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Stress Awareness: Understanding Its Impact and Adopting Coping Strategies

Every April, during Stress Awareness Month, the healthcare community raises public awareness about stress, its causes, and effective treatments. This initiative aims to reduce the stigma surrounding stress, anxiety, and mental health, empowering individuals to enhance their stress management and overall well-being.

Stress is a universal experience, affecting most people at some point. When left unaddressed, it can significantly impact mental health, potentially leading to conditions such as anxiety and depression. Moreover, unmanaged stress can exacerbate existing mental health issues like Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), Bipolar Disorder (BD), and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It has also been linked to a host of chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Stress Awareness

Stress awareness plays a vital role in maintaining mental well-being. It helps individuals identify when they’re stressed and grasp its impact on their mental and physical health. Recognizing these signs empowers people to take action to manage stress and avoid it worsening into more serious mental health problems. Furthermore, understanding where stress comes from, whether it’s from work or personal pressures, helps individuals make informed choices on how to cope effectively. This awareness fosters resilience and empowers individuals to prioritize their mental health [11].

Types of Stress

Understanding the different types of stress is essential for managing its impact on our overall well-being. By recognizing acute, episodic, and chronic stress, individuals can better understand their unique challenges and employ appropriate coping strategies. Let’s explore each type to grasp its effects on our lives.

Stress comes in three primary forms, each affecting the body differently.

Acute Stress

Acute stress occurs in response to immediate pressures or threats, like tight deadlines or narrowly avoiding accidents. It triggers physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, high blood pressure, headaches, and digestive issues. Acute stress is temporary but may linger in the mind for extended periods, causing worry or anxiety about past events or future deadlines [4].

Episodic Acute Stress

Some individuals experience frequent bouts of acute stress due to ongoing crises or overwhelming responsibilities. This stress pattern can lead to tension, irritability, and a constant sense of being on edge. People in this state may resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms and neglect self-care, risking long-term health problems like heart disease or depression. Managing episodic acute stress often requires lifestyle changes and seeking professional help [4].

Chronic Stress

This results from persistent, uncontrollable life challenges such as poverty or discrimination. It wears individuals down over time, creating a sense of hopelessness and resignation. Even when external circumstances seem stable, those with chronic stress may perceive ongoing threats due to past traumas or deep-seated anxieties. Chronic stress significantly impacts physical and mental health, increasing the risk of serious illnesses. Seeking support and reframing one’s mindset are crucial for managing chronic stress effectively [4].

Understanding these distinctions can help individuals recognize their stress patterns and seek appropriate help or coping strategies. It also fosters empathy and understanding towards others experiencing stress  [4].

Effects on the Brain

Chronic stress can harm the brain, particularly areas crucial for memory, learning, and emotional control, such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex [7].

Chronic stress can lead to the following effects on the brain [7]:

  • Change in brain size: Chronic stress can cause changes in the structure of nerve cells, particularly in key brain regions responsible for memory and emotions. For example, the branches of nerve cells (dendrites) may shrink, affecting how we remember things and how we react emotionally.
  • Unbalanced glutamate levels: Glutamate, a chemical messenger in the brain, helps handle stress. When stress disrupts glutamate levels, it can lead to depression and make it harder for the brain to create new cells. Too much glutamate has also been linked to aging-related conditions like dementia.
  • Insulin Resistance and Stress: Stress affects both the body and the brain. Chronic stress can make the body less sensitive to insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar. This can impair thinking abilities and speed up the process of brain aging, potentially contributing to conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Epigenetic Influences: Chronic stress can change how our genes behave, affecting how the brain responds to stress in the future and making us more prone to mental health problems. This means that stress doesn’t just affect us at the moment; it can have long-lasting effects on our brain’s ability to handle stress [7].

Short-term effects

Stress can significantly affect the body, impacting various physiological systems and contributing to health issues. Here’s how stress affects the body [11]:

Immune System: Long-term stress weakens the immune system, increasing the risk of illness or infections due to the release of cortisol, suppressing immune function.

Cardiovascular System: Stress raises blood pressure and heart rate, increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases like hypertension and heart disease. Prolonged stress can also contribute to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

Digestive System: Stress disrupts digestion, causing stomachaches, diarrhea, constipation, and worsening conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Respiratory System: Stress can lead to respiratory issues like shortness of breath and worsen conditions such as asthma, making individuals more susceptible to respiratory infections.

