Stress is a normal part of life, and one that can occur during both good and bad times. We typically think of stress as something negative that happens when we feel overwhelmed, but there are positive causes of stress as well, such as retirement or starting a new job.
The problem with stress is that we too often ignore it and complain about the warning signs until we can't manage anymore, explains Diana Plummer, licensed clinical social worker and national clinical director of Behavioral Health Services at HCA Healthcare. Stress awareness is critical for a number of reasons.
"When we allow stress to go unchecked, it makes us more vulnerable to health issues and emotional issues and a myriad of other problems. So that's one reason," Plummer says.
"The other reason it's important to learn about stress is that as a society, we often use the term stress very casually: 'Oh my gosh, I'm so stressed today. I'm so stressed, I've got so much going on.' When we use that term, we're not really stopping to truly think about the reality of what stress is doing to our mind and to our body," she explains.
What are some common causes of stress?
It's important to define stress in order to understand how it affects us. Stress is your body's response to something it perceives as a threat, real or imagined.
The top five causes of stress, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), are:
- Money: In an APA survey of adults, 72% reported being stressed about money: This can include retirement savings, college tuition and housing costs.
- Job pressure: Conflicts with coworkers, bosses and work overload are some of the top sources of job stress.
- Health: Health scares or chronic illnesses are major stressors, and they can exacerbate other stressors.
- Relationships: Relationship issues, whether romantic or platonic, can sometimes have a negative impact on well-being.
- Poor nutrition: Not getting adequate nutrition can be stressful for the body. Heavy caffeine consumption, for example, can cause physical symptoms of anxiety such as increased heart rate.
Other causes of stress include:
- Poor time management
- Becoming overwhelmed (taking on too much)
- Major life changes (death of a loved one or job loss)
More than a quarter of Americans recently surveyed by the APA reported that they are so stressed they cannot function most days, citing external stressors such as inflation, crime and the political climate.
Some stressors are more noticeable to other people, but even minor stressors are important. "We have to ensure that we're addressing stress as it comes up, whether it's minor or major," Plummer says.
How to manage stress
Plummer says she likes to use the HELP model with her clients to understand where their focus is. HELP is an acronym for:
"Where is your balance in these four things? Am I spending 80% of my time on productivity and work with very little leisure and attention to my health and emotions? Or am I overwhelmed with my health and illness and not paying attention to the other areas?" Plummer says. Using this model can allow you to evaluate where you're spending the majority of your energy so you can try to rebalance your life.
In addition to using the HELP model, Plummer says it's important to tailor any stress management techniques or coping mechanisms to your situation. You also have to be realistic about what works for you and what doesn't. Otherwise, you can add to your stress.
Depending on what aspect of your life you're feeling stressed about, you may need to approach the situation in different ways.
If you're stressed about money, ways to cope include creating extra sources of income or streamlining your budget. You may decide to cut out unnecessary spending or cook at home instead of spending money on takeout or restaurants. You may also want to take a good look at your recurring expenses, such as streaming services or gym memberships, and eliminate anything you don't use. Set reminders to cancel trials so you don't get charged for a service you don't plan on keeping.
Managing work stress can include setting better boundaries, such as not checking email after hours or reminding yourself to take a second to think through a situation before responding. If you have a conflict with a coworker, it can be helpful to walk away and allow yourself to calm down before reacting.
You can sometimes manage health-related stress with diet, exercise and adequate sleep, but if you have a chronic illness, you may need to work closely with your doctor to manage your condition. Meditation and deep breathing can be beneficial for reducing anxiety.
Stressors like grief may need a multipronged approach. Therapy or grief counseling can provide a safe space to talk about your loss and feelings, or you may want to join a support group. It also helps to be aware of your ’grief triggers’, such as anniversaries, birthdays and holidays. Planning ahead for those days can include making sure you are not alone, watching your loved one's favorite movies or listening to their favorite songs. Writing a letter to your loved one can also help you process your grief.
Understanding when to seek help
Sometimes we need help to deal with our stress, especially if it is impacting our lives to the point where it's difficult to do the things we usually do.
"If it ever crosses that line where it's interfering with your life and causing problems in other areas, it's a good sign that you need somebody to help you," Plummer says.
You should seek help from your doctor for your stress if you start having physical symptoms, such as back or chest pain, muscle aches, headaches or panic attacks.
When you feel stressed, ask yourself: What is my stress telling me? From there, you can take steps to manage your stress before it reaches a boiling point.