Maybe you’re a parent who teaches or a teacher who parents. Maybe you’re both. This last year the lines between work and home have blurred so badly it’s become difficult to find them. What is work-life balance? Is that still a thing?
One thing is certain: there’s plenty of stress to go around.
On the brighter side, summer is coming and many of us are vaccinated. Maybe this means we can finally unwind and let our shoulders down. Maybe we can find our balance again. But, first we need to talk about stress and how to let go of it. How do we know if we’ve suffered from extreme stress? What do we do about it?
How to spot extreme stress
We all live with some level of stress all the time. How do we know what is too much? When to be concerned? Dr. Hossam Mahmoud, behavioral health medical director for Regence BlueShield, suggests we start paying more attention to how stress affects us. When stress becomes associated with feelings of depression and anxiety that last for more than a couple weeks – or impacts our day-to-day functioning with family, friends, work or school – we should seek support.
Allie Henderson, a wellness consultant for Regence BlueShield, says that stress can manifest itself in different ways for every person. This can make it challenging to identify.
“One of the easiest ways to recognize stress is if you’re feeling overwhelmed, constantly on edge, like your life is controlling you rather than you controlling your life,” Henderson says. “But sometimes the effects of stress are more subtle. It can lead to emotional eating, high blood pressure, poor sleep, not exercising or doing the things you enjoy.” That’s right, the American Heart Association says our stress level and mental health affect our physical health, leading to the symptoms Henderson listed, as well as digestive problems, an irregular heart rate, inflammation, and reduced blood flow to the heart.
How to lower your stress level
According to Henderson, stress turns on the sympathetic nervous system, and your body releases cortisol and goes into fight-or-flight mode. This is helpful if you’re being attacked by a bear, but in our stressful daily lives our bodies continue to release the hormone. This chronic high level of cortisol can affect our health.
Lowering your cortisol and stress level can take a deliberate effort. Here are some suggestions for how to do it.
De-stress in nature – This doesn’t have to be a multiday backpacking trip (although that does sound nice); it can be as simple as taking a walk in Discovery, Carkeek or Magnuson Park. Try yoga outside, plant something in the garden, or read in the shade. For other ideas visit the American Heart Association’s list of ways to relax in nature.
Exercise – You’ve heard it before, but it’s important so you’re going to have to hear it again.
“Exercise and physical activity are probably the best ways to manage stress,” Henderson says. “It helps us stay on top of the stress and puts us in a better physiological state. All you need is thirty minutes of moderate activity a day. So take movement breaks. Even a five- to 10-minute walk can be helpful to separate yourself and give you some time to think.”
Practice mindfulness – Henderson thinks this is important, along with taking a few minutes to be grateful for what you have and to take long and slow deep breaths.
“Practicing mindfulness is very helpful when the person focuses on being intensely aware of what they’re feeling without interpretation or judgment,” Mahmoud says. “And that is most valuable when combined with radical acceptance of the aspects of life that are out of one’s control, and focusing instead on areas that the person can positively impact.”
Psychotherapy and medication management – Finally, maybe you’ve already tried many of these strategies or even all of them and your stress level and mental health are still not what you want them to be. Then it’s a good idea to find extra support. Mahmoud says that cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, can help lower stress and have long-lasting benefits. This last year really shook things up and changed our lives. Now it’s time to reclaim them and rebuild those boundaries that were blurred. When you do, make sure you create healthy habits to help lower your stress.
For nearly 100 years, the American Heart Association has been been fighting heart disease and stroke and helping families and communities thrive.