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The Connect Between Stress and Mental Health

Stress can be overwhelming. The impact of stress can be felt throughout the body and can lead to life-changing and debilitating illnesses if left unmanaged. This guide will address how stress affects the body and mind, discuss how to identify stress, and provide steps to take when confronted with acute and long-term stress.

The Impact of Stress

Most people know that stress isn't good for the body and mind, but the actual impact of stress may surprise you. One study reported in the EXCLI Journal found that stress

  • Can cause structural changes in the brain
  • Can change the weight of the brain, impacting mental functioning and memory
  • Causes impaired immune system functioning, increasing illness
  • Damages the cardiovascular system
  • Causes stomach and gastrointestinal issues

Keep in mind that these are just some of the long-term effects of stress on the body. Stress has a remarkably insidious ability to break down the body, open the pathway for disease, and prevent healing and recovery.

The Mind-Body Connection: Stress and Mental Health

But what about mental health? How does chronic stress impact mental health and well-being? According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the level of stress in the United States is a national mental health crisis. Chronic stress can lead to "burnout," or a debilitating, seemingly unending state of distress.

Stress can impact mental health factors such as mood, attention, and energy level. It can exacerbate preexisting mental health issues and lead to increased substance use as a coping mechanism.

How to Identify Stressors

Now that we know how devastating stress can be on the body and mind, how do you know what is stressing you out, and how it is impacting you?

Some effects of stress are physiological. These include

  • Clenched jaw
  • Tense muscles
  • Agitation
  • Rapid pulse
  • Pain
  • Headaches

And some effects of stress are psychological, such as

  • Mood swings
  • Agitation
  • Lack of sleep
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Compulsive behaviors, like alcohol abuse and overeating

While there are numerous signs of stress, feeling stressed looks different for everybody. The circumstances and events that cause stress are different, too. For some people, major stressors can come from work, relationships, parenting, and friendships. For others, the stressors may be particular incidents such as an interpersonal conflict, car trouble, bills piling up, and so forth. Sometimes stress results from events entirely out of one's control such as global pandemics, economic instability, or war.

The reality is that only you can tell what is stressing you out. Stress is highly individualized. Some people thrive in a fast-paced, chaotic work environment, whereas others flounder. Some people can handle interpersonal conflict without issues, whereas others are entirely overwhelmed. Knowing your stressors is essential to addressing and managing them on your recovery journey.

What to Do About Stress

Stress management is an active process. It isn't realistic to hope the stress will go away on its own. Managing stress requires effort, intentionality, and mindfulness.

Build Connections

A source of stress for many people nowadays is that we are heavily exposed to social media but lack a real connection to other people. This often means that we have all the negative aspects of social interactions, such as comparing ourselves to others, or feeling inadequate or jealous, but without the benefits of interconnectedness. Such benefits include giving and receiving genuine support, having an opportunity to be open with another person, feeling heard and understood, and building trusting relationships with others.

A great way to combat this is to take your relationships offline. Spend time with friends and family in person. Pick up the phone and call instead of just “liking” pictures of each other on Facebook.

Sometimes, however, we need more help than a friend or family member can provide. Finding a support group, a therapist, and other mental health resources may be the step you need in your recovery journey. Particularly for chronic or ongoing stress, find somebody trained and experienced in stress management.

Keep a Journal

Studies have shown the positive mental health benefits of journaling. Those who journaled were shown to exhibit better mental and emotional health, improved self-care, decreased blood pressure, and enhanced quality of life.

Here are some prompts to get you started on journaling for stress management.

  • What was my biggest stressor today? How do I know that it caused me stress?
  • How did I manage the feelings of stress and anxiety when they arose? Did it work?
  • What advice would I give to somebody experiencing this stress? And in what ways do I feel like the advice I would provide could apply to me?
  • Whom have I leaned on for support during this stressful experience? Do I feel like I'm receiving adequate support? If not, what do I need to do to make those connections?
  • Are the sources of my stress within my control? If not, why am I holding onto them? If they are within my control, what am I doing to work through them?
  • What activities did I do today to promote my mental health and well-being?

If you'd like more support as you start journaling but don't know where to begin, take a look at this free downloadable activity journal.

Practice Self-Soothing Activities

While it would be nice to effortlessly eliminate the stress in our lives, this is not realistic for most stressors. If it were as simple as walking away from things that cause stress, chronic stress wouldn't be such a widespread problem.

Often we must embrace the responsibility of learning how to cope with stress rather than simply running from it. We can do self-soothing activities to actively decrease the effects of stress on our bodies and minds.

Here are some examples of self-soothing activities.

  • Ask yourself, "Is this situation within my control?" Often anxiety stems from feeling like we should do something when in fact there's nothing we can do. If you cannot actively fix the situation, work on mindfully detaching yourself from the responsibility of experiencing stress over it.
  • Deep breathing has been shown to decrease stress. Practice some deep breathing exercises.
  • Physical activity is a great way to destress.
  • Put the phone away. If you find yourself "doom scrolling" and getting worked up over irrelevant drama or bad news, log off for a while and focus on life in the here and now.
  • Give to others. Sometimes the key to destressing is to gain perspective through helping others. Finding an animal shelter or soup kitchen to volunteer your time can do wonders for your mental health.

See this article for more self-care activities you can do to decrease stress.

Conclusion

As previously mentioned, mental health and emotional wellness are not passive processes. They often require support and intentionality to be successful. Finding others on the same recovery path, journaling your journey, and practicing the skills to deescalate and decrease stress are great steps to begin healing from chronic stress.

For stories about other people on their journey and to access resources on mental health and wellness, read more about Recovery Day.

Sources:

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