Stress: what it is, how it shows up in our bodies and lives, and how to manage and cope

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

""Blorft" is an adjective I just made up that means 'Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum." -Tina Fey

Stress. I believe it is something we are all aware of. Obviously, specific things stress people out differently. For me, stress comes from finances, the unknown, my job, my family, my relationships, the future, responsibilities, etc. There are so many different things that can cause stress in our lives, but the things that are the most stressful according to research are : money, job pressure, political climate, poor health, relationships, the economy, family responsibilities, housing costs, job stability, and personal safety.

One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this subject is because of Covid 19, social injustice, and the political climate of our country right now. 2020 has been rough for most people. According to the American Psychological Association, “the negative mental health effects of the coronavirus will be serious and long-lasting”.

Unemployment, Covid 19, changes to our routine, work/life balance, financial stability, loss/illness of relatives and friends/ourselves, misinformation, social media overload, more time spent at home (either alone or with others), people being held hostage, woman having forced hysterectomies, people being killed, protests for black lives, fear tactics being used by the government, voter suppression, and a lot of other unknowns and atrocities. I lost my job, moved, started a few projects, felt isolated, started educating myself more on racism, and so many more ups and downs than I have ever experienced in my entire life, and maybe you feel the same.

Now more than ever, STRESS is prevalent and wreaking havoc in some way in everyone's lives.

Stress is believed to be the leading cause of death in this country. Maybe you're wondering how that can be? Short instances of stress can affect the body and mind and can often be helpful. But long term chronic stress can be deadly, with even some researchers and scientists saying that stress is turning into a public health crisis. But stress also leads to substance abuse, self harm, suicide, other addictions (tobacco especially), and can manifest into cancer, heart disease, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and lung disease (usually from smoking). How else can chronic stress lead to more permanent and dangerous diagnosis in our bodies?

Here is a list of outcomes of chronic stress:

  • Obesity/eating disorders

  • Menstrual problems

  • Sexual disfunction

  • Mental Health problems

  • Skin and hair issues

  • Gastrointestinal problems (ulcers, GERD, gastritis, etc)

  • Inflammation anywhere in the body

  • Cardiovascular disease (so many to list, but can also lead to DEATH)

Whatever it is that is stressing you out, and depending on how long you feel this stress, it will inevitably show up physically, emotionally, cognitively, and behaviourally in your body.

Some of the physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms of stress are:

Physical symptoms:

  • Low energy

  • Headache

  • Upset stomach/digestion issues/constipation/diarrhea/GI pain

  • Chest pain/racing heart beat

  • Low immunity function

  • Sex drive decrease/inability to perform

  • Racing thoughts

  • Sleep disturbances/insomnia

  • Clenched jaw/grinding teeth leading to jaw pain

  • Muscle/body pain

  • Nervousness shaking

  • Cold or sweaty hands

Emotional symptoms:

  • Easily agitated, frustrated, or angry/feeling on edge

  • Overwhelmed

  • Difficulty relaxing/feeling at peace

  • Feeling bad about yourself, depression, worthlessness, and/or lonely

  • Not wanting to connect with others

  • Anxiety

  • Feeling moody/quick to tears

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Worrying all the time

  • Forgetfulness/disorganized

  • Not being able to focus

  • Pessimism/negative

  • Poor judgement/decision making

  • Racing thoughts

  • Restlessness

Behavioural symptoms:

  • Changes in appetite (eating more, or eating less)

  • Avoiding or putting off responsibilities

  • Increased use of substances (alcohol, tobacco, drugs, etc)

  • Nervous behaviours (biting nails, fidgeting, pacing

  • Talking quickly/erratically

  • Taking risks that you wouldn't normally realistically take

That is just a short list of symptoms that might appear if you are feeling stressed.

From my experience, stress can be a vicious cycle. Often, we are stressed about something (or many things), which then leads to symptoms, and then we feel stressed about the symptoms, which makes it harder to manage the initial stress. This long term exposure to stress can have a permanent effect on our bodies.

What happens to our bodies when we are stressed? Your body responds to stress by activating the “fight or flight” mode in your central nervous system (CNS).Your hypothalamus gets everything started by telling your adrenal glands to start releasing your stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This is a good thing normally because it allows us to respond quickly to something we feel is dangerous. Natural instinct. But this becomes a problem when our bodies are chronically in this “fight or flight” mode. Our bodies weren't made to handle that much stress, and often, if not addressed, lead to long term damage. Stress can literally take over your life, and allowing it to do so can make things much worse than they were.

These stress hormones and response to stress affect all the different systems in our bodies.

Stress makes your liver produce more blood sugar in order to give you more energy to face stress. But your body might not be able to keep up with this level of stress or extra amount of glucose, and can lead to Diabetes 2.

Stress also makes your muscles tense up for long periods of time, never getting the chance to relax. This can lead to pain, tension, headaches and muscle spasms which can put you out of commission and often promote you to reach for something to numb the pain (pills or other substances). Your immune system is stimulated under the pressure of stress, but those stress hormones will weaken your immune system over time, causing you to be more susceptible to illness and infections (leading to more stress).

Chronic stress has also been proven to “reduce serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, which has been linked to depression”. Cortisol (stress hormone) depletes the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, and can also damage the receptor sites of those neurotransmitters leading to long term decreases in serotonin.

Stress can also lead to burnout: According to, burnout is a “state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.”. How do you know if you are experiencing burnout?

Here are the signs and symptoms:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion (chronic fatigue)

  • Sleep disturbances/insomnia

  • Anxiety

  • Loss of appetite

  • Depression

  • Forgetfulness/trouble concentrating

  • Feeling ill more frequently

  • Physical symptoms (chest pain, muscle pain, back pain, headaches, etc)

  • Anger

  • And many more (the list looks similar to chronic stress symptoms)

“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down. “ – Lily Tomlin

Stress can be a vicious cycle!

