Dealing with stress
2/13/2023 by Brent Gawey, M.D., M.S.
As defined by the World Health Organization, stress is any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological strain. To simplify, stress is any change that causes strain. Change refers to anything altered or modified from the norm. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced significant change into everyday life. From social distancing, masking policies and mandated isolation, people experienced major alterations to their daily norm. Unsurprisingly, more Americans stated they were more stressed after the pandemic started than before.
Strain refers to the body's response to a perceived threat, or in this case, change. The body is largely regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS has a sympathetic and a parasympathetic component. The parasympathetic component is active when the body is at rest, and it is known as the "rest and digest" response. The sympathetic component is activated when the body perceives an acute threat. It is known as the "fight or flight" response. While this sympathetic response was evolutionarily beneficial for escaping an imminent threat, such as being chased by a lion, this same system is activated in response to daily stimuli we perceive as threats, such as change, someone cutting us off in traffic or an impending deadline.
Importantly, this highlights stress is a response, not a disease. When activated for short amounts of time, the sympathetic response increases alertness and focus, allowing us to overcome the perceived threat. However, when activated for long periods of time, the stress response can have harmful effects on the body, resulting in high blood pressure, gastrointestinal distress, insomnia and anxiety disorders. Having a toolkit to manage the stress response is key to maintaining long-term health.
Key practices to help manage stress in your daily life include:
Maintain a routine
- Change is one of the primary drivers of stress. Maintaining a daily routine can help control the stress response.
- Managing Routines and Schedules - Mayo Clinic Anxiety Coach.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night. Sleep helps establish a healthy stress response.
- Healthy Sleep Habits: The Ultimate Sleep Improvement Plan | Sleep Foundation.
- Tips for Better Sleep | CDC.
- Sleep tips: 6 steps to better sleep - Mayo Clinic.
- Spend time with others either in person or on the phone.
- Mayo Clinic Minute: The benefits of being socially connected - Mayo Clinic News Network.
While there are many healthy ways to manage stress, there are also many unhealthy ways. Use of alcohol, tobacco and other recreational drugs are not effective solutions for managing stress and promoting health. If you are reliant upon any of these substances for stress relief, please seek professional support. Additionally, stress typically resolves once the "threat" is resolved. If you feel symptoms of stress persist without an identifiable trigger, please consider reaching out to your health care clinician. If you find yourself overwhelmed by your symptoms and feel you might harm yourself, please call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
Brent Gawey, M.D., M.S., is a resident in the Internal Medicine program at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He has a strong passion for realizing health equity through the application of evidence-based lifestyle and preventive medicine interventions.