4 Min Read

Coping Skills in a Time of High-Stress

Heather Lyons, Ph.D.

Between an exhausting election season, an uncertain economic future, and increasing death tolls due to COVID-19, adults throughout the United States are experiencing chronic stress and its mental health consequences.

The American Psychological Association’s 2021 Stress in America report found that 84% of respondents experienced at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress during January, with anxiety, sadness, and anger being the most commonly reported emotions.

Life’s stressors remind us that much is beyond our control—and that can feel daunting. Fortunately, developing healthy coping skills to take care of your mind and body can help you build resilience to navigate stressful situations.

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How Chronic Stress Impacts the Body

When dealing with stressful situations, the body reacts by sending signals to the nervous system, promoting the adrenal gland’s release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. The body’s stress response leads the body to redirect blood flow from large muscles to the heart, which causes increased blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration.

While the “fight-or-flight” response can help us avoid dangerous situations, it’s difficult to disengage the body’s physical reaction to stressful events. Over time, high stress levels can lead to a wide range of health problems. The adverse effects of high levels of stress include:

  • High blood pressure, glucose, and cortisol levels
  • Weakened immune system
  • Obesity
  • Headaches and muscle tension
  • Mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety

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Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress

Too much stress can keep you from feeling your best mentally, physically, and emotionally. Learning healthy ways to manage stress can help you build resilience, take care of your health, and navigate life’s stressors with ease.

Take a break.

When you’re facing high levels of stress, it can be tempting to use social media as a distraction from your stressors. However, social media can lead to depression, low self-esteem, psychological stress, and anxiety. From comparing ourselves to others to spending too much time scrolling to get enough sleep, social media can take a serious toll on mental health.

Instead of scrolling through social media, prioritize your self-care by making time for the activities you enjoy. Even if you’re down, spending time in the natural environment, catching up with a friend, or reading a book can help you manage your stress levels. If you’re having a hard time setting your phone down, try turning off notifications or keeping your phone in another room.

Eat well and move more.

Eating a healthy diet and incorporating regular physical activity into your schedule can help you feel better—both physically and mentally. A healthy diet not only improves your mood but also allows you to think more clearly, according to research from Harvard Medical School.

Because the foods you eat affect how you feel, it’s essential to be mindful when eating. For example, if alcohol and caffeine increase your stress levels, limit your intake or avoid them altogether.

If you’re not sure how to start exercising, yoga is a significant first step. As one of the best exercises for stress management, yoga is ideal for people of all fitness levels, with different poses offering beneficial effects for the body and mind. One of the most common poses, downward dog, increases your heart rate, promotes lower cortisol levels, and boosts core strength.

Reach out for support.

Although the pandemic has made it more difficult to maintain social contact with our loved ones, it also emphasized social support. If you’re feeling low or caught in a pattern of negativity, reaching out to friends and family members can remind you how much you’re loved and supported.

While restrictions may require you to be somewhat tech-savvy to connect with friends and family members, research shows that social support can lead to stress reduction, lower levels of anxiety, depression, higher levels of resiliency, and other beneficial effects on overall health.

Try meditating.

Meditation involves focusing your undivided attention toward one thing while remaining in a state of relaxation for a set amount of time. Meditation aids in stress reduction by preventing your mind from drifting into other thoughts or sources of stress.

According to a systematic review, deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are associated with numerous positive effects, from lower stress levels to freeing your mind of distractions. If you’re facing higher stress levels, try downloading a meditation app, watching videos online, or spending time alone in a calming green space.

Seek professional help.

If overwhelming stress interferes with your everyday life, it may be time to seek professional help. If left untreated, higher stress levels can lead to burnout, mental health concerns, and physical health problems.

When you experience chronic stress, negative thought patterns can become entrenched, negatively affecting your feelings and behaviors. Therapy is a great reminder that thoughts are not facts. With stress management skills, you can change your thoughts, manage your stress symptoms, and foster more positive feelings and behaviors.

To find a therapist, reach out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a therapist you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements.

One of the licensed mental health professionals on the WithTherapy platform will help you understand your stressors, manage the symptoms of stress, and find healthy ways to cope with stressful situations.

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