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It should come as no surprise that stress levels have increased over the last two years because of the pandemic. But even after the introduction of vaccines and less restrictions, there are no signs of stress levels slowing down — in fact, quite the opposite.
A study that began about a year after the onset of the pandemic shows that stress levels actually increased between January 2021 and the previous April, when the pandemic first ravaged the U.S.
While respondents cited the pandemic as a significant stressor, they also reported concern about the "future of our nation" and political unrest as factors.
In these uncertain times, what can we do to find some stress relief? To find out, we talked to Tanya J. Peterson, a mental health educator, author, and a diplomate with the American Institute of Stress.
The Science of Stress
We all know the tell-tale signs of stress: upset stomach, body aches, sweating, nausea, trouble sleeping, etc. But what happens in your body that triggers this physical response? It actually starts in the brain.
Scientists originally believed that our "fight-or-flight" reaction started with the hypothalamus. "But what researchers are recently discovering over the last few years is that it is actually the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, that tells the hypothalamus to freak out," Peterson says.
The amygdala is our emotional center, which processes negative emotions like fear. The significance in this discovery lies in the relationship among thoughts, emotions, and stress.
"There's a cyclical relationship between thoughts, emotions, and stress. Our amygdala registers a stressor — which can be an external situation or a negative thought — and instantly starts the fight-or-flight reaction by sending signals to the hypothalamus and on down the line," Peterson says.
"We then feel what we subjectively call stress, all the physical and emotional symptoms that are part of fight-or-flight. This unwanted experience deepens our negative emotions and often drives negative thoughts and ruminations. These feed on each other, all the while keeping the stress response active and in high gear."
Different Kinds of Stress
Stress can be categorized into three groups based on frequency and intensity.
We all feel acute stress from time to time. The body naturally experiences it to help you react quickly to perceived threats.
"Acute stress is very isolated and specific to one action or one situation, like when you see a stranger in the dark," Peterson says. "It [happens when] something ... threatens your safety or security and it's very tangible."
Episodic stress happens more frequently. It usually stems from taking on more than you can handle, causing worry.
"When you get into episodic stress, you're going into spells of acute stress repeatedly," Peterson says. "It might be that you get test anxiety and that every single time you have a test, which is often, you're going to go into this stress reaction."
Chronic stress occurs regularly over an extended period of time. It can occur when a person feels overwhelmed at work, struggles with financial hardship, or constantly fights with loved ones.
"Chronic stress happens when your fight-or-flight response, your stress reaction, is turned on almost all of the time," Peterson says. "Your body is producing those hormones — adrenaline, epinephrine, cortisol — in significant amounts all the time and it's just flooding your system."
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Symptoms of Stress
Experiencing acute stress or even periods of episodic stress is normal. In fact, the dose of cortisol that you get from short-term stress can actually benefit your memory and alertness. But chronic stress can turn physical and result in serious health problems.
Short-term stress symptoms may include hives or rashes, headaches, upset stomach, diarrhea, or constipation. Chest pain, high blood pressure, hair loss, and vertigo are also symptoms.
For women, it can cause bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, irregular periods, and temporary infertility.
Long-term stress can increase your risk of asthma, stroke, heart disease, angina, and cancer.
But the nonphysical symptoms of distress can also be debilitating. Stress experts categorize them into two groups: emotional and cognitive.
Emotional symptoms include loss of patience, feeling overwhelmed, reduced desire to join enjoyable activities, and an increased pessimistic attitude.
Cognitive symptoms include difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, impaired judgement and speech, and repetitive thoughts.
Scientifically Backed Methods of Reducing Stress
Many cultures normalize and even glorify stress, but the health risks associated with chronic stress should be taken seriously. Of course, dealing with stress is easier said than done. Most of us can't take a semester off of school or quit our jobs to spend more time relaxing.
"The key to reducing stress is to deactivate the fight-or-flight response by resetting the nervous system. The adrenal-HPA axis is part of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS)," Peterson says. "When we're chronically stressed, the SNS is constantly on. We can override it by activating its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)."
The PNS, nicknamed "rest and digest," reverses the effects of the stress response. It slows down your heart and respiration rates, lowers blood pressure, and returns blood flow to your core. It also stops the production of cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.
All of the following help your body "rest and digest."
"Mindfulness is just simply paying attention to the moment that you're in, no matter what you are doing," Peterson says. While it seems basic, it's not easy in practice.
"The mind naturally tends to take off in thoughts and emotions. Remember — that's what perpetuates the stress response," Peterson says. Mindfulness directly counteracts repetitive thoughts and worry by inviting you to pay attention to the present moment.
You can incorporate mindfulness into your routine by reducing the time you spend scrolling on social media, practicing yoga or meditation, and performing deep breathing exercises.
Vigorous exercise (as opposed to light exercise, like walking or yoga) has been shown again and again to decrease overall levels of tension, stabilize mood, improve sleep, and boost self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise, like jogging, using an elliptical, or bicycling, can lessen symptoms of stress.
Proper diet is not only essential to physical health — it is also an important part of stress management. When you're overwhelmed, you may resort to eating fast food to save time, but processed foods and those with high fat content can actually worsen stress. A good rule of thumb is to stick to whole foods as much as possible.
If you are struggling to reduce chronic stress with self-care techniques, reach out for professional help. For those that don't have health insurance or are financially limited, Peterson suggests the following resources:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: SAMHSA can help you find organizations in your area that provide free or low-cost care options.
- Support groups: Finding a support group in your area can be a good way to find out what methods work for other people without breaking the bank.
- Churches, temples, and synagogues: Many faith centers offer free counsel to their congregation members.
- Sliding-scale therapy: Some therapists provide reduced rates to clients based on their income. Search "slide-scale therapy" in your city to find providers.