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5 Tools for Dealing With Stress for Mental Health

October 10 is World Mental Health Day, created to promote and support mental health. You can better recognize and respond to normal stress to avoid being overwhelmed. Learn more with the help of Christine Pierpaoli Parker, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist at UAB Medicine.

A stress response happens when your body responds to real or perceived threats in your environment, whether physical or mental. With stress, the body prepares to fight, flight, or freeze – a response designed to protect you but unhelpful when activated chronically. As one saying goes, “Your emotional brain doesn’t know the difference between a lion and a deadline.”

“Humans evolved a stress response to protect us from acute danger,” Pierpaoli Parker says. “But over time, chronic stress responding can deteriorate your quality of life and physical health and worsen underlying psychiatric conditions.”

Effects include:

  • Poor sleep and fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Concentration and memory issues
  • Physical symptoms such as pain, nausea, and headache
  • Strained relationships
  • Onset or worsening of psychiatric disorders, including depression

Each person has his or her own point at which stress interferes with daily functioning, but here is her advice for recognizing and responding to stress before that happens.

Recognizing Stress

Stress from major life events is not unusual and can be expected:

  • Births
  • Deaths
  • Diagnoses
  • Relationship changes
  • Moving
  • Employment changes
  • Holidays

Warning signs of stress, in the moment:

  • Physiological signs: racing heart, chest tightness, hyperventilation, feeling hot or cold, tension, headaches, feeling “wired but tired”
  • Behaviors: fidgeting, smoking, stress eating, withdrawing from valued activities and relationships
  • Cognitive-emotional signs: trouble concentrating, racing mind, irritability, negative thoughts about yourself, forgetfulness, tearfulness
  • Patterns: changes in sleep, appetite, physical activity, as well as feedback from family and close friends

Responding to stress: 5 tools from Dr. Parker

  1. Anticipate to regulate: Using your knowledge of your past stressors, you can prepare for oncoming ones; what worked for you in other stressful times? Reach out to loved ones for support, set limits at work, and prioritize sleep and physical activity – especially before, during, and after anticipated stressors.
  2. Schedule meaningful, pleasant activities: Psychologists have observed stress is worsened when people lose balance between things they want to do and things they must do. Identify activities you can and like to do – and then schedule them like you would a doctor’s appointment.
  3. Diaphragmatic breathing in the moment: When you notice your warning signs of stress, take a breath in through your nose, pulling air deep toward your bellybutton, and feel your abdomen pressurize – that’s diaphragmatic breathing. Stress activates the fight, fight, or freeze response, which can impair our thinking. Taking several deep and slow breaths can trigger our “rest and digest” system, lowering blood pressure and re-directing blood flow to our brain for clearer, safer thinking.
  4. Cultivate compassion, for yourself: Stress can turn into chronic stress when we establish unhelpful habits of talking to ourselves. Try talking to yourself the way you would talk to someone you love. Approach yourself with compassion and curiosity – not criticism and shame. Remember, feelings and thoughts can’t hurt you, and you don’t have to believe everything you think.
  5. Know when to get professional help: Stress has gone too far when symptoms:
    • Get in the way of daily functioning, like work, school, and/or relationships.
    • Bother you and others around you.
    • Seem new and unusual to you (and for you).

A combination of behavioral therapy and medication is often recommended to manage chronic stress and related conditions. Hope exists, and your symptoms can improve!

Is your stress affecting your ability to function or affecting those around you? Speak with your primary care provider or click here to visit UAB Medicine Psychiatry Services.

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