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Since its beginning in 1992, the month of April has been dedicated to helping individuals better understand stress, its effects, and how to combat it in the modern era. Thanks to the foundational work of the International Stress Management Association, many organizations and individuals will be dedicating time to address the stress this year.

Why Talking About Stress Matters

Stress isn’t rare; many millions of Americans have felt or have reported feeling stressed within their lifetime. Whether it’s due to a job, health, family, or any number of daily situations, it’s likely that you’ve experienced these feelings yourself. Most commonly defined as “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension,” there’s no one way to define stress—it’s always individual to the people that experience it.

According to research from the American Psychological Association, roughly one-third of Americans are living with extreme stress and believe that their stress has significantly increased over the past five years. This specific study did not account for the additional stress that may have been caused during the past year’s global COVID-19 pandemic.

This is why it’s vital to have the stress conversation; it’s about connecting people to resources that help them understand the way they’re feeling and cope appropriately. Don’t let the stigma of admitting you’re stressed stop you from having a conversation with trusted friends and family members or asking for help—you’d be surprised how many people feel the same way as you do!

Identifying Your Stress

Now, some stress can help us perform tasks or respond to what’s happening in front of us. Say, for example, you have an important deadline at work: it’s likely that a good level of stress will help you stay on task and complete the assignment. Negative or harmful stress will limit your ability to do your best work and potentially cause physical or mental harm.

The signs of stress can be broken down into four basic categories:

  • Physical signs: Stress may manifest itself as aches or body pains, severe allergic reactions, rashes, dizziness, shaking, significant hormonal changes, or indigestion.
  • Emotional Signs: Stress may manifest itself in mood swings, tearfulness, extra sensitivity or defensiveness, increased lack of motivation, anger, or frustration.
  • Psychological Signs: Stress may manifest itself as an inability to concentrate, cognitive issues, lack of attention span, depression or anxiety, negative thinking, or insomnia.
  • Behavioral Signs: Stress may manifest as a lack of time for “fun” activities, increased accidents, increased reliance on drugs or alcohol, social withdrawal, aggression, or regular outbursts.

With this list, remember that not all symptoms may be recognized, and it’s important to see a professional if you’re worried. A doctor will also be able to help you understand if there’s a larger issue that your stress may be a part of, like an anxiety disorder.

Stress and COVID-19

It’s no secret that stress has significantly increased among all age groups during the Covid-19 pandemic. While you may have been tempted to focus on the needs of those around you, ignoring your own personal stress may have been exacerbating the problem all along. When you take care of your individual needs first, it will better enable you to help others. For parents or those who have others that regularly rely on that, this can be easier said than done. Start by setting a small goal to dedicate one hour a week to your mental health, whether through relaxing, participating in a fun hobby, calling a friend, or even speaking with a therapist.

As mentioned previously, it’s important to address what you’re feeling head-on. Small amounts of stress can become chronic over time if you’re not paying attention. This isn’t mean to cause alarm, but rather serve as a reminder that it’s vital to check in with yourself—for starters, think about your last week and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Was I able to complete everything I need to do this week?
  • Did I have sufficient energy this week, or did I feel drained?
  • Have I felt irritable or noticed any significant changes in my mood?
  • Have I been able to address my body’s needs over the past week, or is my physical health becoming less of a priority?
  • Am I absorbing someone else’s feelings?
  • Do I feel that I am in control of my week?

Based on your answers to these questions, it may be time to “refill the tank” and refuel your body with the things it needs like sleep, nourishment and a well-deserved break.

Simple Tips to Mitigate Daily Stress

While each individual may reduce their stress in different ways, it’s likely that you could use a few extra tactics to add to your arsenal. According to the experts at HealthMarkets, here are some ideas worth trying:

  • Participate in breathing exercises: Never underestimate what a few deep breaths can do when you’re in the middle of a stressful situation. Learn to practice controlled inhales and exhales over five-minute increments to help you reduce in-the-moment stress.
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is all about being present, and when you’re in the present, you’re less worried about the past or future. If you feel that your stress is stuck in your head, consider reading about mindfulness practices and build a routine that encourages you to focus on the present.
  • Increase your daily exercise: If you’re not a fan of the gym, consider going on daily walks or taking up a sport that you enjoy. Exercise doesn’t have to just be dumbbells and treadmills!
  • Improve your sleep hygiene: While this sounds like just washing the sheets (which is a good idea, too), “sleep hygiene” refers to the environment you create when it’s time to go to bed. Having good hygiene can mean not using the phone before bed, removing distractions from your bedroom or going to bed on time.
  • Add nutrients back into your diet: The things we eat can have a big impact on how we feel. Try to incorporate some healthy snacks back into your regular meals, but don’t feel like you have to avoid all sweets. An extra treat is good for morale on the bad days!

When to See a Professional

If you’re not seeing improvement or your stress begins to worsen, consider reaching out to a doctor or clinical psychologist for support. Don’t let the stigma of stress stop you from getting the help you need! In fact, improving your stress is the best possible way to celebrate your own Stress Awareness Month this year. Good luck!