According to the American Institute of Stress (AIS), 73% of the population regularly experiences psychological symptoms due to stress. April is Stress Awareness Month, which allows us to reflect on how we can prepare for the stress of finding the right summer child care, finishing the school year or semester or even planning family vacations.
Dr. Danielle Jahn, of SIMEDHealth Psychology, said picking up on the signs of stress is essential because any type of unmanaged stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and even physical symptoms.
"Stress can exacerbate a wide variety of conditions, like ADHD, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and cognitive issues. All sorts of mental health diagnoses can certainly be worsened or exacerbated by stress," Dr. Jahn said.
According to Dr. Jahn, stress activates the sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous system that reacts during the fight or flight response. Because our brain perceives stress as a threat, that’s when our heart rate increases, blood flow changes, and our breathing becomes faster and shallow.
Over time, chronic stress can cause physical symptoms such as having a hard time sleeping, inflammation in the body, a weakened immune system, worsened pain from preexisting medical conditions, and flare-ups of autoimmune disorders.
To help reduce your feelings of stress and avoid physical complications, here are five techniques that Dr. Jahn recommends.
Deep breathing tells your brain to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of our nervous system that slows everything back down until you’re calm again. It puts the brakes on the stress response that the sympathetic nervous system has started.
Dr. Jahn recommends practicing deep breathing as a skill at least a couple minutes per day to help de-stress.
This technique is used to identify where we carry tension from stress in our bodies, and to help release that tension. Dr. Jahn recommends starting from your head and working your way down.
Tense and hold a specific muscle group for 5-10 seconds and then completely relax those muscles. Work through your whole body doing that as a way to identify where your stress is and let it go.
Being mindful means slowing down and being present in the moment, Dr. Jahn said. The example she likes to use is that you can either mindfully brush your teeth or unmindfully brush your teeth. If you are brushing your teeth and thinking about everything you didn’t get done yesterday or everything that you need to do later, you’re not being present.
“If you stop and focus in on that moment of brushing your teeth, you’re helping your mind be present,” she said. “Being present and not allowing your thoughts to race or wander helps reduce feelings of stress.”
Acceptance means understanding that things are going to go wrong, she said.
“This summer you may plan the perfect vacation and it ends up raining the whole time or one of the kids gets sick. So practicing acceptance is the idea that we can’t control everything.” Dr. Jahn said.
We can either choose to dwell on those negative things, which will cause us more stress, or we can choose to accept that they’ve happened and turn our attention to other more positive things. This technique can help us reduce our feelings of stress even though those negative things have happened.
Living by your values:
“Living consistently with your values just means knowing what’s really important to you and doing things that are consistent with that,” Dr. Jahn said.
The example she used is: Let’s say your most important value is your family. Ask yourself if you really need to take on all the extra tasks your boss asks of you, or if you need to bake for the event at your kids’ school since those tasks will probably mean less quality time with your family. Saying yes to all those requests is just going to create additional stress in your life and not make you feel more fulfilled.
Dr. Jahn’s final words of wisdom for Stress Awareness Month are:
"There are a lot of great things we can do on our own to help manage stress. But if at any point you're feeling like its overwhelming and you aren't managing it well on your own, then it's probably time to consult somebody. You can talk always to your primary care provider or you can come see us in psychology."
Click here to learn more about Dr. Jahn, or request an appointment in a SIMEDHealth Psychology department closest to you.