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What is stress and how to manage it

People have very different ideas with respect to their definition of stress. Probably the most common is, “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension."

WACO, Texas — We have all been there, the feeling of losing control, not knowing which direction is up and our minds not being able to process the everyday tasks that have become routine.

That is what stress overload is like.

"Stress is a hard word to define because I think that the definition is so subjective and can look different for each person experiencing it," said Katie Chadwell with The Heart of Texas Behavioral Health Network in Waco. "In general terms though, stress is when you feel as though you have 100 things to do and no time and/or ability to do any of it."

According to The American Institute of Stress, multiple sources of stress and associated symptoms are overwhelming Americans right now. A 2020 survey showed that nearly 80% of people said the coronavirus pandemic is a significant stress in their life. That same poll indicated that 67 percent say their stress levels have increased over the course of the pandemic.

Credit: American Psychological Association

A published report by CompareCamp in 2018 showed Americans are the most stressed in the world and our current stress level is 20 percentage points higher than the global average. Some key takeaways from that report indicate the following:

  • 55% of Americans are stressed during the day.
  • Stress causes 57% of US respondents to feel paralyzed.
  • 63% of US workers are ready to quit their job to avoid work-related stress.
  • Montana is the least stressed US state with a total stress score of 26.81 while Louisiana is the most stressed with 59.94.
Credit: CompareCamp.com

According to The American Institute of Stress, there are four different types of stress and not all stress is bad.

  • Acute Stress is the fight or flight response where the body prepares to defend itself. It takes about 90 minutes for the metabolism to return to normal when the response is over.
  • Chronic Stress is the cost of daily living: bills, kids, job, etc. This is the stress we tend to ignore or push down. Left uncontrolled this stress affects your health, your body and your immune system.
  • Eustress is positive stress and includes, marriage, getting a promotion, having a baby and winning money, to name a few.
  • Distress is exactly what it sounds like and carries negative connotations such as divorce, punishment, injury and financial problems.

Chadwell said we need to give ourselves some grace when it comes to stress and realize when we need help navigating some of the everyday triggers that happen.

"We are often our own harshest critics, so you should be especially gentle with yourself when you are experiencing feelings of stress," she advised. "Stress looks different for each individual who experiences it, so it’s extremely important to validate your feelings of stress and ask for help, even if your triggers are different than the triggers of those around you."

Stress can lead to serious mental health problems, like depression and anxiety and finding ways to cope can be difficult for many. Chadwell said stress leads many to believe they need to be productive at all times, but that isn't necessarily true.

"Sometimes taking a step back and relaxing can give us a new perspective and actually make us more productive in the long run. When we are feeling stressed, it is particularly important to reach out to others and ask for help. Asking for help is one of the hardest, yet bravest things we can do," she said.

When it all piles up and life becomes too much in that moment, Chadwell said making a list of things and prioritizing them can make a huge difference. Small steps instead of big ones lead us down the same path towards the same goal.

"Instead of saying, I have to do this and this and this and this and this, starting with one thing, what's the most pressing need, what do you have to get done first and just focus on one thing at a time," she said. "Instead of focusing on the big picture, focusing on smaller parts of it can really help us feel more in control and less overwhelmed."

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