It is so important for us to be aware of the symptoms of stress that show up in our lives and bodies. It is our body's way of saying “hey, something is wrong here. Please pay attention to me!”. It is really easy to accidentally associate symptoms with something else, like a cold or something similar. But when something is going on for a while, that should be a good indicator that something else is going on.

We all have different ways of coping with stress. For a long time, I wasn’t very good at it. But with some guidance and practice/experimentation, I feel like I have improved. It is so important for our physical and mental health for us to find ways to cope and relieve stress.

Here are some ways of coping and managing stress:

  • Set boundaries: learn how to take care of yourself first, learn how to say no, and protect your energy and time. Figure out what's worth it, and what's not. Change your priorities, and I promise you will find that life feels less stressful.

  • MOVE YOUR BODY!: exercise offers many different things to alleviate stress. It improves your mood, it circulates your blood (which is great!), production of endorphins (your happy hormone), it grounds you (if you are out in nature), it boosts your self confidence, etc. Any kind of exercise will do! Everyone is different so this can be whatever you want it to be, as long as you are moving your body.

  • Learn to breathe: Breath work can do amazing things to your body, nervous system and mind. Start by taking a deep breath in through your nose, expanding your belly and holding for a few seconds, and letting it out slowly through your mouth.

  • Meditation: whether you're a beginner or a master meditator, there are a lot of apps like Insight Timer that can guide you. Try to remain consistent, and do this when you know you won't be disturbed

  • Yoga: it has been proven to reduce levels of stress by calming and regulating our nervous system, strengthening the mind body connection, breathe work, and promotes all around health

  • Getting more sleep/working on your sleep hygiene (see previous post on sleep for more info and tips!)

  • Identify stress triggers: these can be external (environment, major life changes, work, social, unpredictable events, etc.) or internal (these are triggers from within like fears, uncertainty, beliefs about ourselves, etc. ) Once you are able to identify your triggers, you can do the best to be prepared for them, how to manage them, or how to avoid them if possible.

  • Connect with family and friends

  • Seek professional help (therapy, group meetings, etc)

  • Become aware of signs and symptoms of chronic stress (read above)

  • Develop a positive mindset: this takes practice of course, but the more you do it, the better you will become at it. “Where attention goes, energy flows”.

  • Take breaks from your electronics: unplugging is so important for our health, specifically mental health. Doomscrolling, and any other time of social media engagement can be extremely draining for our emotional health and can be a distraction from things we should be doing.

  • Make time to refuel your body by eating nutrient dense foods

  • Drink lots of water

  • Analyze your lifestyle and see if you can rearrange or modify your life to better suit you and alleviate stress. Are you saying yes when you really want to say no? Are you overscheduling yourself, and not giving yourself enough self care time?

  • Remember that we all make mistakes. Not every day is going to be a good day. It doesn't have to take over your life. Be kind to yourself. Have self compassion.

  • Watch your self talk: how you talk to yourself is EVERYTHING. Imagine yourself as a child, and speak to it as if that child is one of your own. Be supportive, kind, compassionate, understanding, etc.

  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and addictive substances: this may momentarily make you feel better, but in the long run can just create more problems and increase your level of stress. It is better to not avoid what you're feeling, but find healthy ways of coping and managing stress.

  • Remember that some things are just out of our control. The only thing we can do is remain calm, and figure out what to do next.

  • Work on building your resiliency: how well you bounce back from setbacks or difficulties is SO important.

  • Practice the 4 A’s of stress management:

  1. Avoid unnecessary stress: learn to say no, avoid people who stress you out, take control of your environment, and prioritize your to do list.

  2. Alter the situation: express your feelings, be open to compromise, and balance your schedule

  3. Adapt to the stressor: reframe problems, see the big picture, practice gratitude, and adjust your standards.

  4. Accept what you can’t change (like I mentioned above): don’t try to control the uncontrollable, look for the upside or silver lining, learn to forgive, and share your feelings

  • Be aware of your reactions or responses to stress. Sometimes if we react to stress without thinking, we can accidentally create more stress in our lives.

  • Aromatherapy: lavender, chamomile, eucalyptus, etc. in a diffuser can boost your mood and calm your nervous system.

  • REST: take a nap, hot bath, massage, acupuncture, or something else that is relaxing

  • Journal: write down the things that you are stressed about, and if possible, do some problem solving. Write about how it makes you feel, how you responded/reacted to it, and what the outcome was. This will help you understand your own stress, and have a healthy way of venting about it and working through it.

  • LAUGH!: find some way to laugh, like a funny movie or stand up, or cartoons/comic books, a funny podcast, etc.

  • DO SOMETHING YOU LOVE!: anything! Reading, writing, painting, playing games, watching a movie, anything that makes you feel happy or fulfilled or both. Make time for this. All work and no play makes for a very stressed and usually unhappy person.

  • Try some stress relieving herbs and supplements like:

  • Lavender

  • Passionflower

  • Valerian root

  • Chamomile

  • Ashwagandha

  • Kava Kava

  • CBD

  • Brahmi

  • Tulsi

  • Lemon Balm

  • Omega 3’s

  • Green tea

  • So many more! Do some research!

Please know that stress is normal. But when it starts turning into a long term problem, affecting your life, it’s time to start working on managing your stress so that you won’t feel the long term effects on your health.

This will look differently for everyone. We all feel comfortable managing and coping with stress in different ways.

I hope that you find this helpful, and if you do, and know someone else this could benefit, please share!

Thank you, and be very, very well.

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