Acute stress is defined by the fact that it's immediate and short term. In most cases, once the stressor has been removed, your body and mind return to a normal state.
Its these types of chronic stress situations that are the most dangerous. They keep your body's defenses activated and heightened longer than is generally healthy, and unfortunately more and more of us are living under constant conditions that create stress. Add to this the fact that "coping with stress" isn't exactly a topic you learn in school and you have a recipe for a lot of very unhappy people.
I spoke with Roger S. Gil, MAMFT, about some of the less productive ways people cope with stress, and he highlighted that trying to escape without dealing with the actual stressor is more common than you may think. "Overeating, displaced anger, denial, defensiveness, etc. All are signs of avoidance and coping strategies that are meant to protect the ego from the discomfort caused by the stressor…and none of them do anything about the stressor," he explained. "Withdrawing (i.e. checking out mentally) from the situation at hand is something I see A LOT of in my work with couples. For example a husband may withdraw into his own little world when his wife complains about something. Instead of hearing her concerns, he pulls away and encourages her to nag him some more…which causes more withdrawal."
These behavioral changes cut both ways though: the AIS notes that stress reactions can also lead to isolation, loneliness, and severe depression as well. If you've been suddenly feeling alone, forgetful, overly defensive, disorganized, uninterested in your everyday life, overwhelmed by what's going on around you to the point where you need to lie about them, and having difficulty communicating with others, it's possible that chronic, poorly managed stress may be part of the problem.
Previously mentioned app CalmDown for Mac is a utility designed just for situations like this: it encourages you to take a deep breath (or a few) so you can step back from the stressor for a moment, gather your thoughts, and push through the fog of frustration and anger that often come with stressors.
I also spoke with Roger Gil about dealing with stressful situations and he reinforced the point: "Stressors like these can produce physical responses at first; so if you're heart is racing, you're short of breath, or you feel your muscles tightening somewhere in your body, know that you're feeling a physiological stress response. In those cases, channeling your awareness of your body can sometimes distract a person away from the area of the body having the stress response." Recognizing that you're having a physical reaction will help you calm down and deal with the situation the way you really want to, as opposed to letting it stew in your mind only to come up with what you wanted to say 15 minutes after you should have said it.
In that vein, Dr. DeGroat explains that figuring out what you wanted to say a few minutes after you said it is very common, and often a result of being unprepared for the stressful situation you're presented with. Aside from making sure to be ready for those situations in advance if you can be, he suggests acknowledging that you're stressed in the situation and telling the person or people you're dealing with that you'll get back to them later. Photo by Sasha Wolff.
If you have additional time to relax and some space to be alone, Dr. DeGroat suggests progressive muscle relaxation to defuse some of the natural tension that comes with being stressed. "Systematically tense and relax muscle groups, beginning at your toes and working your way all to the top of your head. [This] serves as a distraction from current stressors and can help reduce physical tension that often accompanies stress."
Another tip Dr. DeGroat offers is to identify whether level of stress and your response to it is realistic or unrealistic when you're in the middle of it. If it's realistic, as in anyone would respond the same way and there's something you can do about it (like your computer froze or you just dropped something,) then address the situation and move on. If the response is unrealistic and others may not respond the same way (traffic isn't moving fast enough or security lines at the airport are too slow,) then address yourself: calm down, step back, and try to relax.
The first step to addressing yourself is to challenge the way you're thinking about the stressor. "Challenging these automatic thoughts that often hijack our minds and promote stress has been shown in research to be a great way to help break the patterns of thinking & behaving that are counterproductive/harmful," Roger Gil explained. "Once the 'mental battle' is won, the IRL battle is more easily handled."
Granted, none of these measures have to be practiced only in the context of chronic stress, but it is more likely that if your boss is getting on your nerves again today or the rent is due and you're worried about being able to afford groceries, you're more likely to take a few minutes and address how you feel so you can approach the issues in a clear manner than you are if you're stuck in a meeting and asked to speak on a topic you weren't ready for.
In some cases, it may simply be better to remove yourself from chronic stressors if you're having difficulty adapting to them or minimizing them. After all, if your job is wearing you down and there's no improving it, it may be time to look for a new job. If your relationship is so stressful it's destructive for everyone in it, it may be time to break it off, and if your apartment is run down and your landlord won't fix it, it's time to move out. There are plenty of good reasons to learn to cope with stress, but there are other equally good reasons to remove the stress from your life when you can.
To that end, there's no real way to live a completely stress-free life. Remember, there are positive stressors as well as negative ones, and the positive ones are usually good experiences that we enjoy or seek out. The same applies for negative stressors: they're bound to happen eventually and avoiding them is a futile effort. The key is in knowing how to deal with them, and how to minimize their effect on you.
There's no magic formula for dealing with stress, but employing coping mechanisms that give you distance, helps you get through the moment, and at best minimizes the overall impact the stressor has on you are a good way to stay healthy, happy, and productive. Photo by Jacob Bøtter.
"It is how we approach it that can cause us problems, or allow us to grow. The more control we can find within a situation, or over ourselves, the more likely we will grow from the situation," Dr. DeGroat explained, "The more we are able to identify and act upon the control and choice we have in situations, the less debilitating the stress will be."
This is just a short introduction, but unsurprisingly, entire books have been written on the topic of stress, its medical and psychological implications, and how you can deal with it in healthy ways. While we hope we've given you some insight into how your body reacts to stressors and how you can manage them in the moment and on the long term, we know that this is by no means an exhaustive study into the topic. What are some of your most successful ways of dealing with stressful situations, both short and long-term? Share your suggestions in the comments