One of the most common mental health issues in America today is stress. We all feel it from time to time. Whether it’s caused by deadlines and demands at work or a busy home life, stress can have profound effects on how we interact with our colleagues, co-workers and loved ones. It can even impact how we think about ourselves.
As bad a rap as stress has gotten, it’s important to realize that not all stress is bad. In fact, back when humans were running and hiding from predators, stress caused us to run faster, focus more intently and think more creatively. It was a huge factor in the survival of our ancestors.
But a looming deadline at work isn’t the same as running from a hungry saber-tooth tiger. Once our ancestors escaped the tigers, their stress levels returned to normal. Today, stress helps us meet deadlines, achieve goals, get things done, and work creatively. But high stress levels day after day can make us sick, both mentally and physically. The key balancing and managing stress.
Symptoms of stress
Everyone reacts to stress differently. A major life event in one woman’s life may be nothing more than a bump in the road in another’s. Situations some find invigorating can reduce others to a puddle of goo. For this reason, people need to pay attention to their own bodies, to recognize the symptoms of stress:
• Chest pain, rapid heart rate
• Digestive upset, including diarrhea, constipation and nausea
• Changes in appetite – eating too much, eating too
little, lack of interest in food
• Trouble sleeping
• Frequent colds and infections
• Mood swings
• Depression and/or loss of interest in things you once enjoyed
Poor sleep habits, poor diet, and life changes – either good or bad – not only makes us more vulnerable to stress, they magnify its effects. Chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and respiratory ailments, often worsen when someone is under stress. And although the evidence isn’t clear, many suspect stress plays a role in the development and spread of cancer.
Stress can worsen preexisting mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia and biopolar disorder.
Many articles and books have been written on how to best manage stress. Many people employ a variety of strategies, small and large, to help them cope. These may include:
• Getting eight to nine hours of sleep every night.
• Eating a well-balanced diet
• Exercising at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week.
• Spending time outdoors – hiking, walking, gardening …
• Focusing on spiritual issues, whether it’s prayer, meditation or other forms of spirituality
• Hobbies, like woodworking, sewing, coloring and so on
• Organizing to eliminate last-minute chaos.
• Learning to say “no” to things.
• Deep breathing. There are many smart phone apps that can help you develop the habit and technique of deep breathing, which has been shown to reduce stress and promote relaxation. Try one!
• Developing and maintaining a strong network of friends and family
• Listening to music.
• Artistic pursuits, such as painting, photography, drawing, etc.
• Purposeful daydreaming.
Stress in kids
As adults, we often think kids have it made: They don’t have to pay bills, go to work or even do more than one or two household chores. But kids can experience – and struggle with – stress too.
Just like adults, kids need unstructured time to relax, unwind, and play. Even things kids enjoy – batting practice, baseball games, birthday parties, music lessons – can contribute to their stress.
Family situations can also cause stress. When talking about finances, illness or other subjects that might be upsetting to your children, be sure to choose your words carefully. Remind kids that you are here for them and that your family has successfully navigated similar situations in the past.
It’s not always easy to recognize stress in children. Look for behavioral changes, such as acting out, mood swings, and sleeping more (or less) than usual. Kids may regress to a prior level of development, wetting the bed, sucking their thumbs, or being clingy. Nightmares, bullying, withdrawal may also signal stress. Some kids show their stress physically, with stomach aches, headaches, and other illnesses. Academic performance may also decline.
You can help children reduce stress in several ways:
• Make sure they get enough rest.
• Include free/play time in their schedules.
• Make sure your expectations for academic/athletic performance are reasonable and achievable.
• Be available to talk.
• Enjoy nutritious family meals at home.
• Let kids know it’s OK to feel anger, frustration, loneliness or anxiety.
• Reassure them and make sure they know you are there for them.
Most of the time, children come through stress quite well with the support of their parents, relatives and friends. While it can be hard to see a child going through it, stress is an opportunity to develop coping skills they will need later in life.
As parents, it’s usually sufficient to observe, be supportive, offer stories about our own experiences, and provide advice. If symptoms or behavioral issues persist or worsen; if the issue is causing significant issues at home or school; if academic performance is affected; or if the child begins expressing troubling thoughts or ideas, it’s time to seek the help of a mental health professional.
Formed in 1965, Bluegrass was the first community mental health center in Kentucky. For more than 50 years, Bluegrass has been helping children, adults and families live their best life. Bluegrass is here to help you, and those you love, through the challenges of life. Reach out to Bluegrass anytime, day or night, at 1-800-928-8000. We can help.