Musculoskeletal System: Stress causes muscle tension and pain, resulting in tension headaches, migraines, and disorders like fibromyalgia while also worsening existing conditions like arthritis.

Endocrine System: Stress disrupts hormone regulation, affecting metabolism, reproductive function, and mood, contributing to obesity, diabetes, and hormonal disorders.

Skin: Stress exacerbates skin conditions like acne, eczema, and psoriasis, delays wound healing, and accelerates skin aging [11].

These short-term effects of stress can have significant implications for long-term health.

Long-Term Health Implications

Stress is not just a mental issue, it presents significant risks to our physical health, potentially leading to various serious conditions. Left unaddressed, it may contribute to:

  • Heart Disease: Prolonged stress increases blood pressure and heart rate, heightening the risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as hypertension and heart disease [12].
  • Weakened Immune Function: Chronic stress suppresses immune activity, making individuals more prone to infections [12].
  • Digestive Issues: Stress disrupts digestion, causing problems like ulcers, digestive disorders, and stomach disorders [12].
  • Diabetes: Chronic stress affects hormone regulation and insulin sensitivity, contributing to type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome [12].
  • Exacerbation of Existing Conditions: Chronic stress can worsen existing conditions by disrupting hormone levels and exacerbating conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome [6].

Chronic stress also triggers inflammation, hindering tissue healing and increasing pain sensitivity [6]. This chronic inflammation can lead to physical health problems such as osteoporosis, muscle ailments, and nerve damage [6].

Recognizing Stress: Signs and Symptoms

Determining whether someone is experiencing stress involves paying attention to subtle cues such as changes in behavior or physical symptoms. These may include irritability, difficulty sleeping, or social withdrawal, all of which can indicate heightened stress levels.

Here are some common signs to watch out for [5]:

Body

  • Muscle Tension: Stress can cause muscles to remain tense over time, contributing to feelings of unease and threat.
  • Poor Sleep: Elevated stress levels often disrupt sleep patterns, making it difficult to fall or stay asleep, further exacerbating stress.
  • Headaches: Stress can trigger tension headaches or migraines, compounding the discomfort caused by lack of sleep.
  • Digestive Problems: The body’s natural response to stress can disrupt the digestive system, leading to diarrhea or constipation.
  • Drug/Alcohol Use: Individuals may resort to substance use as a coping mechanism for stress, but this can lead to further complications.
  • Social Withdrawal: Feeling overwhelmed, people may withdraw from social interactions, missing out on crucial social support systems.

Mind

  • Cluttered Thoughts: High-stress levels can clutter the mind, making it difficult to think clearly and prioritize tasks.
  • Feeling Scattered: Stress can make individuals feel stretched thin as they struggle to manage multiple demands simultaneously.
  • Distractibility: Stress impairs concentration, making it challenging to focus attention on specific tasks or activities.
  • Poor Concentration: With an overloaded mind, focusing on tasks becomes arduous, leading to decreased productivity.
  • Memory Problems: Prolonged stress can impact memory function, making it harder to encode and recall information.
  • Overwhelm: A pervasive feeling of being overwhelmed can accompany stress, making it difficult to cope with daily challenges.

Emotions

  • Discouragement: Constant stress can lead to feelings of discouragement and inadequacy as individuals struggle to keep up with demands.
  • Low Enthusiasm: Even activities once enjoyed may feel burdensome, signaling potential burnout.
  • Hopelessness: Long-term stress can cultivate a sense of hopelessness, contributing to depression.
  • Agitation: A heightened state of arousal may lead to feelings of agitation and restlessness.
  • Disconnection: Stress overload can result in emotional disconnection from oneself and others, leading to feelings of isolation.
  • Irritability: Mental, physical, and emotional strain or exhaustion can manifest as irritability and impatience towards others.

Recognizing these signs early on empowers individuals to take proactive steps toward managing stress effectively and safeguarding their mental and physical well-being.

Why is stress so hard to deal with?

Stress poses a significant challenge due to its widespread impact on different aspects of our lives [13]. When we experience stress, it disrupts our ability to regulate emotions and cope with difficulties, making it harder to accomplish daily tasks efficiently. Moreover, stress often leads to sleep disturbances, further complicating our efforts to manage its effects [13].

