I often say that these 2 words should never be used together in the same sentence: "just stress." Every major organization of medical and mental health professionals will tell you that the effects of stress can be damaging to both your mind and to your body. Adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress response hormones certainly serve a useful purpose (like keep us alive when confronted by danger), but they can also do a great deal of harm if we allow ourselves to remain in a state of stress arousal for too long, or if it is happening too often. According to the American Psychological Association, if our "fight or flight" response gets stuck in the "on" position, that can have serious consequences for our health.
Sudden emotional stresses, whether caused by a major trigger event like a natural disaster or terrorism, or a fight with a spouse or the sudden news of the loss of a loved one, can trigger something as significant as a heart attack. Even chronic stress is dangerous because of the wear and tear it places on our bodies. Persistent headaches, high blood pressure, overeating, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption - all of these are signs that we are not doing very well controlling our responses to our daily stresses. Problems associated with stress often lead to depression, deterioration of personal relationships, and even more significantly, to suicidal thinking.
What can you do to reduce your stress levels or to improve your ability to return to a more healthy range of stress hormones following a period of stress arousal? The number one antidote for the things that cause us stress, anxiety, and worry is the ability to focus on things that give us positive feelings like happiness, joy, contentment, and enthusiasm. Other strategies include:
- Identify what is cause your stress. Know what is bothering you, and develop a plan for addressing it.
- Build strong relationships. Negative experiences in relationships can be a huge source of stress, but relationships with people who lift you up and encourage you can be a tremendous stress buffer.
- Walk away when you're angry. Literally - walk. Walking is a simple form of exercise that can increase the production of endorphins, the chemicals that act as a "mood booster" to take the place of the chemicals that act as a "mood buster."
- Rest your mind. Stress keeps people awake at night, and your body and mind need at least five to six 90-minute sleep cycles each night to get recharged and ready for the next day. Cut down on eating and drinking before going to bed, remove electronic devices from your bedroom, make the room completely dark, and go to bed at the same time each night. These are some of the tips that will help you get better sleep.
- Get help. If you are overwhelmed and are feeling "stuck" in a negative pattern, talk to someone you know and trust about how you are feeling. We always encourage first responders to talk to someone on the peer support team if their department or agency has one. But seek professional help, if necessary, if you need help identifying situations or behaviors that contribute to your chronic stress and then develop an action plan for changing them.
I would encourage you to send a message to our Call for Backup program if you'd like some help figuring out an action plan. If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK, or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor. The service is free, confidential, and available 24/7/365.
It's never good to stay stuck with "just stress" - it's time to call for backup.