To say this year has been stressful is an understatement. From a global pandemic to contentious politics, and everything in between, it’s hard not to live in a constant state of stress.
But if you’re worried or anxious about something right now, you’re in good company. The stress levels of Americans have risen significantly since last year.
Although stress is a normal part of your body’s reaction to any demand or threat (and can be a powerful motivator), long-term stress without relief between stressors can negatively affect your health both physically and emotionally. Luckily, stopping stress in its tracks is within your control. The key is to identify your stress triggers and coping techniques that work for you.
Understanding Your Triggers
It’s hard to get a handle on your stress if you don’t know what’s causing it. That’s why the first step in getting your stress under control is identifying the root of it. Once you identify your triggers, you can take steps to avoid them or adopt a coping technique when stress gets the better of you.
The top stress triggers for most people are:
- Health: Chronic health issues or a serious diagnosis (whether it’s you or a loved one) is further exacerbated by the stress that accompanies illness. This year, COVID-19 has been a major source of stress for people all over the world.
- Finances: One of the top causes of stress in our everyday lives is money. Unpaid bills, medical debt, concerns about the economy and worrying about providing for your family and living comfortably are significant sources of stress for many Americans. In addition, millions of Americans have lost their jobs during the pandemic, which significantly increases stress levels.
- Family: Maybe you are the primary caregiver for an aging family member or you are trying to juggle work-from-home responsibilities with raising small children or helping children learn virtually. Whatever your family situation is, caring for others can be a major source of stress. Especially when routines and support networks have been disrupted. Daily responsibilities seem to pile up while self-care falls by the wayside.
- Relationship difficulties: While many people think relationship stress is based on major, stressful decisions like where to raise your family, or what values you want to instill in your children, many times it’s the day-to-day that can bring about the most stress in a relationship, e.g. who’s doing the laundry, who forgot to take out the trash, who’s next on diaper duty. As many marriage counselors will attest to, many times relationships suffer from “death by a thousand cuts” syndrome. This year, many Americans have spent more time than ever at home with their spouse under unprecedented circumstances, which has put stress on marriages.
- Job: For many people, work is often a major source of stress. Unrealistic deadlines or demands, an endless to-do list, or a difficult boss or coworkers can all contribute to work stress. In addition, today’s technology means we’re always connected to work — a surefire way to ensure elevated levels of stress.
- Major life changes: A milestone birthday, divorce, the death of a family member, pregnancy, a move. Big changes in your life can be very stressful. This year, major milestones such as graduations, weddings, or the birth of a child were either postponed or celebrated virtually, leaving many to feel disappointed or angry that they weren’t able to commemorate a major milestone in a traditional manner.
If you’re not sure what’s triggering your stress, try keeping a journal for a week. Looking back on the week as a whole can you help you identify when you were most stressed and the circumstances surrounding it.
Healthy Coping Techniques
Ok, so stress is an unfortunate fact of life. But it’s not all bad news. The good news is that you can relieve stress in a variety of ways. The key is finding the best way for you to reduce stress. Maybe your brother likes to blow off steam by competing in an Ironman, while the mere thought of that increases your stress level. Don’t compare yourself to others. Find what works for you.
The best way to do this? Think back to a time when you had no worries, no responsibilities, and no stress: your childhood. What activities or hobbies did you gravitate to? Maybe you loved swimming and spent all your time in the pool or ocean. Maybe it was riding your bike or coloring or dancing or playing with Legos. Your childhood hobbies are a strong indicator of how you should be relieving stress. Those hobbies are the things that naturally bring you joy, unencumbered by social pressures or the demands of your endless to-do list.
- Exercise. Whether you walk, run, swim, dance, bike, or practice yoga, simply moving your body has a tremendous impact on your stress levels. Exercise reduces stress hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) and releases powerful endorphins in your brain that boost your mood, bring a sense of relaxation, and act as natural pain killers.
- Meditate. Meditation is a powerful antidote to stress. It helps clear your mind of stress-inducing thoughts, creating a sense of calm that lasts long after a meditation session. And, it can be practiced anytime, anywhere. Even better? All it takes is five minutes.
- Get creative. Art is a wonderful form of stress relief. Whatever the medium — painting, knitting, carpentry, coloring, sculpting, photography — creating something helps reduce stress. In fact, studies have shown that after engaging in a creative activity for 45 minutes, people’s cortisol levels (stress hormone) is greatly reduced. You don’t even need to be “good” at art, which is great for non-artists like myself!
- Read a book or listen to music. Losing yourself in a good book or a favorite album helps you escape your worries and daily stressors. It’s a form of escapism that distracts the mind and engages your imagination.
- Call a friend or lend a hand. As social creatures, humans are hard-wired to connect with others. Meeting up with a friend outside, joining a virtual group or class, or helping out a neighbor are all great ways to reduce stress. Socializing with others boosts the oxytocin hormone, decreases anxiety levels, and may increase your ability to cope with stressful situations.
- Spend time in nature. Studies have shown that immersing yourself in the great outdoors has a slew of health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety, and improving your mood. Not a nature lover? The good news is, you don’t have to sign on for an overnight camping trip. Two hours a week in nature is all it takes to make a difference in your mental health.