Perhaps one of your New Year’s Resolutions was to stress less this year. You wouldn’t be alone. Although Americans are feeling on average less stress than back in 2007, we’re still rating our level at 4.9 out of 10, above the level considered to be healthy of 3.7. Many people recognize that their stress level is not healthy. More than 40 percent admit they don’t do enough to manage their stress. And caregivers, like parents, stress more than Americans on average.
What is stress?
It’s actually a mental and physical response to stimuli around us. In the animal world, stress helps animals get out of life and death situations by putting their brains on alert. Their bodies get a boost of hormones to help improve reaction times if they need to escape or defend themselves. For humans, the stimuli have transitioned from hunting for meals to the power of the mighty dollar. We face continuous stress in our lives about how to provide the best for our families, how to succeed, and ultimately how to have the best life. That continuous stress can be dangerous though.
Why stress is bad
Stress in itself isn’t bad. It’s a normal part of life. However, the continuous level of stress that humans have means that our bodies never return to a normal state where we’re not worried about the world around us. According to the Mayo Clinic, “without stress management…your body is always on high alert.” Long-term high levels of stress can be a contributing factor to chronic conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
Stress can affect your body, your emotions and your behavior. The most common symptoms of stress that people recognize are those related to mood.
Muscle tension or pain
Change in sex drive
Lack of motivation or focus
Irritability or anger
Sadness or depression
Overeating or undereating
Drug or alcohol abuse
How to manage stress
The first step in reducing stress is to be mindful of when you experience it. Identify what triggers your stressful feelings and then you can develop a plan for reducing it. Be honest with yourself when you think about your feelings. Are you overwhelmed, isolated, easily irritated? Some stress triggers can be avoided, but many cannot, so you’ll have to figure out ways to change your reaction to those rather than try to prevent them from happening.
The situation of caring for a loved one is particularly stressful because it requires nonstop vigilance. Depending on your schedule of care, you probably spend most of your time directly caring for and/or thinking about the loved one you care for. That doesn’t leave much time for the rest of your life, let alone to rejuvenate.
Solitary techniques like meditation and yoga can help clear your mind of stressful thoughts, but they may not be enough. Talking with someone about what worries you (whether that’s a friend or a trained counselor) can help to get the stressor out in the open. There are many resources for caregivers ranging from the Office of Women’s Health to the Family Caregiver’s Alliance, which offers local support groups.
Be sure to organize your loved one’s schedule to include time for yourself. By making it official, you don’t have to worry about taking time away from caring for her, and you can feel confident that your allocated time will be spent well.
Relief doesn’t have to come through a quiet activity. Since one of the responses to stress is a hormonal boost throughout your body, it may be helpful to channel that energy through exercise like walking, running or cycling. Fresh air helps, too!
So before you resolve to eliminate stress from your life completely, take a moment to consider why you’re stressed and address one thing at a time. Relax, you shouldn’t have to add “Abandoned Resolution” to the reasons you’re stressed!