It’s sad but true: Stress has become so commonplace that it’s now a way of life.
In fact, as Tim Kreider noted in The ‘Busy’ Trap, one of my all-time favorite op-ed pieces in The New York Times, our “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
In small and infrequent doses, yes, stress can be beneficial. It fueled our ancestors’ survival instincts, and it motivates us to perform well under pressure (hello, race-day nerves!).
But when it becomes a constant, both your mind and body pay dearly for operating in non-stop emergency mode.
“While our society is the most technologically advanced on the planet, leading the way in economic growth, technological innovation and standard of living, we are paying the price for this success with unprecedented levels of chronic stress,” says Peter McCarthy, a former military officer and commercial pilot, whose book, Adrenaline Nation, explores the subject and its effect on Americans.
Our being in a chronic state of flight-or-flight disrupts nearly every system in the body, leading to serious health problems. On top of spiked blood pressure, suppressed immunity, heightened infertility rates and increased risk of heart attack and stroke, stress also speeds up the aging process and, in same cases, can even rewire the brain, leaving us more susceptible to anxiety and depression.
But before you get anxious at the mere thought of what all this stress is doing to you, the good news is that there are four steps you can take to lessen its effect:
- Learn to recognize signs of stress. The American Institute of Stress lists these 50 symptoms; some may surprise you!
- Stop and listen to your gut — literally. There’s a reason you’re feeling uneasy, so pause and assess the situation.
- Take steps to manage your triggers and reduce their harmful effects. Try a few of these ideas, for example.
- Incorporate other mindful ways for handling stress, which allow you to cope with the inevitable more effectively.
Of course, we all know that the best method for reducing stress is to try to prevent it in the first place. But that’s not always realistic, so stress-proof your body in advance by being sure to get enough sleep, eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods, avoiding excess stimulants and exercising regularly.
And for those times when everything just goes to hell in a handbasket? Well, try to keep it in perspective by uttering the advice from Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer, “Grant me the courage to change the things I can change, the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”