Stress Awareness

Since 1992, April has been designated Stress Awareness Month. This year, Americans are more stressed than ever. But do we need stress awareness? Maybe we should just put on a happy face and move on.

What is stress awareness?

Stress awareness doesn’t mean that we should wallow in stress and feel bad. It means we should be aware of the health consequences of stress so we can make good choices for ourselves and our families. 

We might even choose to work with others to change the circumstances that lead to excess stress, or to help others in our community to build their own awareness. 

Many people don’t know that stress has serious health consequences. Here are just some of the potential long-term consequences of stress:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • memory problems
  • poor judgement
  • insomnia
  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • abnormal heart rhythms
  • heart attacks
  • stroke
  • obesity
  • aches and pains
  • problems with the reproductive system
  • acne
  • psoriasis
  • eczema
  • hair loss
  • GERD
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • irritable colon

In addition to these problems, stress can lead to poor choices in response to the stressors, such as excessive use of alcohol and drugs, or unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Clearly, stress is not, as many of us think, a little thing we can fix with a positive attitude.

Why is stress bad for us?

You probably learned about the fight or flight response in school. If a saber-toothed tiger suddenly appeared to our early ancestors, it was helpful for them to get a jolt of hormones like adrenalin and cortisol. This potent cocktail of hormones let those ancestors use more glucose in their brains, call on more energy in their muscles, and generally have a better chance of running away or fighting back successfully.

We still find this useful if we need to respond quickly to a surprise action from another driver on the road, or maybe to move very quickly to catch a child who is heading into a dangerous situation.

That’s a useful response to a sudden source of stress requiring a quick physical action.

But it’s not a helpful response to long-term stress. A big jolt of adrenaline when you need to pay bills or help your child with distance learning isn’t useful. Increased cortisol has negative effects over time. Normal processes like digestion and growth can be affected when your body keeps shifting away from its regular duties to apparent emergency functions. 

Think of this as a group of firefighters who spend all their time fighting fires, with no time to eat, sleep, or fix their gear for the next fire. It won’t take very long for their fire-fighting skills to drop.

The pandemic

In the year of the pandemic, we’ve faced a lot of extra stress. Lost loved ones, changes in our jobs, financial stress, adjustments to family dynamics, and worry over the rising numbers of cases and deaths have naturally added to the stress we were already facing. 

The American Psychological Association’s latest poll has turned up a lot of evidence that this stress has not been good for us.

  • 61% have experienced unwanted weight changes, with the average weight gain coming to 29 pounds. 10% of those who gained weight have gained more than 50 lbs. Obesity makes people more vulnerable to COVID-19, so this can be particularly stressful.
  • 23% of respondents said they are drinking more to cope with the stress.
  • 67% are not sleeping well. They may be sleeping more or less than they want to.
  • 31% are worried about their mental health — and parents are more worried than those who don’t have children at home. 47% of moms with kids using distance learning reported a decline in their mental health.

Physical health has also suffered. Part of this may be the result of ongoing stress, but people have also been making choices that are bad for their physical health, including delaying health care and being less physically active. 

Now what?

Now that you’re aware of stress in your life, what can you do about it?

  • Be kind to yourself and others. You might not be able to be as productive and focused as usual, and others might be in the same position. Cut everyone some slack.
  • Create or maintain a routine that includes movement, healthy meals, regular sleep, keeping up with hygiene, and spending time with family and friends in your household or online.
  • Take breaks from the news and social media.
  • Pay attention to signs of stress. Notice when you need a break or some help. Don’t ignore early signs and wait till you feel serious anxiety.
  • Respond in healthy ways. Instead of grabbing a drink or a smoke, losing your temper, or eating something you’ll regret later, choose an activity that you find calming. Take a walk, call a friend, or meditate.

Do you know someone else who needs to hear this? Share this post with other people in your life who might need a little stress awareness.