This cycle of stress, impaired emotion regulation, and sleep problems creates a challenging environment where individuals may feel stressed and find it hard to cope effectively [13]. Moreover, stress can deplete our coping resources, leaving us feeling overwhelmed and unable to handle tasks effectively [12]. These factors contribute to the complexity of dealing with stress and highlight the importance of implementing effective coping strategies to mitigate its impact on our well-being [13].

Link Between Stress and Mental Health Disorders

Chronic stress is closely linked to various mental health disorders, such as major depressive disorder (MDD), bipolar disorder (BD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research suggests that stress significantly contributes to the development, exacerbation, and recurrence of these conditions.

  • Major Depressive Disorder (MDD): Stress increases the risk of MDD. Prolonged stress can alter brain function, affecting chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. These changes can lead to persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness [3].
  • Bipolar Disorder (BD): Stress can trigger mood swings in individuals with BD. It disrupts brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, causing fluctuations in mood. Understanding how stress impacts these brain chemicals is crucial for managing BD effectively [3].
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD arises from strong reactions to traumatic events. If stress remains high before or after the trauma, it raises the likelihood of developing PTSD. Changes in brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, along with how the brain handles stress, are key factors in PTSD [3].

Suggestions for Leading a Stress-Free, Healthy, and Positive Life

Leading a stress-free, healthy, and positive life requires adopting various strategies to manage stress effectively. Here are some healthy ways and suggestions:

  • Practice Relaxation Techniques: Incorporate relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, visualization, or yoga into your daily routine to help reduce stress levels and promote relaxation [2].
  • Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle: Focus on maintaining a balanced diet, eat healthy, exercise regularly, and getting adequate sleep. Physical activity releases endorphins, improving mood and reducing stress [11].
  • Set Boundaries: Learn to say no to additional responsibilities or commitments that may contribute to stress overload. Setting boundaries can prevent burnout and maintain a healthy work-life balance [11].
  • Seek Social Support: Build a strong network of friends, family, or peers who can offer encouragement, advice, and companionship during challenging times [9, 11].
  • Engage in Hobbies: Dedicate time to activities you enjoy, such as reading, gardening, painting, or playing a musical instrument. Hobbies provide fulfillment and relaxation [11].
  • Practice Mindfulness: Stay present in the moment through practices like guided mindfulness or yoga. Mindfulness reduces rumination and promotes emotional well-being [2, 11].
  • Manage Time Effectively: Prioritize tasks and use time management techniques to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Breaking tasks into smaller steps makes them more manageable [11].
  • Limit Exposure to Stressors: Identify sources of stress and minimize or avoid them when possible. This may involve setting boundaries with toxic relationships or reducing exposure to negative news or social media [11].
  • Seek Professional Help: If stress becomes overwhelming, consider seeking support from a mental health professional. Psychotherapy and medication are common treatments for anxiety disorders, offering practical ways to manage symptoms and improve overall well-being [9].
  • Practice Self-Compassion: During stressful times, treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Offer yourself the same support you would to a friend facing similar challenges [9,11].

Mental Health Treatments

Medications

Medications are essential in the treatment of various mental disorders, often complementing other therapies like psychotherapy. Let’s explore the types of medications commonly used and the disorders they address:

Antidepressants [10]:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): SSRIs include medications such as citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac), fluvoxamine (Luvox), paroxetine (Paxil), and sertraline (Zoloft).
  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): Examples of SNRIs include desvenlafaxine (Khedezla), duloxetine (Cymbalta), levomilnacipran (Fetzima), and venlafaxine (Effexor).
  • Tricyclic antidepressants: Tricyclic antidepressants include medications such as amitriptyline (Elavil), imipramine (Tofranil), nortriptyline (Pamelor), and doxepin (Sinequan).
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs): MAOIs include medications such as isocarboxazid (Marplan), phenelzine (Nardil), selegiline (EMSAM), and tranylcypromine (Parnate).

SSRIs and SNRIs are commonly prescribed for depression, anxiety, pain, and insomnia. Older options like tricyclics and MAOIs may have more side effects but may be used for some people who don’t experience improvement with SSRIs or SNRIs.

Anti-anxiety medications [10]:

Anxiolytic medications like benzodiazepines and beta-blockers are commonly prescribed to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, and extreme fear. Additionally, buspirone is another medication used for longer-term anxiety treatment.

Stimulants [10]:

Stimulants such as methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta), dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse), and mixed amphetamine salts (Adderall) are primarily prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. They work to enhance alertness, attention, and energy levels.

