For most Americans, life seems to be getting progressively more stressful. Whether the source is a challenging personal relationship or work situation or economic and political events, Americans experience frequent and increasingly severe levels of stress.
The ever-increasing use of anxiety-relieving medications and opioids suggest that at least for some Americans, the degree of stress or anxiety that they experience exceeds their ability to cope.
Uncertainty and unpredictability breed stress. While epidemiological evidence of stress is difficult to obtain, data suggests that the most recent uptick in the national stress experience is related to the 2016-17 presidential campaign, election, and subsequent government gridlock.
Further, certain demographic groups experience stress at greater levels than others, in part due to actual or perceived political, social, and economic events. For example, individuals who are disenfranchised, experience high levels of stress.
Fortunately, people can manage reasonable levels of stress and prevent a moderate amount of stress from becoming overwhelming. But doing so requires action, and there is an apparent disconnect between knowing what to do and doing it.
The steady growth in self-reported levels of stress suggests that despite the availability of stress-reducing techniques, many Americans are either not aware of them or are not using them on a regular basis.
Stress In The United States
The United States is under stress. Stress levels increased 10 percent to 30 percent from 1983 to 2009, according to a study from Carnegie Mellon University.
Since 2007, the American Psychological Association, as part of its Mind/Body campaign has examined how stress impacts Americans. In 2007, the American Psychological Association began to survey Americans’ stress; subsequent reports, such as in 2011, 2015 and 2017, demonstrated increasing* stress levels.
Another new study in the journal Psychiatric Services revealed that the number of Americans with severe psychological distress rose from 2006 to 2014, but the proportion who lacked health coverage and money to buy prescriptions also increased
Even if ridiculously high-stress levels are the new norm, there are a lot of things people can do to manage their stress and prevent it from negatively affecting their lives. People who successfully manage their stress have healthy daily habits and use adaptive coping mechanisms.
However, it is important first to understand what causes stress and why it causes the feelings it does.
The Effects Of Stress
We all know that stress is a normal part of life. The human body has an entire system built in to perceive and respond to stress. This system gives the species the best possible chances of survival.
The sympathetic nervous system understands how scary and dangerous stress can be, and responds faster than the brain can cognitively process what is happening.
Sometimes called the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, the body reacts to perceived threats with an instant cascade of electrochemical signals and reflexes.
For example, if someone were to sneak up to a friend and yell, “Hey, Buddy!”, that someone might end up with a punch in the nose before he finishes the word “Buddy.” The friend then responds with phrases like, “Are you all right?”, “Don’t surprise me like that!” and “Shall I call an ambulance for you?”
During the fight-or-flight response, the body jumps into survival mode. Dramatic changes occur in heart rate, blood flow patterns, pupil size, breathing, hormone levels, and more.
Even during events that are not life-threatening, measurable physical responses occur that are designed to reduce* or eliminate* the stressor. These natural responses are meant to guide people toward behaviors that will help them successfully adapt to whatever is causing the stress.
But in extreme situations, even healthy nervous systems and coping mechanisms are not enough, and people become overwhelmed.
Too much stress has been widely reported to exacerbate physical illnesses, such as Parkinson’s disease, asthma, and diabetes. Stress has been reported to cause or contribute to the development of many illnesses, including:
- Ulcers of the stomach or intestinal tract
- Cardiovascular disease
- Substance use disorders
- Mental illnesses
Importantly, those post-surgery patients who are the least stressed, have the best outcomes. Stress can interfere with the body’s healing process.
Coping With Stress
People can tolerate emotional stress to a certain point, but stress has a cumulative effect. When emotions accumulate to the point that everyday life is negatively affected, more problems (and thus more stress) naturally follow. The important thing is to stop a downward spiral of hopelessness from forming.
Fortunately, there are things people can do to help themselves.
Stress-related illnesses are treatable and, most importantly, largely preventable. Established healthy lifestyle habits promote resilience to circumstances that would otherwise exhaust one’s ability to cope.
