It’s no secret that for many of us, we’re living in stressful times!
There’s a continuing pandemic with an ever-mutating virus, political division, the war in Ukraine, increased gas prices, inflation, and ever-increasing day-to-day responsibilities.
As April is Stress Awareness Month, there’s little doubt that our mental health can be impacted negatively due to the many challenges and stressors that many of us are experiencing today, said Dr. Britany Alexander, a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente Southern California.
“As such, now is a good time to stop and do a ‘stress check-up,’ and tune up our toolbox to combat this common problem that can have consequences unless it is addressed,” Alexander said.
Biologically speaking, stress is a complex response that our bodies use to keep us safe, the doctor explained. Our bodies are well designed to deal with acute stress, but chronic stress that we are all subject to is another story.
“Common signs of too much stress include irritability, poor concentration, low energy, sleep issues, increased or decreased appetite, changes in weight and excessive worry,” Alexander noted.
“There can be other subtle signs as well such as hair loss, nail biting, nervous energy and restlessness, jaw clenching, headaches, nausea and bathroom issues.”
These signs can present themselves in a mild form, Alexander said, that “could be managed” with some simple tools and lifestyle tweaks. However, if severe, they could require more intervention.
According to Alexander, a healthy lifestyle will go a long way when it comes to stress management. A diet low in processed food and artificial sugar, rich in green leafy vegetables, fibrous fruits, lean proteins and healthy fats — particularly omega 3 fatty acids — will help you manage your stress level.
Getting the recommended 30 minutes per day of exercise five days per week is also a great stress inhibitor, she said. Additionally, incorporating a little mindful meditation into our daily or weekly schedule — even doing a one-minute meditation every few days — can make a difference.
Lastly, having a routine sleep schedule — going to bed and waking up at the same time, yes, even on weekends — avoiding caffeine, minimizing drinking alcohol, and turning off devices about an hour before bedtime can help if insomnia has become an issue.
It’s also critically important to set healthy boundaries at home and at work, Alexander said.
“Whenever possible, avoid taking work home or being ‘on call’ at all hours of the day and night,” she said. “And, don’t be afraid to practice the art of saying ‘no.’
“You don’t have to make three dishes for the bake sale this year. You could opt not to be on that committee this time. You could make the dinner a potluck rather than cooking the whole thing yourself.”
It’s also important to not underestimate the value of leisure in our lives.
“We all have different resources available to us, but I encourage myself and others not to neglect your hobbies and fun relaxing activities,” Alexander explained. “Make time for reading. Have a safe gathering with friends and family; pull out a board game. Go see a concert if you can.
“Singing is free! Dancing can be done almost anywhere as well. The message here is, ‘Don’t forget the fun!’”
If your stress-related symptoms go on for more than two weeks, or you or those close to you are starting to think the symptoms are disruptive to your daily functioning, it may be time to seek professional help, Alexander notes.
There are many options for treatment, she said, that could include talking one-on-one with a trained professional, group therapy, or talk to your primary care doctor or a psychiatrist to consider medication.
“The bottom-line is, yes, stress may be a part of our daily life, but it does not have to impede our ability to feel good about ourselves and function well,” Alexander said.
“Taking the right steps to maintain good mental health is critically important to our overall good health.”