What is Chronic Stress and How to Manage It
with Dr. Lydiana Garcia
We all deal with stress in our lives, with our jobs, our family members and relationships, financial and health concerns, being a caregiver or raising little kiddos, and the list can go on and on. But this stress becomes chronic when it stays prolonged for a long period of time which can then impact not only our health and our bodies, but also our kids, our partners, our relationship with others, among other things.
Stress, as defined by WebMD, is a body reaction to a pressure from certain situations or an events. It could be something that happened or is going to happen, or even imaginative, and the reaction that we get as a result of it could be physical, mental or emotional. With everything that’s going on, not just in the US but in most parts of the world, it’s really important for us to get more awareness about this topic and realize that our bodies are not built to sustain prolonged stress.
My Personal Journey on Chronic Stress
Here’s a little story about myself. Growing up, I was modeled, more so than verbally taught, about the importance of responsibility, persistence, and just pushing through. I was fortunate enough that my parents were able to support my studies financially so I did not have to worry that much about working and making money. During those years, I’ve attended several personal growth events and would read about the power of mindset. I was that kind of person who believes that you can accomplish anything, if you just push through. I thought that if it took longer for you, it was because you still did not master something, or that there’s something missing so you have to just keep on going.
Back then, I did not believe chronic stress as something bad. Because of all the trainings I’ve attended in terms of mindset, I actually believed that you’d be able to put that stress aside and keep on living and keep on moving forward. So when I was about to take my licensure exam for psychology, one of the questions was about chronic stress and to choose the best option that describes it. It was so interesting because I chose the one that says that your body adapt it, which was wrong. When I read the right option that your body does not adapt and that it is really bad for your health in general, it was very significant to me and that opened my exploration and curiosity about how I’ve been functioning and living as if chronic stress was okay.
It was all so confusing to be taking a test on how chronic stress is damaging however, my whole schooling and the program that got me all the way to being able to sit for a licensure was based on it, of pressuring me to the point of exploding. Getting a PhD is a lot of work, pressure and expectations, working 55 to 60 hours during the practicums and internships, plus the “negative feedback” or constructive feedback, as some might see it. I did four years in my undergrad and five years of taking classes for my PhD, so it was nine years of my life that I was in that hamster wheel of just constantly producing, doing and all these things, and always wondering, am I good enough. It is very contradictory and confusing how here we are being trained as psychologists and taught how stress can be damaging, yet we’re in a system that kind of pushed you into that chronic stress.
The first time I was actually seeing scientific data on the impact of chronic stress to the body was when I attended a training at the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. It was then that I’ve seen facts about the impact of trauma and stress in regards to the inflammation in the body, how they are being linked to chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart diseases and others, and how stress and that part of the unseen trauma can actually impact our health.
As soon as I finished everything, the nine years of studying, the extra year of postdoctoral internship and supervision, being able to pass my two exams, and get my licensure to officially be on my own, it was that moment when I then started getting some physical illnesses and some stuff we're coming up. Because while I was doing those things, I was in adrenaline rush, my body was just like, go go go. It was when I was able to pause and not work six to seven days of the week, that I was getting colds and other illnesses come up that does not really make sense at the time. That was the cost that I paid to get my degree, it was in part, my health, and then it went down the spiral with many different things.
Right now, I’m back to not sleeping again for nights and the result is really bad, with my health and everything. When I notice that everything started spiking, I can kind of remediate and know ahead where I'm getting into instead of before where I would probably just keep pushing through. Right now, I’ll think of ways on how I can adapt with my day when I did not sleep well. I'm being way more gentle with myself and I felt much better after I was able to work on what my body needs. But I am not in a position in my life that I can now rest because the stressors are always out there, I am in the same boat especially now with the pandemic. I feel like I am doing way more with way less. But I got to the point where I am constantly reevaluating what I'm doing and I'm giving myself a lot of grace. At the same time, I'm always trying to think and problem solve, how can I remediate here? How can I do this? I asked myself a lot, is this sustainable? And if it's not, then how can I remediate? What can I do? And it's a constant change.
How to Manage Chronic Stress
I see a lot of people nowadays, especially women, that are just in that chronic stress. I feel like we are not consciously making the choice because we are not necessarily informed about the cost that chronic stress is bringing in our lives. Unfortunately, many people are still under that bubble of just pushing through in order to accomplish anything. There are even programs that promote the power of mindset, that you can keep on going and accomplish things regardless of your level of stress. And don’t get me wrong, I feel like we can accomplish so many things when we put our mind into it. But we have to know our limitations, we have to know what will be the cost and the consequences it will bring us.
Some of the things I constantly ask myself are:
- What is the cost of me pushing through?
- Is it worth it or not?
- How will I be able to deal with the consequences?
- Is this sustainable?
- If it's not, then how can I remediate?
Here are my top 5 recommendations that can help you manage chronic stress.
- Create a list of stressors. This can include any responsibilities and tasks that have become stressors in your life, and to kind of just lay it all there. This way, you can see the context of everything that’s happening in your life.
- Evaluate if there's anything you can take away. Is there any task you can take out from the list of your stressors? If none, can you lower the intensity of it? If cooking or feeding your kids might be an added stress when you’re already depleted or when you’re by yourself taking care of them, maybe you can just order some food instead of taking the time to cook. Or maybe you can remove the batteries from your kid’s loud toys for that day, if this is something that’s adding to your stressors. Think of the little things you can do to simplify your tasks.
- Find the ones you can delegate, even to your kids. This could be different chores and task, like helping you put the clothes in the washer, or helping you clean up the toys. Give them different things so you don't feel like you're doing it all. This could also be with anybody that you live with or delegating some tasks to your assistant or coworker, however that looks like for you.
- Find the tasks you can decrease the frequency of, or not do at all. Do you need to do a deep cleaning this week? It will be great, but you don't need to. How can you simplify or do something easier this week instead? Think of the tasks that you can change the frequency of, instead of doing them weekly or daily, you can maybe do them every other week or once a month.
- Integrate coping skills throughout the day, even as you work on a task. You can do simple things like playing your favorite playlist on the background, or putting the candle or scent that you like, or even opening the drapes to let the sunlight in as you work on other tasks. However it is that you can integrate your coping skills throughout your day instead of just waiting for the perfect time which you might not get for that day.
Even though there are things that we can not take out of our plates, we can kind of remediate in other ways, or create an alternative that can help us mitigate a little bit the cost that chronic stress is bringing in our lives.
I hope this was helpful. I hope that I emphasize enough how damaging chronic stress is, not only in ourselves, but also in our kids, in our partners, relationships and almost everything else. If you have any questions at all, please feel free to reach out to via social media or send an email to [email protected].
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