While some level of pressure helps push people toward their goals, excessive stress can affect physical and mental health. Symptoms of excess stress may include headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, upset stomach, chest pain, irritability or sadness. Unaddressed stress may worsen a wide variety of chronic medical conditions including diabetes, hypertension, COPD, asthma, depression, anxiety, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome and chronic pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia.
Luckily, there are many ways to manage and minimize stress. First, it can be helpful to evaluate all the components of your life, to see if there is a way you can simplify. Is there something (like a relationship, hobby, or other commitment) that adds to your stress but is not consistent with your priorities or doesn’t give you much in return? Work on clearing such clutter from your life. Then, practice saying “no” when the opportunity arises for it to sneak back in.
Relaxation exercises can also be easy to learn and helpful in combating excess stress. They are especially effective if practiced on a regular basis. A few of these include:
- Mindfulness-based practices that encourage you to focus on what is immediately present (sensations, people, tasks, etc) as opposed to the many thoughts and worries of the past or the future. Mindfulness encompasses a wide array of techniques, from yoga and tai chi to formal meditation to simply noticing distracted thoughts and releasing them to refocus on the situation at hand.
- Deep breathing. Slow, even breaths trigger your body’s parasympathetic “rest and digest” response, which helps to minimize the release of stress hormones. Deep breathing can be effective with or without mindfulness practices.
- Guided Imagery. This involves replacing negative or stressful thoughts with pleasant, positive mental images, and can be led by a teacher, a recording, or even a phone app! Once practiced, it can even be self-led.
- Progressive Relaxation. This technique involves focusing on sequentially tightening and then relaxing various muscle groups.
Decide to Get Help
Sometimes, though, these and other self-management techniques might not be enough to keep the stress under control. A traumatic event or major life change can make stress unmanageable, or you may simply start to notice that your stress levels are becoming too overwhelming for you to manage. The physical symptoms of stress may become frequent or disabling.
Don’t suffer these negative effects of stress alone. Professionally trained counselors can teach stress management with proven counseling techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Your primary care doctor can also treat stress-related illnesses and help decide if other professional assistance would be helpful. Never hesitate to seek emergency medical care if you feel unsafe due to your stress symptoms.