A healthy lifestyle must include at least the following:
- A nutritious diet
- Regular exercise
- Good sleeping habits (consistent sleep and wake time, reduced* caffeine and stimulation)
- Balanced work and leisure time
- Social support
A few simple examples of how a healthy lifestyle prevents and moderates stress include the following:
- A woman is sabotaged by her co-workers while working on a project, so works out extra-long and hard at her gym. The resultant endorphins produce natural pain-killing hormones.
- A man loses his job, but is able to find another through his network of friends
- A teenager is upset about something that happened at school, but feels better after a nap and a long walk with her mom after dinner. Social relationships produce the “feel good or love hormone” called oxytocin.
When Stress Is Overwhelming?
Extreme, repetitive or ongoing stress or trauma can have detrimental mental and physical effects. For example, uncontrollable stress leads to depression and unpredictable stress leads to prolonged anxiety.
Although such severe circumstances are rarely preventable, some are treatable. While an obvious question might be, “How much stress is too much?”, the answer becomes readily apparent when reactions, such as any of the following, develop:
- Freezing in place rather than moving out of harm’s way
- Emotional fainting (vasovagal reflex in response to a shocking emotional event)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (occurs when traumatic events overwhelm the individual’s ability to cope.)
- Dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities emerge from exposure to prolonged and severe trauma)
- Overstimulation (tantrums in the young, sensory processing disorder in older people)
Without a normal, healthy routine, people may not have the resources they immediately need to cope. The lack of healthy coping skills may lead individuals to seek trauma relief through unhealthy or even dangerous quick fixes such as:
- Over- or under-eating, or eating junk food
- Social isolation, which includes social media overuse
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Use of drugs and/or alcohol
- Addictive behaviors such as gambling, sex, shopping
- Discontinuing healthy habits in favor of any of the above
Making unhealthy choices while under stress can quickly lead to maladaptive lifestyle habits and a loss of the healthy resources needed to manage stress. Over time, returning to healthy patterns of behavior can be very challenging to correct without some sort of help.
Community-based self-help organizations offering peer support from others with similar problems are very prevalent today. These organizations can provide social support to individuals suffering from a multitude of problems, such as alcohol and drugs use, gambling, overeating, and grief.
Different types of groups are available, including faith-based, secular, gender-based, LBGT, to name a few. The wide range of support that is available provides hope to all who feel isolated and lonely.
Sometimes more formal help is needed. Behavioral health care professionals specialize in helping people manage stress and regain control over their lives by working through past traumas and current barriers to health.
Psychotherapists come from all different educational backgrounds and specialties, but those with doctoral degrees who are licensed in a particular state to practice psychology are called psychologists.
How Psychologists Help People Overcome Stress?
Even psychologists come from different educational backgrounds, specialties and subspecialties, including research, education and clinical care. Clinical psychology is a specialty area that focuses on preventing, assessing, diagnosing and treating mental illnesses.
Social, emotional and behavioral issues can exacerbate mental illnesses, including relationship problems and chronic stress.
Clinical psychologists generally work with people who have severe mental illnesses whereas counseling psychologists focus mainly on helping patients with problems such as stress and coping with anxiety.
Clinical and counseling psychologists are experts in psychotherapy or talk therapy. Clinical psychologists may also employ other techniques such as biofeedback, neuro feedback and a host of cognitive strategies.
Psychotherapy is based on techniques that scientific evidence has shown is are safe and effective for assessing and treating patients. Psychotherapy can be conducted in various settings, including individual, couples, family or group.
Psychologists understand when a patient requires referral to additional mental health specialists, such as a psychiatrist or neurologist for management of underlying or co-occurring (e.g., alcohol use and a mental disorder) medical conditions.
Psychotherapy is physically painless, but it can stir up emotional pain. Bringing up uncomfortable feelings is important so that psychologists can help their patients sort out unresolved issues and move forward with their lives.
Patients can rest assured that a box of tissues will be available and that what is said in counseling sessions is confidential.
Choosing the right psychologist is important so that patients feel comfortable expressing themselves openly and honestly. Many clinical and counseling psychologists have specialized areas of interest and expertise, such as stress management, divorce or substance abuse.
The American Psychological Association offers guidance on what to consider when choosing a psychologist, questions to ask, credentials to check and how to get the most out of therapy so that people under stress can get the most out of life.
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