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When Stress Gets Serious

When doctors talk about pain, there are generally two types: acute and chronic. Acute pain generally has a specific, treatable cause—it lets us know something is wrong and that we should fix it. Chronic pain, on the other hand, can last for months or years—sometimes with no obvious cause.

Stress is the same. Acute stress can be useful—for example, the immediate stress response when we hear a loud noise or smell smoke in the house prepares our bodies for fight or flight. Stress can help us accomplish goals too. Some people do their best work when stressed by an impending deadline. (I’m one of them. I wrote most of my college papers the night before they were due.) But chronic stress can be damaging to our emotional and physical health because it acts like a low-level ache that never goes away, keeping our bodies in a constant state of anxiety.

We tend to think of stress as a mental/emotional problem, but it comes with physical symptoms too. Those symptoms are easy to identify during acute stress. Two years ago, I was in a serious car accident. I walked away without serious injuries, but as the driver, I can tell you that the stress of that situation was extremely intense. Now, my brain and body sometimes have difficulty telling how much stress is appropriate in a given situation. I have acute stress responses while driving on completely safe roads—fast heartbeat, adrenaline rush, trembling, dilated eyes. It takes me a few minutes after parking to calm down again.

But as unpleasant as that is, chronic stress is worse. I would rather deal with the temporary stress of a panic attack that goes away once I’m out of that situation than the niggling tension of unrelieved chronic stress. The harm of chronic stress can go undetected because it’s subtle: a clenched jaw, a tight stomach, headaches, changed appetites, disrupted sleep patterns, behavior and mood changes, trouble focusing, and so on.

Many people these days are dealing with chronic stress as a result of the pandemic as well as because of stressful jobs or school responsibilities. If we perceive a danger or feel unsafe, and that feeling doesn’t go away, we can develop chronic stress. For example, I often worry about my high-risk family members contracting the virus, and it doesn’t seem like that danger is going to go away any time soon.

That stress is harming me, and it’s affecting my relationships too. When I’m dealing with low-level stress, I find myself quicker to anger and more likely to reply to my family with sharp words I later regret. The amount of irritation I can add on is lower, and I’m more likely to ‘lose it’ over something small.

So how do we deal with it? Here are a few general tips for managing chronic stress:

  • Take care of your body (sleep, exercise, healthy foods).

  • Acknowledge your stress. Recognize the emotion and physical response for what it is. Keep a stress journal if writing down your thoughts is helpful to you.

  • Take some time to intentionally let go. Let go of small stressors that aren’t that important. Take some time to set aside bigger worries, at least for a while, and practice a hobby or self-care activity.

  • Know that you are not alone. Share your feelings with friends or family—they’re probably dealing with some chronic stress too. If you feel overwhelmed by chronic stress, don’t hesitate to get help from a mental health professional.

Part of A Beautiful Pause’s mission is to help you Relax. Refresh. Renew. by letting go of stress, drinking deeply of things that restore you, and giving back to others as your best self. Taking time to manage and heal from our own stress will improve not only our health, but also our relationships.

Visit these pages for more information and resources on stress and stress management:

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