is highly correlated with suicidal thoughts.”

The physical effects of stress

Prolonged stress can have a negative effect on our health. When we are under stress our bodies release a hormone known as cortisol. This hormone is produced by the adrenal gland and can be beneficial in helping us with acute demands such as meeting a deadline.

The problem, Ms. Swain explains, is when we are under high levels of stress and demand for an extended period of time. “The impact of the continuous release of cortisol can result in increased blood pressure, unregulated blood sugar, weakening of the immune system, sleep disturbance, and even dementia,” she says.

What is good stress?

Stress is not always harmful — it can be beneficial. Everyone who experiences demands in their lives has stress. Like an athlete playing a sport, stress at high levels for an acute period can be helpful in accomplishing our goals. In the short term, the same brain chemical that over time can have detrimental effects on a person can initially have a very positive impact by improving focus, concentration, energy, and endurance.

Tips for coping with stress

Ms. Swain says there are many tools that can help us deal with stress. Learn about some of the ways you can reduce stress in your life.

  • Stay hydrated. The importance of drinking water is often overlooked but it is important for brain function, digestion, blood pressure regulation, and to prevent headaches. 
  • Eat well. Proper nutrition is another way to manage stress. When the body has all the nutrients it needs from a variety of healthy foods it functions better.
  • Sleep soundly. Waking up at the same time every day, creating an inviting sleep environment, and getting enough sleep can help you to cope with stress. Research has found the two things most correlated with high-quality sleep are: stopping the use of devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers, at least 30 minutes before getting into bed and removing devices from the bedroom.
  • Get moving. Physical activity has many benefits for the body and mind and can make us resilient to stress. Just 11 minutes or more of physical activity a day releases endorphins in the brain that elevate our mood, improve focus, concentration, and the ability to process emotions, regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, and decrease the likelihood of insomnia.
  • Practice mindfulness. Meditating for five minutes every day helps regulate the mind and allows the body to respond to stress rather than react to it. Mindfulness activities like meditation or deep breathing have similar benefits to antidepressant medication.
  • Connect with others. People who have relationships with family, friends, colleagues, or community ties are more likely to get the support they need to cope with prolonged stress. Having meaningful connections with other people promotes feelings of self-worth, hope, and an overall sense of well-being.
  • Have fun. When we do things that give us a sense of pleasure, such as participating in a hobby or spending time with friends and family, our brain releases a feel-good chemical called dopamine. After a high-demand day or week, a little recreation can help reduce your level of stress.
  • Practice daily gratitude. Saying or writing down the things you are thankful for can help reduce anxiety and depression. When we consistently take inventory of what we are grateful for, it teaches our brain to feel more thankful throughout the day. In contrast, high and prolonged levels of demand or stress trigger the brain to seek out dangerous and risky behaviors.
  • Put away devices. Limiting time on devices and social media can reduce anxiety and increase your opportunity to spend time doing things that help reduce stress like mindfulness or recreational activities.
  • Reduce or eliminate alcohol. People who are under high levels of stress should refrain from using alcohol or legalized creational cannabis as it tends to worsen the impact of stress.

How Summit Health can help

If you find yourself having difficulty managing stress or notice it is having a negative impact on your health, it is important to reach out for help. Make an appointment with your primary care physician or schedule a visit with a behavioral health specialist at Summit Health.