April Reflections: On Stress

Did you know that April is “Stress Awareness Month”? If your response is, “Thanks, but I’m well aware of my stress every month of the year,” well… I hear you.

In many ways, the past year has felt like the ultimate stress test, as the pandemic threw us all into simultaneous public health, economic, and social crises. Now, thanks to a surprisingly speedy vaccine rollout, Americans are beginning to envision a post-pandemic world, as schools, shops, restaurants, and workplaces open up again. But this brings its own set of stressors: Will we be awkward in social settings after so much time apart? What might our workplaces and schools ask of us now? Can we make up for lost time? Will we have to? 

I don’t think anyone would disagree that this Year of Covid has been uniquely stressful. But Stress Awareness Month isn’t just about recognizing that stress exists in our lives. It’s about differentiating between the kind of stress that can light a fire under us, and the kind that feels like it’s grinding us down. 

Researchers differentiate between three types of stress: acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress. Acute, or short-term stress—the kind our early ancestors faced when a hungry predator approached—triggers the brain to release the hormones that prepare the body for the “fight or flight” response: epinephrine (adrenaline) increases heart rate and blood pressure, providing your body with a jolt of energy, while cortisol increases glucose levels in the brain and bloodstream, fueling your muscles and enabling you to stay focused under pressure.

Today, we’re less likely to face stress in the form of hungry wild animals (I hope!) and more likely to encounter it as we race to meet a deadline, give an important presentation, or strive to make a good impression on a first date. In limited doses, stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it can inspire us to do our best work, while building our resilience. 

But living in a frequent (episodic) or constant (chronic) state of stress does the opposite. Being stressed all the time will worsen your mood, making you prone to irritability, negativity, and depression. Even more alarming, over time chronic stress can lead to serious physical problems including migraine, digestive disorders, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. 

I can always tell I’m spiraling into stress when I feel like I have too many thoughts rolling around in my head. That happened to me earlier this month, as I began prepping my notes for an upcoming Getaway board meeting. In these moments, I can get caught up in self-doubt and anxiety, worried about whether I’m meeting expectations and if my ideas make sense.

In order to break the cycle of circular thinking, I find it helpful to go for a walk, take a bath, or listen to a podcast. A change of scenery or the sound of other voices can get me out of my head long enough to give me some much-needed perspective. 

I also find it helpful to focus on the other side of the thing that’s causing me stress. Sometimes I remind myself of mantras like The only way out is through or This too shall pass. They may be a little corny, but they hold truth. I remind myself that the board meeting is just a moment in time. The next day, it’ll be behind me.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it helpful to think back on past experience as a guidepost. I remind myself that I always go through this period of stress and anxiety before board meetings. But then I always pull my notes together, and even enjoy myself, as the team and I work to move the company forward. 

No matter how stressful things are right now, there’s a future on the other side. Take a deep breath.

To create healthy boundaries around stress, the American Psychological Association offers six tips:

Set limits. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, write out all of your responsibilities on a list, and cut back on non-essential ones.

Ask for help. Reach out to friends, family, colleagues, and mentors for guidance and strategies on making life feel more manageable, and don’t be afraid to delegate tasks if you’ve taken on too much.

Make one commitment for your health. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, the idea of adding anything can seem impossible, but even a small change can make an impact. This might be something as minor as committing to cut back on caffeine, or taking a few breaks to go on a walk or practice deep breathing throughout the day.

Get sleep. It’s a vicious cycle: stress can make it hard to fall asleep, while sleep deprivation makes you less resilient in the face of stress. To improve sleep, experts recommend maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and screens before bed, getting exercise (but not right before bed), and keeping your bedroom cool and dark during the hours you’re trying to sleep. 

Try to stay positive. Sometimes we worsen our stress by setting impossible standards for ourselves and our work. (I’m definitely guilty of this.) Cut yourself some slack, keeping in mind that you’ll do better work when you’re feeling good. If you find yourself expressing pessimistic opinions more often than not, challenge yourself to reframe your thoughts in more positive light.

Seek professional help. If your stress levels are impacting your focus, mood, or relationships, you may want to schedule an appointment with a therapist. Mental health professionals can work with you to develop strategies for managing stress (and any other issues you’re dealing with), and will be more objective than your friends or family.

Need to schedule some free time in nature? Book your Getaway today.