Many times we hear the message that stress is ‘all in your head,’ but it’s important to not discount a person’s experience. The impact of stress, and how we cope, is different for each individual.
Each person’s experience is real and valid. Some individuals notice more cognitive aspects and may have trouble concentrating, decreased memory, or racing thoughts, while others may be more attuned to the physical effects of muscle tension or upset stomach.
Typically, we think of acute stress as less damaging because it remits and physiological systems can return to a resting baseline. The experience of chronic stress often inhibits or prevents returning to the baseline state. Then disruption can accumulate, potentially contributing to long-standing physical issues.
It’s also important to note that while stress can impact our physiology, it’s not always in a bad way. Stress activates complex physiological systems that are very effective at mobilizing energy to allow the body to respond to a challenge. The extent of the impact varies by individual, usually related to the chronicity of the stress, a person’s appraisal of the event(s), and effectiveness of their coping.
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According to health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, in her TED talk, “When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.”
Stress in life is unavoidable, but learning how to cope can reduce the toll it takes on you mentally and physically. It’s important that you build a toolkit to help cope with stress.
Strategies targeted at finding ways to reduce stress and improve coping strategies may be effective at alleviating both cognitive and physical challenges. These same strategies may also help relieve symptoms of the medical conditions that we know are exacerbated by chronic stress. Research suggests that the strategies people find most effective including asking for and receiving support from others, and exercising 30 minutes 3 times per week. Just as each person experiences stress differently, each person may find they prefer to cope in a different way. Try out strategies in your toolkit until you find what works best for you.
If you feel like stress is negatively impacting you and your health, talk to your doctor. Mental health issues are legitimate health concerns. It’s important you share with your physician any and all of your medical concerns.