We all feel stress from time to time — whether it's because of a big project that's coming up, or an argument with a loved one, or a looming threat like climate change or your own mortality. But there are some key things you should know to help you identify when you're feeling stress and how to figure out what steps to take towards managing it.
What is "stress?"
No, your body's not just betraying you, there's actually a biological explanation for the feeling of stress. According to Harvard Health Publications, stress "evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations." When our bodies perceive something as a danger, it can trigger a "fight-or-flight" response.
"The carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety," explains Harvard Health. "Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure and family difficulties."
Basically stress is your brain responding to something scary in the 21st century the same way it would in the Paleolithic Era: by pumping you full of the adrenaline you need to fight off a predator. Unfortunately, that response isn't always helpful when it comes to today's stressors, hence the need for strategies to effectively manage and reduce stress.
What it feels like
The "fight or flight" message in the brain triggers all sorts of physiological responses: The adrenal glands release epinephrine, or adrenaline, into the bloodstream.
According to Harvard Health, "As epinephrine circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes. The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide."
But there are other, less immediate responses to stress as well. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of stress can manifest in your body, mood, or behavior. Headaches, muscle pain and problems sleeping can all be symptoms of stress, as well as sadness and irritability. Stress can contribute to "angry outbursts," "social withdrawal" and "exercising less often."
What to do
Because stress is such a universal human response, lots of people have figured out strategies to help manage it. The Mayo Clinic suggests a "four A" strategy for coping with stress: Avoid, alter, accept and adapt. As in, try to avoid situations or people that cause you stress in the first place. If that doesn't work, see if you can alter yourself or ask others for a change that might help lessen your stress.
If altering doesn't work, "accept" by moving on from a situation or forgiving the person who's making you stressed (OR forgiving yourself, if you need to). And adapt, either by reframing the way you're thinking about a situation or adjusting your expectations.
Certain activities have also been shown to help manage stress. A 2014 study found that when young adults got mindfulness meditation training for 25 minutes a day for 3 days, they reported lower levels of stress compared to a control group, suggesting that even a small amount of meditation can reduce the feeling of stress.
Regular exercise can also be used to cope with stress. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), "Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins — chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers — and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress" and "even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects."
The ADAA also recommends managing deep breathing, humor, listening to music and staying well rested, among other stress management techniques.
Is it something more?
While some stress is normal (and inevitable), chronic stress, especially if it impairs your quality of life, may be part of an anxiety disorder or something more serious than everyday stress. When normal, manageable stress becomes constant anxiety that makes it hard to complete daily tasks, it may be time to check in with a medical professional.