Let's talk about stress, baby
Updated: Mar 25
Let's talk about you and me
Let's talk about all the good things
And the bad things that may be...
Associated with stress.
Sorry, I couldn't help the trip back to 1991. But let's get serious now.
Stress. With the (sad) anniversary of March 13, and the United States officially being under a state of emergency for one year, it remains vital to discuss the fact that the entire country and world are dealing with a level of stress not seen, probably not even since the 1918 flu.
With the constant worry about "Am I going to catch COVID?" or "What will I do if do contract it?", "Do masks really help?" (they do), even down to the deep seated desire to be among friends and family and not being able to. The amount of stress we're under is taking its toll on our collective mental health. But I want to talk to you about stress, what it is and how we might go about coping with it.
So what is stress? According to the The National Institute of Mental Health, "Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Any type of challenge—such as performance at work or school, a significant life change, or a traumatic event—can be stressful. Stress can affect your health. It is important to pay attention to how you deal with minor and major stressors, so you know when to seek help."
Now I know I won't be able to see this, but a quick "show of hands". Raise your hand if, over the last year (March 2020 through March 2021), you've felt an increase in any of the following:
Now, raise your hand if you think you're the only one...You're not alone. Heck, I've dealt with at least three of these!! Because of these incredible times we're living it, it's vital to "know thy enemy" and "thy enemy" is stress. But to know the stress, you have to understand where those feelings come from and you need look only as far as your brain. Specifically, the literally pea-sized gland called the hypothalamus. Accounting for less than 1% of your brain's total weight, this little gland has a massive impact on how you're feeling, specifically the hormone Cortisol.
Cortisol is one of a few hormones your hypothalamus releases in response to your body's environment. It helps with body-temperature regulation, telling you you're full after eating and telling your pineal gland (also in your brain) to release melatonin to help you sleep. However, cortisol is the stress hormone and it has a variety of effects on your body when released. Almost every one of the 30 to 40 trillion cells in your body have receptors to cortisol, and as such the hormone can have a wide variety of effects on your body. From the website of the Society for Endocrinology, "These effects include controlling the body’s blood sugar levels and thus regulating metabolism, acting as an anti-inflammatory, influencing memory formation, controlling salt and water balance, influencing blood pressure and helping development of the fetus." Too much cortisol over a long period of time can even lead to a condition called Cushing's syndrome! But other symptoms could include high blood pressure, flushed face and mood swings, which show as anxiety, depression or irritability.
Despite all of these negative impacts on your body the stress you feel can come from negative AND positive factors in your life. Consider first-time parents' excitement about bringing home that new baby or how you feel about starting a new job. These aren't negative events, yet the cortisol coursing through your body is the same that comes from that cracked windshield you must replace or argument you got in with your significant other.
Regardless of what type of event triggers the cortisol production, it is what we do with that stress that is the most important. First and foremost thing to remember is that you must listen to your body. While this might be easier said than done, all too often we ignore what our bodies are trying to tell us until it's too late. After a little research and speaking with a professional LCSW-R-certified therapist, here are some things you can do to help manage your stress, in or out of a pandemic.
Pay attention to yourself. Are you sleeping less or less soundly? Has your alcohol consumption increased? Feeling more irritable or dealing with less energy? These are signs your body's trying to tell you something.
Exercise. I'm not suggesting a gym membership, a treadmill or stationary bike. Go for a walk around your neighborhood. But going a different way each time you go will help decrease the possibility of monotony. Get out in nature and don't let a little cold or hot weather stop you either. Prepare for the weather and get out there!
Relax. This could be yoga, meditation, reading, or something that relaxes you. For me, going and sitting by the water, specifically either the Great South Bay, Atlantic Ocean or Long Island Sound all leave me much more relaxed then when I arrived. Do something you like and you'll find yourself relaxing.
Stay connected. This might be difficult to do in-person during COVID but that's only a speedbump. Your smartphone has video chat ability and can actually make phone calls (did you know that? haha). Text messages, emails, heck even a handwritten letter are all ways you can keep in contact, and who doesn't love getting an "actual" letter?! But staying in contact helps tremendously!
Talk to a healthcare professional. Not sure how to? The National Institute for Mental Health has 5 tips for you. Don't let them be the one to start the conversation. Start the conversation yourself and get proper care for existing or new health problems. But if you're feeling truly overwhelmed...
Seek help. This one can be difficult for us to admit we need to do. We might not like to admit that we aren't strong enough to "go it alone" or just "get through it" but sometimes we aren't. I confess, I had to seek help myself. I was at a point where doing these things weren't enough and I am thankful I sought help. With the assistance of a variety of professionals, I found my way back from the stress and depression that was controlling me.
Please, anyone... ANYONE can become overwhelmed to the point they consider hurting themselves. If you or a loved one is having thoughts of suicide, call the confidential toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Lifeline chat is a service available to everyone.
We are all in this pandemic together, all coping with the stress in our own ways but we must do what we can to help ourselves deal with everyday stress and COVID's extraordinary stress. We'll get through this stress and learn how to deal with it so we're more prepared to tackle the next stressor(s) in our life.