(CNN) — As we mark Stress Awareness Month in April, I know there’s so much to be stressed out—mass shootings, wars around the world, the pandemic’s long-term effects and the daily stresses of living and working in the 21st century. I’m sure you’ve got your list.
Everyone experiences stress at different points in their life. But when is stress a problem that requires our attention? What symptoms should people be on the lookout for? What are the health impacts of long-term stress? What are healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms? And what techniques can help in addressing—and preventing—stress?
Fresh from dropping off my kid at school late (sorry, kid, my fault), I was looking forward to this advice from CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen. Wen is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She previously served as Baltimore’s Health Commissioner and as Chair of Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore.
CNN: Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is stress?
Dr. Leana Wen: There is no single definition of stress. The World Health Organization’s definition refers to a state of worry or tension caused by a difficult situation. Many people experience stress as mental or emotional strain. Others also have physical manifestations of stress.
Stress is a natural reaction. It’s a human response that prompts us to respond to challenges and perceived threats. Some stress can be healthy and can prompt us to fulfill obligations. Perceived stress can spur us to study for a test or complete a project by a certain deadline. Virtually everyone experiences that kind of stress to some extent.
CNN: Why can stress be a problem?
Wen: The same human response that motivates us to work hard and finish a project can also lead to other emotions, like not being able to relax and becoming irritable and anxious. Some people develop physical reactions, like headaches, upset stomach and trouble sleeping. Longer-term stress can lead to anxiety and depression, and it can worsen symptoms for people with pre-existing behavioral health conditions, including substance use.
CNN: What are symptoms of stress that people should be on the lookout for?
Wen: In addition to feeling irritable and anxious, people experiencing stress can also feel nervous, uncertain and angry. They often express other symptoms, including feeling a lack of motivation; having trouble concentrating; and being tired, overwhelmed and burnt out. Many times, people in stressful situations will report being sad or depressed.
It’s important to note that depression and anxiety are separate medical diagnoses. Someone with depression and/or anxiety could have their symptoms exacerbated when they are undergoing times in their life with added stress. Long-term stress can also lead to depression and anxiety.
One way to think about the difference between stress versus anxiety and depression is that stress is generally a response to an external issue. The external cause could be good and motivating, like the need to finish a project. It could also be a negative emotional stress, like an argument with a romantic partner, concerns about financial stability or a challenging situation at work. Stress should go away when the situation is resolved.
Anxiety and depression, on the other hand, are generally persistent. Even after a stressful external event has passed, these internal feelings of apprehension, unworthiness and sadness are still there and interfere with your ability to live and enjoy your life.
CNN: What are the health impacts of long-term stress?
Wen: Chronic stress can have long-term consequences. Studies have shown that it can raise the risk of heart disease and stroke. It’s associated with worse immune response and decreased cognitive function.
Individuals experiencing stress are also more likely to endorse unhealthy behaviors, like smoking, excessive drinking, substance use, lack of sleep and physical inactivity. These lifestyle factors in turn can lead to worse health outcomes.
CNN: What techniques can help in addressing stress?
Wen: First, awareness is important. Know your own body and your reaction to stress. Sometimes, anticipating that a situation may be stressful and being prepared to deal with it can reduce stress and anxiety.
Second, identifying symptoms can help. For example, if you know that your stress reaction includes feeling your heart rate increase and getting agitated, then you can detect the symptoms as they occur and become aware of the stressful situation as it’s occurring.
Third, know what stress relief techniques work for you. Some people are big fans of mindfulness meditation. Those, and deep breathing exercises, are good for everyone to try.
For me, nothing beats stress relief like exercise. For me, what helps is exercising, in particular swimming. Aerobic exercise is associated with stress relief, and mixing it up with high-intensity regimens can help, too.
A lot of people have other specific techniques that help them. Some people clean their house, organize their closets or work in their gardens. Others spend time walking in nature, writing in a journal, knitting, playing with their pets or cycling.
I’d advise that you experiment with what works, take stock of existing techniques that help you and incorporate some of those practices into your regular routine. Then, in times of stress, they are good tools to turn to that you know will help you.
CNN: What unhealthy copings strategies should people avoid?
Wen: Definitely. There are things people turn to in an effort to make themselves feel better in the short-term that can actually make things worse. Excessive alcohol intake, using drugs and smoking aren’t healthy coping strategies. It’s the same with staying up all night, binge-eating and taking out your frustration on loved ones. These have wide-ranging consequences, and you should reconsider them if they have been your go-to coping mechanisms in the past.
CNN: When is it time to seek help?
Wen: If the stress you are feeling is consistently interfering with your work, social or personal life or if you are experiencing signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders, it’s time to seek help.
Consider speaking with your primary care physician to get a referral to a therapist. Your workplace may have an Employee Assistance Program that you can turn to, too. And the federal mental health crisis hotline number, 988, is another resource.
This April, for Stress Awareness Month, I hope we can all assess our own stress levels as well as our reaction to stress. We should recognize what helps us to reduce and alleviate stress as we aim to improve our physical and emotional well-being.