Nearly one-quarter of Americans report being under extreme stress, rating their stress levels an 8, 9, or 10 out of a 10-point scale for the American Psychological Association's (APA) 2011 Stress in America survey.i
Countless others deal with fluctuating stressors each and every day, but a disturbing trend has emerged: more U.S. adults say their stress is increasing instead of decreasing.
Of course, chronic stress – the kind that eats away at you over time, such as relationship troubles or fear of losing your job – is linked to serious emotional and physical impairments, including the development of chronic diseases like heart disease, depression, high blood pressure and obesity.
Unfortunately, while 94 percent of adults believe that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, only 29 percent say they are doing an excellent or very good job at preventing themselves from succumbing to it.ii
In the slideshow above you can read about 10 simple steps to help you de-stress, from the Harvard Health Beat. Below I've added several others to add to your arsenal as well.
What's Causing All of This Stress?
You can probably rattle off a list of your own stressors without much trouble – and chances are they're not too much different from those revealed by the APA's latest survey. While money, work and the economy continue to be the most common sources for stress among Americans (for five years and counting), personal and family health concerns are increasingly being listed, which makes having effective stress reduction techniques that much more important.
The fact is, you can't separate your physical health from the emotions caused by life circumstances such as these. Every feeling you have affects some part of your body. And stress can wreak havoc even if you're doing everything else "right."
Extreme, sudden stress like the loss of a loved one or a job can have near-immediate impacts on your health, but so too can lingering everyday stressors that we all juggle, particularly when they're not dealt with over time. This causes your body to remain in "fight or flight" mode for far too long -- much longer than was ever intended from a biological standpoint.
One of the most common consequences of this scenario is that your adrenal glands, faced with excessive stress and burden, become overworked and fatigued. This can lead to a number of related health conditions, including fatigue, autoimmune disorders, skin problems and more. Stress has also been linked to cancer by acting as a pathway between cancerous mutations, potentially triggering the growth of tumors. In fact, stress, and by proxy your emotional health, is a leading factor in virtually any disease or illness you can think of.
Are Your Stress-Relief Techniques Doing More Harm Than Good?
Keeping your stress levels under control has to be an ongoing commitment, like preparing healthy meals and exercising. Unfortunately, many fall into a vicious trap where their strategies for dealing with stress center on unhealthy activities, like watching TV, drinking alcohol, or eating junk foods.
The APA reports:iii
"Year after year, the Stress in America survey paints a picture of a nation at a critical crossroads when it comes to stress and health. Overall, Americans appear to be caught in a vicious cycle where they manage stress in unhealthy ways, and seemingly insurmountable barriers prevent them from making the lifestyle or behavioral changes necessary for good health.
Findings from the 2011 survey found that several groups of people in particular — caregivers and those living with chronic illness — are at heightened risk of experiencing serious consequences of stress that is too high and appears to be taking a toll on their emotional and physical health."
The more you rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms, the worse your symptoms of stress are likely to become, as methods like drinking or binge eating are only distractions designed to make you temporarily forget your stress. As soon as the drink or candy bar is gone, your stress will return, and may even be intensified. This can prompt even more unhealthy behaviors; for instance, 44 percent of survey respondents reported lying awake at night due to stress, while 39 percent reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods. Not surprisingly, a large number of people are suffering deeply due to stress with the symptoms that follow.
More Healthy Strategies to Send Your Stress Packing …
In addition to the 10 strategies in the above slideshow, I cannot stress enough (pun intended!) how important a healthy diet and exercise program are for your mental well-being. When you exercise, your body naturally increases the levels of endorphins, or "feel good" hormones, in your brain, while nourishing your body with healthy foods will give you the energy to fight back against stress (for instance, B vitamins are known to help ease feelings of anxiety and vitamin C may help lower stress hormone levels).
In addition, my favorite overall tool to manage stress is EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), which is like acupuncture without the needles. It's a handy, free tool for unloading emotional baggage quickly and painlessly, and so easy that even children can learn it. Other common stress-reduction tools with a high success rate include prayer, meditation, laughter and yoga, for example. Learning relaxation skills, such as deep breathing and positive visualization, which is the "language" of the subconscious.
When you create a visual image of how you'd like to feel, your subconscious will understand and begin to help you by making the needed biochemical and neurological changes.
Still others, as reported by the APA survey as being "believed to be effective among those who use them" are as follows. Choose whichever one (or a combination of them) that appeals to you, and if you don't sense any benefits, try another, until you find what works best for you.