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person walking Jack Russel terrier on leashStress doesn’t discriminate—any one of us can feel its effects, even when we try not to. The more you know about stress and how the condition impacts areas of life and health, the better equipped you are to modulate your response to it.

Stress? What Stress?

Many people describe how they handle life’s conflicts with that old duck joke: calm on the water’s surface, but paddling like the dickens underneath. This visual is actually a great description for how stress affects us. Even if we think we have everything under control and don’t feel stressed, it lurks beneath the surface. Left unattended, stress sparks the sympathetic nervous system to remain in a constant state of “fight or flight.” Without a prompt from the parasympathetic nervous system to find authentic calm, or “rest and digest,” other functions throughout the body start to break down.

There are actually two kinds of stressors: eustress and distress:

  • Positive stress, also known as eustress, is what you have when you’re excited about a new project, eager to see an idea through from start to finish, or learning something new. It’s a short-term boost that helps your progress, energizes you, and doesn’t make you feel drained.
  • Negative stress, aptly referred to as distress, is what we often need to manage. It lingers beneath the surface, no matter how hard we try to make it go away. It impacts concentration, performance, and poses significant risks to emotional, mental, and physical health. It can last for a little while or an extended period of time—which often compounds its unfortunate effects.

When might you feel distress? WebMD outlines the typical causes of stress in all areas of life, such as:

  • Work issues such as job pressure or dissatisfaction, dangerous conditions, salary cuts, and facing discrimination or harassment
  • Life disruptions, such as the death of a loved one, chronic illness or injury, divorce, financial concerns, job loss, substance use disorder, family complications, moving to a new location, or a traumatic personal event, natural disaster, a pandemic like COVID, or violent act

Your stress can also manifest more intensely because of a pessimistic attitude, anxiety, depression, doubt, fear, and uncertainty. Uncertainty is extremely common right now, and most people are experiencing increased stress during COVID.

It’s not a badge of honor to shoulder the burdens of stress. Over time, it heightens the risk for critical health conditions in both women and men. You deserve to feel your best, so consider adapting new coping skills and relaxation techniques to manage stress more effectively.

Coping With Stress

Now that you know what stress is and how it affects your life, you can create new short- and long-term wellness habits to not only recognize your stressors, but also acknowledge and control your reaction to them.
If you’re in recovery for substance use disorder, you probably learned many of these methods in cognitive behavioral therapy or some other form of counseling.

For short-term relief

  • Practice breathing techniques. When you notice initial symptoms of stress such as shallow breathing, tense muscles, or that foggy, disoriented feeling, take deep, controlled breaths. This will stimulate the vagus nerve, which is the command center for your parasympathetic nervous system, and help you calm down more quickly.
  • Take a brief walk. Researchers say you’ll feel an emotional and mental boost if you walk for as little as 10–to–12 minutes when you feel overwhelmed or anxious, and movement leads to “divergent thinking,” which helps alleviate negativity. If you can go outside for a quick stroll, even better.
  • Drink a glass of water. Many of us are more dehydrated than we think, which causes cortisol—the stress hormone—to rise. What’s worse: when we’re stressed, we become more dehydrated, which perpetuates the cycle! So pause life for a moment and sip a big glass of water until it’s gone.
  • Talk with a member of your support group. If you’re in recovery, a friend or 12-Step sponsor knows exactly how you’re trying to keep it together, and can say, “Some days, right?” while offering to listen.

For long-term management

  • Eat healthfully and exercise. Oh, you want the fats, sugars, and carbs, with all their immediate gratification, but they’ll only compound problems with stress. Maintain a whole foods diet free of processed foods that features various colorful fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and seeds, nuts, and whole grains. And consistent movement is a noted stress reliever, especially when you make it a routine.
  • Try mindfulness and meditation techniques. Mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment, rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. Mindful meditation promotes a more calming physical and mental state to decrease stress.
  • Use nature to enhance your wellbeing. Scientists refer to the “awe” factor when analyzing how the natural world contributes to our health. It provides a sense of connectedness that helps take us out of the thick of our problems, triggering different chemical reactions in the brain to help lower cortisol, reduce brooding, and encourage healing.
  • Find ways to give back. Researchers at Georgia State University’s Counseling and Testing center report that fulfillment through volunteer work is relaxing, reduces depression, provides thoughtful engagement with others, and helps define a sense of purpose.

Learning to manage stress with ease takes time. Trust that with each method you use in your daily life, you’ll continue to gain control of your responses.

Gain Additional Support from Twin Lakes

When we feel stressed, a typical response is to “hide in the weeds” and avoid others. But this often increases feelings of loneliness. Instead, turn to the nurturing people at Twin Lakes’ continuing care groups and community events to reinforce your stress resistance. Addressing and managing your stress during COVID is crucial. Twin Lakes can help.