Antipsychotics [10]:

Antipsychotics, particularly atypical ones like risperidone (Risperdal), olanzapine (Zyprexa), quetiapine (Seroquel), ziprasidone (Geodon), and aripiprazole (Abilify), are used to treat psychosis characterized by delusions or hallucinations. Both typical and atypical antipsychotics are available, with newer options offering a broader spectrum of symptom management.

Mood stabilizers [10]:

Mood stabilizers play a crucial role in managing conditions like bipolar disorder. Anticonvulsants such as lamotrigine (Lamictal), valproic acid (Depakene, Depakote), and gabapentin (Neurontin) are commonly used for mood stabilization. Additionally, lithium is an effective option specifically for bipolar disorder, and some anticonvulsants are also used in its management.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is a diverse range of treatments aimed at helping individuals identify and modify troubling emotions, thoughts, and behaviors [1]. Talk therapy is typically conducted one-on-one with a licensed mental health professional or in group settings.

The goals of psychotherapy include alleviating symptoms, enhancing daily functioning, and improving overall quality of life.

Psychotherapy may be used alone or combined with other treatments and may be used to treat several different mental health conditions such as [8]:

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

TMS therapy is a non-invasive treatment that uses magnetic pulses to stimulate specific brain areas. It is often used as an alternative or adjunctive treatment for depression, anxiety, and ADHD, particularly in cases where traditional medications have been ineffective or poorly tolerated.

TMS can be used to treat several different mental health disorders and conditions, such as:

Help and Support for Stress and Mental Health

Recognizing and addressing stress is essential for maintaining mental and physical well-being. By understanding its impact and implementing practical coping strategies, individuals can better navigate life’s challenges. Prioritizing self-care, seeking support, and knowing when to seek professional help are key steps towards leading healthier lives.

Ready to take control of your mental health and conquer stress? Contact Neuro Wellness Spa today to schedule an assessment with one of our in-person or online psychiatrists and start your journey towards wellness. Stress is a part of life, however, chronic stress can lead to the development of mental health conditions or exacerbate pre-existing conditions such as anxiety and depression. Our comprehensive treatment options and experienced professionals are here to support you every step of the way. Don’t let stress get in the way of your health and happiness – reach out now and prioritize your mental well-being.

References

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (n.d.). Psychotherapies. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/psychotherapy
  2. Can, Y. S., Iles-Smith, H., Chalabianloo, N., Ekiz, D., Fernández-Álvarez, J., Repetto, C., Riva, G., & Ersoy, C. (2020). How to Relax in Stressful Situations: A Smart Stress Reduction System. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland), 8(2), 100. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare8020100
  3. Davis, M. T., Holmes, S. E., Pietrzak, R. H., & Esterlis, I. (2017). Neurobiology of Chronic Stress-Related Psychiatric Disorders: Evidence from Molecular Imaging Studies. Chronic Stress, 1, 2470547017710916. https://doi.org/10.1177/2470547017710916
  4. Ehrenfeld, T. (2018, December 7). The Three Types of Stress. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/open-gently/201812/the-three-types-stress
  5. Gillihan, S. J. (2022, June 7). 18 Signs That Stress May Be Getting to You. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/think-act-be/202206/18-signs-stress-may-be-getting-you
  6. Hannibal, K. E., & Bishop, M. D. (2014). Chronic stress, cortisol dysfunction, and pain: A psychoneuroendocrine rationale for stress management in pain rehabilitation. Physical Therapy, 94(12), 1816–1825. https://doi.org/10.2522/ptj.20130597
  7. McEwen, B. S. (2017). Neurobiological and systemic effects of chronic stress. Chronic Stress, 1, 2470547017692328. https://doi.org/10.1177/2470547017692328
  8. National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). Psychotherapy. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Treatments/Psychotherapy
  9. National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). I’m So Stressed Out! Fact Sheet. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/so-stressed-out-fact-sheet
  10. National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Mental Health Medications. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/mental-health-medications
  11. O’Connor, D. B., Thayer, J. F., & Vedhara, K. (2021). Stress and health: A review of psychobiological processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 72, 663–688. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-062520-122331 
  12. Salleh, M. R. (2008). Life event, stress and illness. The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, 15(4), 9–18.
  13. Sirois, F. M. (2023). Procrastination and stress: A conceptual review of why context matters. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20(6), 5031. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20065031
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