Many more of us will have experienced more and greater stress than usual in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has upturned our lives and interrupted our usual daily rhythms. It’s caused each and every one of us to experience unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, fear, frustration, loneliness, and more. It’s been a tough year. 

We have been living with uncertainty for much of 2020. We have been isolated from many of our usual companions while needing to cope with new and unexpected challenges, such as remote working and homeschooling our children. On top of these, we have worried about our own health and that of our loved ones, and have needed to consider how best to keep everyone safe. To experience stress in a situation of this magnitude is to be expected. 

 

Why we need to beat long-term stress

 

Many months’ worth of stress can cause great strain on our health, both physical and mental. Serious health issues that can be caused by or exacerbated by long-term stress include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety 
  • Sleep problems
  • Autoimmune issues
  • Weight problems and eating disorders
  • Fertility issues
  • Skin problems, such as eczema

After a difficult 2020, many of us urgently need to find ways of coping with stress to preserve our health. However, to beat stress, it is vital to have a better understanding of what it is you are facing. “Know your enemy,” so to speak. Here are three important things to learn. 

 

1. Understand what stress is.

Stress is your body’s natural way of responding to danger, threat or difficult demands placed on you. Stress can be seen as a positive way of helping you to protect yourself. 

Your body’s chemical response when you perceive danger or threats means that you will immediately feel a lot more alert and focused on the situation. It will give you a rush of energy. This should help you deal with a difficult or precarious situation. The extra rush of strength and vitality may help you hit the car brakes in time to avoid an accident, for example. Stress can be a good thing in situations like this. 

However, if your body is in stress mode for longer, this can have a negative effect on your health and well-being. The chemicals that hit our bodies when we perceive danger, crises, or difficult uncertainty will have a strong, negative effect if experienced over a longer period of days, weeks, months, or even years. Effects can include damage to our physical and mental health, our relationships, our productivity, and our quality of life in general. 

 

2. Know the difference between chronic and acute stress.

Everyone suffers from stress, even on a daily basis. There are two types of stress and it’s important to know the difference. This will help you decide on the right coping strategies.

The first type of stress is “acute stress.” This comes about from a sudden or temporary situation. Examples would include dealing with an unusually difficult customer at work one day or getting stuck in traffic at a bad time. This stress is short-term as the situation is quickly resolved. You may feel some of the physical symptoms of stress for a brief period before you feel “normal” again. 

Chronic stress,” on the other hand, is stress experienced as a result of a longer-term situation. This could be the result of unemployment, a consistently difficult work life, the drawn-out breakdown of a relationship, looming exams, or many other possibilities. The stress chemicals produced in your body can have damaging effects on your health when experienced long-term. It’s important to get help with chronic stress as early as possible.

 

3. Learn to recognize the first signs of stress.

Understanding the nascent stage of stress, just as it is beginning, is important. This will enable you to get timely help or initiate some coping strategies. 

The sudden physical symptoms of acute stress are familiar to most of us: a racing heart, sudden nausea and sweating are all normal reactions to a difficult situation. When the moment is over, our bodies will return to normal pretty quickly, as long as we are usually healthy and in reasonable shape. Repeated episodes of acute stress can be a cause of concern, otherwise we needn’t worry too much. Our bodies are built to recover well from occasional episodes of acute stress.

We need to be particularly alert to the first signs of chronic stress because they are not as instantly recognizable to many people. We may feel a little unwell but not realize the symptoms are caused by stress.

Here are some of the body’s first signs of chronic stress. They can be organized by physical symptoms, cognitive symptoms, and emotional symptoms:

 

Physical symptoms include:

  • Digestive upsets and/or abdominal pain
  • Aches and pains, and muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Nausea
  • Poorer immune system than usual i.e. catching more coughs and colds

You’ll notice that stress can have a negative impact on every part of your body. Beyond this, there are the effects on your brain.

 

Cognitive symptoms include:

  • Memory problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Sleep issues
  • Excessive procrastination

Emotional and behavioral symptoms include:

 

  • Feeling anxious and constantly worrying
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling down and depressed
  • Being irritable

 

How to get help in time

 

Being able to recognize the symptoms above as stress-related will help you step in with a stress-busting remedy much quicker. 

Often, you can manage stress yourself through various tactics. For instance, you may find that exercising or being more active help. Taking time out for relaxation and spending quality time with loved ones should also make a difference. Many people find stress-relieving benefits from practicing mindfulness or meditation. 

If these self-help techniques are not sufficient, then it is important to seek professional help in dealing with stress. This is vital for your long term physical and mental health. Healthcare professionals can provide treatments that are both non-invasive and without the need for medication

Neurofeedback, for example, is an anxiety treatment without medication. It involves the use of EEG monitoring in a comfortable, relaxing environment. The feedback is used to help your brain learn how to calm itself and combat the feelings of worry. 

Treatments like this can make a huge difference in your health and quality of life. Start 2021 by considering whether you might benefit from seeking help from healthcare professionals. 

 

 

Author: Upasana Gala

Dr. Upasana Gala is the founder and CEO of Evolve Brain Training, an award-winning neurofeedback-centered institute that focuses on using non-invasive brain training techniques to maximize the brain's true potential. Earning a doctorate in Neuroscience from the revered Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Gala has spent over a decade trying to unravel the way neurochemical and neurophysiological changes in the brain affect the way we interact with the world. Her goal is to share her knowledge, encourage others to tap into and expand their brain's capabilities, and dispel any myths surrounding our most complex organ.