During the holiday season, stress levels often increase. Short-duration stress is easier to handle, but when it becomes chronic, it can take a heavy toll on your health and well-being.
Conditions related to chronic stress include depression, skin conditions, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, sleep disturbances and weight gain. While there is no way to avoid stress, there are numerous ways to help manage it.
• Be aware of your breathing patterns. When stressed, breathing becomes more shallow and rapid. If you catch this happening to you, focus on taking deeper and longer breaths, which automatically begins to settle nerves and redirect energy. Even imagining the act of slowly inhaling and exhaling is enough to help most people feel calmer.
• Nearly one-third of Americans report living with what they feel is extreme stress, and as many as 40 percent have experienced work-related illness or burnout. Stress is your body’s fight or flight response to a real or imagined threat, and can work for you or against you.
If recognized as a natural response and directed appropriately, it actually serves to your advantage. When adrenaline is elevated, for example, it can help to make you more productive. The key is to be in tune with how you react to difficult situations, and not overuse the stress response.
• Exercise is an absolute must for anyone who experiences chronic stress. Why? Physical activity provides an ideal outlet for getting rid of negativity that would otherwise be turned inward, and the choices are endless. Working out is a golden opportunity to get away from it all and spend some time taking care of yourself.
• Reactions to stressful situations vary from person to person. For those who tend to get agitated or angry, more intense forms of activity like punching a heavy bag or power walking can do wonders. For others, feelings of fatigue, sadness or hopelessness surface. In this case, motivation is harder to come by, and the idea of exercising may seem out of the question. If this happens, refocus on what research shows, which is that exercise changes body chemistry, increasing feel-good hormones.
• Aches and pains? When under stress, the muscles involuntarily contract, which can leave you feeling stiff, achy and out of sorts. The neck, back and shoulders are the most commonly affected areas. To combat these muscle contractions, consider massage, or simply take a few minutes to gently stretch.
• Write it down. In short, pinpoint the sources of stress as well as your responses to them. Putting thoughts to paper makes things clearer and affords the opportunity to think logically instead of emotionally about the situation.
If despite your best efforts your stress is truly unmanageable, seek help. Insomnia, depression, body image disorders, anxiety or anything affecting your ability to live a happy, productive life should be taken seriously and dealt with as soon as possible.
Marjie Gilliam is a personal trainer and fitness consultant in Dayton, Ohio.