Everyone has stress. I realize this is not a newsflash, but as a medical professional I encourage you to soak the simplicity of it in for a moment, and let it validate how you feel right now. Stress is real, whether you’re eye-balls deep in student loan debt and a fresh face in the working industry, budgeting your much-needed vacay with your SO, in the midst of an asinine argument with a housemate, or just trying to navigate daily life while potty-training a puppy. Maybe you should consider a goldfish? Kidding. Let’s all take a deep breath and remember, stress is a part of everyone’s life, and there is good stress, like the kind that keeps you motivated and making your deadlines, and bad stress, like the kind that keeps you up late at night and reaching for that pack of smokes a week after you swore you’d quit forever.
The first important thing to figure out about your stress is if it is good stress or bad stress. Do you look forward to each day’s challenges, or are you chugging coffee and chewing your nails to the quick with dread? Another essential consideration of stress is how it affects your emotional and physical health. There are lots of data out there about how stress can affect your well-being, from the obvious, like headaches, to emerging arguments for decreased immune function (see what this research study says about stress and infections).
Below are common signs and symptoms of stress, as well as some free or inexpensive coping suggestions to help keep your stress under control.
1. Trouble concentrating and difficulty making decisions
When your mind is racing through all the chores you still haven’t completed, the thirty emails you need to answer, and the phone call you have to return to your mom, you can feel frozen in panic. Cue everyone’s favorite uninvited party-crashin’ friend, Procrastination. Next thing you know, it’s 2 AM on a Wednesday work night, none of your Monday list got checked off, your gas tank is empty, and you left your debit card in an Uber yesterday night after happy hour.
Acute stress can cause a variety of emotional responses, from anger to anxiety. You find yourself snapping at your housemate for leaving a peanut-butter smeared spoon in the sink, cruising Craigslist housing ads, and starting a draft email to your landlord terminating the lease four months early. You are allergic to peanut butter, how dare she!?! Deep down, you know this feeling is wrong, you know one utensil is no big deal and no one is trying to poison you, but you can’t seem to keep yourself in a pleasant mood.
3. Poor diet
Whether your stress beckons you to reach for another molten, cheesy slice or to forgo dinner entirely, stress can slam your diet. Your tummy may gurgle, become sour, grow several stubborn inches rounder, or perform acrobatics you never knew it capable of.
Migraines, tension headaches, and back pain are not uncommon presentations of stress. You may be compounding this one with bad posture, sedentary lifestyle, staying up late trying to catch up, and, you guessed it: bad food choices.
5. Difficulty sleeping
Maybe you are burnin’ the midnight oil in front of the computer attempting to finish your English final, or tossing in bed replaying the afternoon’s department meeting and conjuring up the bitchy repartee you wish was at your command when your jerk coworker threw you under the bus in front of your boss. It’s possible you wake up every hour, on the hour, looking around for that last client who must still be waiting to hear back from you, only to realize you are in bed, late at night. Whatever the case, you are not sleeping well.
If your stress train has decided to go rogue and you are struggling to get it back on track, here are some tried-and-true (and affordable!) ways to cope:
1. A balanced diet
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend you limit caffeine and alcohol, which may seme a little counterintuitive, since we often reach for caffeine to energize us and alcohol to relax us, especially during times of stress. Unfortunately, these may make symptoms of stress, like headaches and sleep problems, worse. Instead, focus on a balanced diet, and consume reasonable amounts of alcohol and caffeine (as well as plenty of water). Check out the American Heart Association’s detailed diet recommendations here.
2. Make time to sleep!
The National Sleep Foundation suggests you set a regular schedule for sleeping hours, and that you give yourself about one or two hours before bed each night to “wind down.” Try to relax with a shower or bath, watching something soothing on Netflix (I personally go with a nature doc), and don’t even look at your email or do any work-related activities, which almost always get your stress going and keep you awake longer. Put your phone on silent when you get into bed. (And for all your various electronic screens, there are tons of apps like Flux, which will neutralize that sleep-preventing blue glare.)
3. Schedule in leisure time
Make sure you keep a solid work/life balance. We all know this is easier said than done, but take another look at your to-do list today and set aside time to talk with friends, take a walk, or engage in your hobbies. Schedule them as you would a work event, and stick to them religiously. If you like cooking, invite your best friend over for dinner and put some one-on-one time in. If you dig reading, get in on a little book club action (check out meetup.com) You need your me time as well as your social time, so don’t feel guilty about scheduling it in. Life is not all about the grind.
4. Try reflective or meditative activities.
Everyone’s heard of how restorative yoga can be. But if rolling out your mat and doing downward dog in a studio classroom isn’t your thing, check out tai chi, day hikes, painting, or writing. Reflective activities can help you clear your mind and identify your feelings. And if you are suddenly bombarded at a time when you only have a minute to re-center yourself, excuse yourself for a moment and have a seat, close your eyes, and breathe in deeply through your nose pause, and exhale evenly by your mouth. Do this a few times for a mini-reset button on a busy day.
Of course, sometimes stress is situational, and the only way to resolve it is to change the situation. I encourage you to speak up to your loved ones and mentors for encouragement and growth. If you are stressed because your job is not a good fit for you, you need to identify why in concrete and tangible ways, and come up with a plan of attack to effect change. If you have a toxic friend causing you stress with their bad attitude and lack of conscientious behavior, you will need to reach out to your support system to gather the strength you need to walk away from that person. But if you have ordinary, non-situational stress, you have the power to take control, and with a few adjustments, get everything back on track. Just take a deep breath and, really, maybe consider a goldfish. Aquariums are supposed to be super relaxing, and fish don’t pee on your carpet or chew up your housemate’s vintage couch legs.
If you wanna do some of your own research, check out these links for more information on stress:
5. The NY Times explores how the relationship of microbial flora and fauna in our digestive system may effect how stressed and anxious we are
Keisha is a nurse in Nashville, TN. She likes sandwiches and seeing local bands in dive bars with her boyfriend, who sometimes wears tshirts with his own face on them. She is on Instagram.
Image via Pixabay