Feeling stressed? You’re not alone. Stress happens to everyone, and these days we have plenty of occasions to feel it.
Stress is a response to something that has occurred or to some kind of pressure you feel, said Angela Nolz, a Sanford Health integrated health therapist in Luverne, Minnesota. But stress is not the same as anxiety, she explained. Anxiety, considered a clinical disorder, is a dread or fear that’s persistent and ongoing but may not have a trigger.
“I’ve never met anybody that hasn’t ever experienced stress,” Angela says. “But not everybody experiences anxiety.”
Some people experience a higher level of stress than others, and stress can be detrimental physically and mentally. Angela discusses some warning signs of stress and high stress, as well as some ways people can manage stress when they recognize it.
What causes stress?
Everyone’s life circumstances are unique to them, but Angela does see some common sources of stress.
- Finances: Finances can be a significant cause of stress, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when some people are out of work or furloughed from work.
- Work: Work itself can be a source of stress, especially if the work doesn’t feel purposeful or feels too limited. Lacking a sense of direction in a career and not knowing what kind of work you want to do can also result in stress.
- Relationships: Discord in a close relationship, like a partnership, is a common stressor that Angela sees.
- Parenting: Parenting can certainly produce stress at any time, but particularly during a pandemic that has disrupted school and typical activities.
- Life changes: Life adjustments add stress, such as the transition to college, having a baby, getting married, helping aging parents or losing a family member or close friend.
- Illness: A chronic health condition such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease or obesity can add stress. Trying to decide the steps to take to improve health can feel overwhelming. Angela says a team-based approach to care at Sanford Health helps identify and address when someone with an illness feels under stress.
- The pandemic: Right now, the whole world is under a new layer of stress because of COVID-19, Angela says. On top of a person’s everyday stressors, the pandemic piled on factors such as layoffs, challenges for essential workers, school closings, school openings, staying healthy – and the search for toilet paper.
- Differing opinions: Communicating with those who have differing political views also may add stress. “It seems like we’ve lost the ability to seek first to try to understand each other,” Angela says. “… We’ve lost the ability to connect and communicate and just love each other, even if we have some differing opinions.”
What can stress do to us?
“We have a breakdown of physical, emotional and behavioral things that we’ll see when people have an influx of stress,” says Angela.
Physically, stress can show up in people as muscle tension, she says. They might have pain in their lower back, shoulders or neck, or have headaches.
“When our stress goes up, our body can experience stress through those different kinds of reactions.”
Stomach and heart issues
Stomach issues also may be traced to stress. “Kids will sometimes present with a stomachache when there’s some stressful things going on in their lives, and they maybe don’t have the words,” Angela says.
Ongoing stress could lead to stomach ulcers and also be associated with heart issues. As part of her job, Angela visits with cardiac rehab patients about their stress level.
“If I meet with somebody that identifies that their stress has been fairly low, their healing process typically goes a little bit better,” she says. For patients who have had significant ongoing stress, she helps find new strategies for coping with their stress.
Emotional and behavioral issues
Emotionally, stress can result in feelings of irritability, impatience, guilt, nervousness, helplessness or lack of control.
Behaviorally, stress may lead to changes in eating and sleeping habits, forgetfulness, anger, aggressiveness, social withdrawal or substance abuse.
If people start to develop substance abuse disorders, by using alcohol as a coping mechanism, for example, significant physical health issues appear, too, says Angela.
Ultimately, high stress can interfere with how people function in life and take care of their basic needs. It can be detrimental to their work, relationships and parenting abilities. And if stress is ongoing and symptomatic, it could rise to the level of clinical anxiety.