The release of the hormone cortisol is what causes stress, but although too much of it is detrimental to your health, we wouldn’t be here without it. It’s natural to be stressed out, because it’s in our DNA. The fight-or-flight response allowed our ancestors to fight off prey and survive danger, but today, stress is looked at more and more as a burden of modern society you simply have to accept and can never truly overcome. We accept this sometimes-massive accumulation of stress because we don’t see a way to get out from under it.
Maybe you’re not worried about stress. Maybe you think it’s not that bad, or it’s your burden to bear. As men, especially, we’re taught to hold in our feelings and “be a man about it.” We’re taught that life is hard, but you rub some dirt on your wounds and get on with it. It’s adages and philosophies like this that tell you to not ask for help, because even considering that there’s a problem makes you some kind of failure. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if our kids lived in a world where they didn’t have to be ashamed of their shortcomings? Maybe the next step in our evolution is an openness and honesty about problems we often run from. If you want to take the first step toward a better life for everyone, take a minute, from time to time, to consider what decisions and habits in your life might need adjustment.
Don’t do this only for yourself. A recent study found that stress is contagious. Even by watching dramatic TV shows or being in the vicinity of a stressed-out stranger, your cortisol levels can rise. In the study, the amount of stress was even higher between those people who were in a relationship. So, yes, too much stress is bad for you, but it’s also hurting those you love. I talked before about de-stressing at home, but let’s talk now about the daily grind stress forces upon us all.
What stress does to you
We all probably realize too much stress can hurt us both physically and mentally. It can give you headaches, chest pain, fatigue and sleep problems. It can make you restless, anxious, irritable or depressed, and it’s closely associated with addiction problems. It could change the way your brain functions. It makes men become more self-centered, while women, interestingly enough, become more social. It’s been linked to higher rates of disability and increases your risk of early mortality. You get the point. The list goes on and on, really, and-perhaps most alarmingly-the full effects still aren’t known.
Still, some amount of stress can be good for you. It can make you more focused and can temporarily increase performance levels. Our bodies set out to try and help us complete tasks, but as these tasks add up and more time passes, we get tired and performance begins a steady fall. And, unfortunately, we may not realize when we’ve hit that wall.
Being aware of your stress
Acute, short-term stress is usually easy to recognize. It can cause an increased heart rate, heavy breathing and higher levels of alertness. Basically, you know it when it comes, but you may not always know when it’s gone. If stress lingers long enough, it can become the norm, not the exception. You could be suffering from “iceberg stress” wherein you perceive the slight amounts on the surface, but either ignore or are wholly unaware of what lurks beneath. It’s easy, then, to say it’s out of your control and there’s nothing you can do about it. When you do this, you only push the stress further down. Who knows what exactly it’s doing under there? But even though you may not know, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s not good for you.
There’s so much information about stress, and really, you don’t have to look too hard to find it. We all know stress exists, and we’re all trying to figure out how to fight it. But at a certain point, beating stress stops being about what you know and starts being about what you’re doing to overcome it.
What can you do?
Stop feeling helpless against stress. Some people need medication to combat it, and if you think you might, get the opinion of the person who matters the most: your doctor. But if that’s not the answer, then, like I said before, just take a moment to consider yourself. Can you gauge your own stress objectively? Probably not, but have you even tried? Being aware and accepting that there is a problem is step one. Once you do this, you can start fixing the problem. Now, there are plenty of lists out there giving you various methods to beat stress, but there is no cure-all.
You can’t stop life’s stressful moments from happening. So the best way to make a change-from decreasing your stress to losing weight or eating better-is to start slowly. You’re not going to lose 10 pounds in a week (and you shouldn’t try to). You’re not going to go from biting your fingernails and pulling out your hair to being the calmest person you know in a week, either. It’s a process. It’s about allowing yourself to improve over time. When it comes to stress, accept the fact that you want to make a change. Doing so may not be easy; at times, it’ll even be harder. But if you want to get better, stop bottling up your feelings and pushing them below the surface. Confront your stress. Confront the problems you face every day, and tell yourself you’re not going to let them control you. Find your own ways to de-stress and don’t stop doing them, no matter what. Tell your loved ones how they can help, and by working together, life will get a little easier for everyone.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.