Coping with Stress and High-Pressure Events

Prolonged stress can take a physical and mental toll.

Intensely stressful situations take a toll on the mind and body, particularly when difficult circumstances extend over a long period.

Whether stress is brought on by high-pressure events or everyday triggers such as relationship or job-related stress, it causes your body to instinctively protect itself. Your pituitary gland (located at the base of your brain) steps up its release of adrenocorticotropic hormone, which signals the adrenal glands (situated atop your kidneys) to flood the bloodstream with cortisol and adrenaline. These two hormones focus your concentration, speed your reaction time and increase your strength and agility.

For short durations, the stress response can help you deal with difficult events, and once they are over, your hormone levels return to normal. However, if stressful situations come one after the other, your body has no chance to recover, and the long-term activation of the stress response can disrupt your body's systems.

Dealing with stress during the holidays

Holidays can be a particularly stressful time of year. We get out of our routines, have more obligations, and often spend more money. Here are some additional tips for handling holiday stress:

  • Set aside differences. Accept friends and family as they are. Don’t discuss problems or "hot topics" during holiday events.
  • Stick to a budget. Decide how much you can afford to spend on gifts and food and don't deviate from it. Find creative, inexpensive alternatives for gifts if necessary.
  • Plan ahead. Set aside specific times for shopping, cooking and baking, and socializing. Decide on menus ahead of time and solicit help when you need it.
  • Learn to say no. Saying yes when you want or need to say no results in extra pressure and hard feelings. The holidays are a busy time and people will understand that you can’t do everything.
  • Don’t overindulge. Holidays are a time to indulge a little. But if you overdo it, you’ll feel guilty and have to deal with consequences (i.e. weight gain, a headache). Get enough sleep, exercise, and eat healthy.
  • Take time for yourself. You need to recharge your batteries to handle the extra demands during the holidays.

Symptoms of Stress

Symptoms of stress often include:

  • Anxiety
  • Back pain
  • Stiff neck
  • Digestive problems — constipation, diarrhea or upset stomach
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Palpitations (the feeling that your heart is racing)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Insomnia (trouble sleeping)
  • Weight gain or loss

Managing Stress

The first step in coping with stress is recognizing when you're experiencing it. Next, you need to choose healthy ways to deal with your stress. You may want to try several techniques to find the ones that work best for you. If you can’t avoid the event or thing causing your stress, change how you react to it.

  • Don't worry about things you can't control.
  • Take decisive action. Address the underlying causes of situations that you can control.
  • Look at change as a positive challenge, not a threat.
  • Work to resolve conflicts with others.
  • Ask for help from family, friends or professionals. People who care about you are usually willing to lend a hand when you need it. They may also give you a different perspective on your troubles.
  • Set realistic goals. Take small concrete steps to deal with tasks instead of overwhelming yourself with goals that are too far-reaching for busy times. Don't expect perfection.
  • Find reasons to laugh. Laughter has great short-term and long-term effects including increasing feel-good endorphins, stimulating circulation and muscle relaxation, and relieving pain.

Taking Care of Your Body

Stress often suppresses your immune system, so make sure to give your body every chance to stay healthy. Take care of your body and mind to alleviate some of the negative effects of stress.

  • Make time for things you enjoy. Get away from your daily stresses with social events, hobbies or other activities that make you happy.
  • Exercise and eat a balanced diet. Exercise releases your nervous energy, helps boost the immune system and improves sleep. It also distracts you from the stressful situation and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A balanced diet ensures that your body gets the nutrients it needs to fight off disease.
  • Learn to relax. Practice deep breathing to put you in a relaxed state. Other relaxation strategies include yoga, tai chi, meditation and therapeutic massage. Journaling and listening to or creating music can also help you relax.

Reaching Out for Help

As you go through life, there will be times when stress surges, and using your stress management techniques can help you cope with unexpected situations before they become overwhelming. However, if stress is getting the better of you or you fear its long-term effects, don't hesitate to seek help. Your health care provider can help you address the causes of your distress and find ways to handle them, and/or refer you to other resources for help and support.

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