The word “stress”, like “busy”, has become so frequently used that it has almost lost its meaning. And the definition of the word “stress” has different meanings to different people. But studies are revealing that we are beyond stressed today – we are suffering from burnout, clinical exhaustion and throughout the holiday season, our collective emotions are heightened more than any other time of year, subsequently intensifying these negative feelings.
According to the American Institute of Stress (AIS), stress can be broken down into 4 categories:
- Acute Stress: The state in which the body prepares to defend itself, commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response. Once this response has left the body, it takes 90 minutes for your metabolism to return to normal.
- Chronic Stress: This is the stress that affects the physical functions of your body, if left unmanaged. Chronic stress can be brought on by many factors, most commonly daily work and life balance issues.
- Eustress: This is daily stress that has positive implications – the happy highs.
- Distress: This is any stress from daily life that has the opposite effect from eustress. Distress is the most commonly referred to form of stress.
Furthermore, burnout is defined by the AIS as the physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or distress. It is a form of extreme exhaustion, often paired with clinical exhaustion which occurs when you start to suffer from debilitating, physical impacts of being overwhelmed (such as hives, incessant physical pain, and/or feelings of depression and hopelessness, to name a few). Once you suffer from burnout, it is common to feel as if you have nothing left to give anyone else and daily functionality can become very difficult. This is often a precursor to depression.
It is important to first recognize and then promptly start to treat signs of burnout before you are no longer capable of managing your own emotions. The following tips are designed to help you identify and then prevent your stress factors from causing you burnout:
- Identify your emotions: Health professionals agree that while you cannot always control your emotions, most of us are capable of managing them. But first, you need to label your feelings. Make a list of your feelings throughout the day and delve into why you felt the way you did. Then rank your list, from the strongest feelings to the least impactful, and get an idea of how your body reacts to the way you feel. This step is critical, before starting to find ways to handle your feelings. In some cases, acknowledging your feelings and writing them down can begin to lessen their effects on your mental health.
- Ask yourself why you feel the way you do: By exploring what led you to feeling distressed, you can better manage your responses to those feelings. You can also create a more effective plan to tackle those emotions and prevent them from recurring. For example, if you are overwhelmed at home and finding dinner dishes in the sink sent you over the edge, write that down and ask for help from your family members. You may find that once you have asked, your family will clue in that they can foster a happier you through helping out more often!
- Find a physical outlet for your feelings: While writing things down is a highly effective tool, for many people it is not enough. Find what works for you as an outlet when you are feeling distressed. For some people, it is physical activity, sometimes as simple as a walk outdoors and other times a more aggressive outlet may be required, such as kickboxing or running. Exercising outdoors has proven to be of maximum benefit for your mental well-being. For others, reading a book calms the mind like nothing else. Whatever works for you, use it and note how it makes you feel afterwards. And if one outlet doesn’t work, try another! These are elements of self-care, a practice that can literally save your mental health.
- Fuel your body: Eating healthily not only benefits your physical health but your mental health as well. Ensure you diet consists of wholesome, healthy foods, that you are drinking plenty of water, limiting caffeine and alcohol (as they both exacerbate distress in the body) and use supplements if you feel your diet may be lacking. Keep your blood sugar up to help prevent dips in energy. Consult your doctor about some healthy supplements that can help to combat stress, such as ashwagandha (proven to help lower cortisol levels and combat stress) or lemon balm (helps to decrease feelings of anxiety, promotes performance and memory).
- Get unplugged: Excessive screen time, no matter the source (i.e. smart phones, computers, television), has a negative impact on your health, from the sedentary factors to the feelings of disconnection from the present time and place. Take a break from it all, consider a digital detoxfrom all electronic devices, and you are guaranteed to notice the positive impact this has on the way you feel. Once you remove that demand for immediacy that comes from social media and e-mail, you will find you have a clearer mind and more time for what’s important. It will likely help you to reprioritize and redirect your precious time accordingly. You may find that you feel more focused and engaged in the other activities you take on instead, such as exercising, enjoying meals and time with family and friends. Sometimes you have to disconnect to reconnect, as the saying goes.
- Give generously: The act of generosity has far-reaching and positive impacts on your emotional state. While it is wonderful to give to family and friends, consider giving to those less fortunate. And this does not have to be a financial exercise. The gift of your time or your company can be just as impactful. Consider volunteering for a community organization, at a soup kitchen, for an animal shelter, visit seniors in a home, or start a drive in your community through which you collectively give to others. By focusing your energy on something bigger than yourself, something meaningful and impactful, you will find your stress levels significantly decreased.
- Laugh more: There is a reason for the expression “laughter is the best medicine”! Laughter actually exercises several muscles in your body and forces a rush of happy endorphins to your brain. A psycho-neuro-immunology based study out of the U.S. found that subjects who laughed at humorous material for 30 minutes a day had fewer arrhythmias, lower blood pressure, lower stress levels and required less heart-based medications. Your physical body cannot tell the difference between genuine or forced laughter, just as long as you’re laughing. So give it a try and notice the difference in the way you feel. Laughter doesn’t cost a thing!
Recovering from feelings of chronic stress and burnout takes time, but through identifying those feelings and working through them at your own pace, you are taking care of yourself the best way possible. Your path to wellbeing will be different from someone