The last year has been a stressful one whether due to the pandemic, economic worries or social unrest. For Stress Awareness Month, we asked BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina’s Kristin Hernandez, a case manager with a master’s degree in social work, for some tips and insight into managing stress.
“Stress is subjective and cannot be measured by anything besides the person experiencing and then reporting how it feels,” Hernandez says. “It is individualized as are the coping mechanisms to manage it.”
What is stress?
Stress is a normal reaction that happens to everyone. We are designed to experience it and produce a “fight or flight” response. Stress becomes problematic when it lasts for long periods of time without relief. The human body was not designed to deal with stress long term.
Common types of stress:
Acute stress is the most common type of stress. It can be helpful and needed in short doses. It is the body’s response to a recent challenge or unexpected event, such as a big test or presentation.
Episodic acute stress is when a person experiences acute stress frequently. This may feel like you’re always under pressure or things are always going wrong.
Chronic stress is ongoing long-term stress. This can be emotional pressure, unhappiness with job or family situation, or financial concerns. This can leave your nervous system in a constant arousal which is not good for your body. This kind of stress can cause health problems, such as heart disease, chronic weight loss and hair loss.
Any advice for treating these types of stress?
With acute stress, some people can develop post-traumatic stress disorder after having an acute stress episode. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with a therapist can help with effective thinking patterns and coping mechanisms. Mindfulness and meditation, breathing exercises or yoga can help with this kind of stress as well. If necessary, your primary care physician or psychiatrist can prescribe medications to help with anxiety, depression or other conditions aggravated by chronic stress.
Episodic stress can present with more physical responses like headaches or high blood pressure. In this case, lifestyle changes can be beneficial. For example, movement, diet and sleep can help. Talking with a therapist may also help with episodic stress.
With chronic stress, understanding yourself and your own signs of stress can be the best way to manage it. Take notes of triggers to reduce episodes. Talk with friends, family and/or an emotional support person. Try mindfulness practices, such as cooking, coloring or just being still. Improving sleep will also help with stress.
Signs of stress:
Some things to look for include low energy, headaches, upset stomach, physical pains, acne, appetite changes, increased sweating and accelerated heart rate, irritability and aggressive behavior.
Common stress management techniques:
- Start moving. Exercise is a good stress management technique. Even a short walk can change your perspective and mood.
- Change perspective. At the end of the day, think about what you accomplished, not about what you still have to do.
- Be grateful. There is always something to be thankful for every day. Take time to reflect on one thing each day.
- Unwind. Relaxation activities like meditation or yoga can also relieve stress.
- Focus on food. Eating a healthy diet can help with stress.
- Get sleep. Sleep is crucial for our bodies and brains. Prioritizing sleep can improve mood and help with stress. Maintaining a regular sleep routine calms the body, improves concentration, manages mood and helps keep decision-making sharp.
- Just say no. Saying no can really serve your greater yes. Prioritize. Take time to reflect on what activities, events or commitments are important to you, and know when to say no.
- Pick your squad. Surround yourself with people who make you happy, calm, offer support, listen and want to share responsibilities.
What is your advice for someone who needs to get started with managing their stress?
Get a good routine going with a bedtime each night. Cut down on caffeine intake. Make time for fun and relaxation by doing something you enjoy every day. Break up your tasks into smaller steps.
What is your top piece of advice to people around stress management?
Laughing fights stress, so find humor in the situation. Take a short walk away from the situation to get a clear perspective — and some endorphins going, too! Sunshine on your shoulders can be very healing. Being silly can boost your mood.
Is there anything you shouldn’t do if you are stressed?
Don’t give into cravings or adverse coping skills by marinating in the bad news, stress or ruminating thoughts. Do not overload your schedule.