Most of us have been trying to manage stress for months, if not years. Before last March, many adults juggled work, relationships, parenting, money management, and other daily challenges.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and increased the effects of stress. We worry about our own health and our family and friends, homeschooling, and financial struggles. Most started working even longer hours. We can’t see some loved ones in person. The activities we did for fun and exercise have been canceled or moved to Zoom.
The isolation can be especially difficult for LGBTQ youth and victims of domestic abuse.
The Effects of Stress on the Body
Clinical psychologist Casey Cavanaugh, PhD, works with patients who have both heart disease and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. She explains that both chronic and acute stress put us at risk for other health conditions.
Chronic stress — those underlying daily work, relationships, and time management challenges — makes it harder to find time and motivation to eat healthy and exercise. Over the years, this can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and other conditions.
Ultimately, this chronic stress is more likely to lead to health problems than acute stress. You might also experience a sudden “fight or flight” reaction after a stressful or traumatic event, like:
- Almost getting into a car accident
- Learning about the death of a loved one
- Being abused by a partner
“This releases stress hormones, such as adrenaline, into the body,” Cavanagh explains. “These hormones cause physical symptoms, including elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, and rapid breathing. They can place additional strain on the heart, especially if we experience chronic stress.”
Acute stress can trigger broken heart syndrome. During this rare but serious condition, part of the heart enlarges, so it’s hard for it to pump blood. While most people fully recover, it can cause permanent heart damage. Call 911 or go to the emergency room right away if you have symptoms, which are similar to a heart attack:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Dizziness or fainting
- Low blood pressure
9 Quick Relaxation Techniques to Relieve Stress
Cavanagh helped us develop these coping strategies to lessen the effects of stress. You might think you don’t have time. But many of them only take a minute or two.
1. Reframe your thoughts. Instead of, “This is the worst thing that has happened,” try, “I have dealt with difficult things before and can deal with this.”
2. Take a quick walk. Go outside if you can.
3. Stretch. Try these 8 quick stretches. You can probably do most of them in your work clothes.
4. Slow down your breathing. Cavanagh suggests paced breathing: Slowly inhale through your nose and then slowly exhale through your mouth.
5. Think about a relaxing, pleasant scene or memory. Cavanagh says to focus all your senses on it, like the smell of the salt air or the sound of waves crashing at the beach.
Stress Making You Sick?
Stress can trigger or aggravate medical problems. Our Behavioral Medicine Center can help.
6. Practice mindfulness. Take a 1-3 minute pause during your day. Focus on the present moment and your breath.
7. Do something fun. Read a few pages of your favorite book. Listen to a song. Watch a funny video.
8. Talk with your support system. This might be your co-workers, your family, or your best friend.
9. Get some natural light and fresh air. If you can’t go outside, gaze out the window, or open it on a nice day.