Stress and Mental Health: What’s the Connection?
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the role situational stress plays on mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, more than two-thirds of adults say their stress levels rose during the pandemic and almost half experienced everyday tension and mood swings.[i] If you or someone you know got sick, if you were an essential worker, or if you balanced working at a desk wedged into your bedroom with overseeing remote school for a kid or two or five, none of this should come as a surprise to you. It was a hard year for almost everyone.
What Causes Stress?
But stress isn’t unique to this strange, difficult time. Some level of stress is a constant in most people’s lives, though it tends to ebb and flow depending on circumstances. Top causes of occasional stress include financial difficulties, work, relationships, and parenting.[ii] With the exception of money troubles, these are also things that can bring satisfaction, joy, and purpose. So the idea isn’t to completely eliminate any irritant that can spin you out, but to recognize when you’re feeling stress and figure out how to cohabitate.
What are the Effects of Stress?
You feel the physical effects of stress because your body is an awesome planner. The “fight or flight” response is its adaptive reaction to a perceived threat. It anticipates that if you’re in danger, you’ll naturally either do battle (that’s the “fight” part) or run (that’s the “flight” part). A racing heart and quicker breathing deliver extra blood and oxygen to your cells, and tightened muscles make you ready to spring.
These physical changes helped our ancestors attack the saber-toothed tiger or run away from it. But when your stress response is triggered too often — and you’re neither fighting nor fleeing — you may experience low energy, weight gain, digestive distress, difficulty sleeping, lowered immunity, headaches, and low mood. [iii] All things that are profoundly unhelpful in the long term.
What should you do when situational stress starts to overwhelm you?
- Step Away from the Coffee. When you’re in a hole, the best advice is to stop digging. Caffeine can negatively affect mental health in some folks, so try cutting down on the java and see if that helps.[iv]
- Get Physical. Exercise is a well-known stress-buster because it lowers stress hormones such as cortisol, it releases feel-good endorphins, and it helps you sleep better.[v] That’s powerful stuff! Know what else lowers cortisol? Getting busy in the bedroom.[vi]
- Smell the Roses. (And the Lavender and the Ylang Ylang.) Studies have found essential oils can calm the nervous system and even help you sleep better.[vii],[viii],[ix] You can light a scented candle or use a diffuser to create your own mini-spa at home. Experiment to find your favorite scent; just make sure to use real essential oils — not the fake stuff.
- Do Yoga. You knew we were gonna say this, didn’t ya? Everybody recommends yoga for stress relief, but that’s because it works. Yoga is scientifically shown to lift mood and promote calm by lowering cortisol, blood pressure, and heart rate, while increasing GABA, a calming neurotransmitter.[x],[xi] Om!
- Jot it Down. All those anxious thoughts swimming around in your head feel less overwhelming when you put them to paper. That’s why keeping a journal can help relieve stress. Many people find a gratitude journal especially helpful, because it turns your attention to the good things in your life.
- Talk it Out. Talking to a good friend can help your burdens feel lighter. Make a coffee date — wait, maybe make it an herbal tea date —with a friend who’s a good listener and let it all out.
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