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How stress impacts our mental health

It’s Stress Awareness Month, and while we might think of stress as an everyday thing we just have to deal with, intense or long-term stress can actually have a big impact on our mental health, making us irritable, anxious, or depressed.

This article will look at how stress can impact our mental health, and ways we can deal with stress to help keep us healthy.

What is stress?

Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope. It can be experienced mentally and physically, with one set of symptoms often accompanying the other.

Stress is usually caused when something unexpected happens, something outside of our control, or something we perceive to be threatening. Our body’s fight or flight response is triggered, producing adrenaline and other hormones, that help put our body into a state where it can either fight off a threat, or run from it.

A little stress can actually be good for us, it can keep us energised, focused, and motivated, and drives us to succeed in high-pressure situations. After periods of manageable stress, our bodies return to normal.

But too much stress, or stress that lasts for a long time, can have a negative impact on our health.  

The impact of stress of mental health

Stress can make us depressed

Byproducts of certain stress hormones can act as natural sedatives, bringing us down after periods of heightened activity. When these occur in large quantities over long periods of time, during chronic stress for example, it can make us feel run-down, tired, or depressed.

This can compound with other factors that contribute to depression, making it worse. Learning how to deal with stress before it becomes chronic can help ensure this doesn’t happen.

Stress can make anxiety worse

Stress often brings symptoms of anxiety with it. If this persists for a long time, it can lead to people having difficulty with everyday situations, or avoiding important events due to the stress they cause.

Having to live with long-term stress can make anxiety disorders worse, so finding ways of effectively and proactively dealing with stress is crucial.

Stress can alter our cognitive functions

Long-term stress can impact how we feel, how we react to things, and even how we think.

Long-term stress can alter the nervous system, and stress hormones can decrease how well our brain cells function in the areas responsible for long-term memory creation and attention.

As a result, people with long-term stress may experience confusion, poor memory, have difficulty concentrating, or have trouble learning new information.

However, we know the brain can change over time. If you’ve dealt with long-term stress, there are ways you can start to recover.

Ways to deal with stress

Understanding your stressors

Things that make us stressed are called stressors, and they can be different for everyone.

If you can understand what makes you stressed, you can remove it from your life, or take steps to deal with it in a more proactive way.

Of course, sometimes there are things we simply can’t change, in which case we need to find ways to cope with stress more effectively.

Lean on your support network

Sometimes just talking about what’s stressing you out can help you feel better. If you’re finding yourself stressed a lot, don’t isolate yourself, spend time talking to friends or family, and let them know how you’re doing.

Physical activity and exercise

It’s well-documented that exercise helps the physical and mental effects of stress. Getting out in the sun, or raising your heart rate for just a little while each day can help improve your mood almost immediately.

Sleep

Sleep is one of the best things we can do for ourselves when we’re dealing with difficult situations. It helps regulate our emotions, and allows our body to relax and switch off from the pressure we’re used to dealing with.

Live healthily

Eating healthily, as well as avoiding smoking, excessive caffeine, and alcohol can also help our bodies deal with stress. Stress is a physical response, to if our bodies aren’t in a good condition to deal with it, it can make things worse.

Deep breathing

Stress activates physical responses in our body, so a physical solution can often help manage the symptoms of stress.

Slowing our breathing helps bring us down from a level of heightened energy and tension, slows our heart rate, and helps us relax.

Keep a balanced life

While we might have stressful jobs, stress shouldn’t dominate every area of our life.

Find activities and hobbies that allow you to switch off from work and focus on something you enjoy.

Of course, these are simple solutions that may not work for everyone. Sometimes, getting help with stress is necessary, and can make a huge difference to your overall quality of life.

When to seek help with stress

There are many different things that can cause us stress: money, work issues, family arguments, these are all serious, and can impact our stress levels. Even positive things, like moving house or getting a new job can make us feel stressed.

If you feel constantly stressed, or your stress is overpowering to the point that you can’t cope, reach out for support.

There are psychological strategies that can help you manage stress, therapies that can help with the physical symptoms, and people who are ready to listen.

Stress is something we can’t avoid, but we can deal with it in healthy ways that keep us safe from the long-term damage it can cause to our bodies and minds.

Read about our adult mental health support services, or read about how you can help children deal with exam stress.

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Author: Jack Terry
Posted on: 4th April 2022

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