Stress affects most Americans, and it can take a toll on a person in many ways."About one-third (31 percent) of employed adults have difficulty managing work and family responsibilities and 35 percent cite jobs interfering with their family or personal time as a significant source of stress," states a September 2007 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association. 
What Is Stress?
Stress is your body's reaction to what's happening around you. When you feel threatened, your stress level increases, and your body physically prepares to defend itself.
Have you heard the term "fight or flight"? Mr. Walter Cannon, an American psychologist, invented that phrase in 1915 when he published a piece discussing how animals react to threatening situations.
Stress is a survival technique designed to keep you alive in the presence of a potential predator. By activating certain hormones, your mind and body are ready to react quickly in the event of danger.
But what happens when your stress levels remain at this heightened state for longer than necessary? When your stress levels are higher than normal for an extended period of time, the response no longer helps you. It can be damaging to your health.
The Signs of Stress
When you experience the flight-or-fight response, your body actually changes its normal functions. If your stress levels do not decrease, this means that your body functions do not return to their normal state. Over time, you may start to experience:
- Constant headaches
- Upset stomach
- Changes in weight
- Acne breakouts
- Feeling fatigued
- Tense back and muscles
Negative feelings and thoughts may begin to crop up, like anxiety, anger, and insecurity. You may also begin to have trouble sleeping, concentrating, and remembering things. This list does not include all the ways that stress can affect you. Be aware of what your body is telling you, so that you can take action to get a little bit of relief!
Relax and Refocus
Practice ways to clear your mind and relax your body as much as you can. It's not easy, especially when there are dozens of things to do, and your mind is racing. For some, daily prayer or meditation helps. Here are some ways to lower your stress levels.
Take slow, deep breaths
You may need to hold the air in your lungs for a second or two to slow your rate of breathing. It may help to think to yourself, "Breath in. Hold. Breath out."
Think of something relaxing
Picture yourself sitting on the beach, listening to a rainstorm, or driving past an open field. You may have to close your eyes to help with this exercise. Think about all the elements. For example, let's say that you're picturing yourself watching the sun rise. Think about:
- The colors of the sky
- The sound of songbirds in the morning
- The warmth of the sun
Stretch your muscles
Muscle tension, especially in the back, is an indicator of stress. First, try throwing a few air punches. It helps to keep your fingers loose (don't form a fist for this exercise).
Punch with your right arm, then punch with your left arm. Move so that your arms extend directly in front of you, without making contact with anything. There are simple exercises you can also do from your desk.
Listen to music
Find some of your favorite music and enjoy listening to it for a little while. If your kids are in bed, first locate your headphones! It might help to get up and dance, or sing out loud to the lyrics. This can be a great way to take a break from any task, help you focus on your class projects, or keep you feeling good as you do chores around your home.
Write it down
It can be very difficult to concentrate when you are thinking about other things. Get some paper and a pen or pencil, and just start writing. You may want to write down everything that bothers you and tear it up when you're done!
To help you get started, here are some things you may find yourself writing about:
- List out everything that needs to get done
- Describe your feelings (fears, frustrations, worries, etc.)
- Jot down your future goals, your personal strengths, and what makes you proud to be you
Over time, stress can take a toll on your health and your mental well-being. It's not easy, but it is important to practice lowering your stress levels. By taking time out for yourself (even if it's only five minutes), you will do yourself and your family a lot of good.