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Don't Let September Stress You Out

Don't Let September Stress You Out

Another Labor Day has come and gone and most kids are back in school. As summer ends and a new academic year begins, the focus shifts from planning vacations to starting new projects and routines. In addition to the stress of the season's demanding slate of activities, many people experience psychological stress as daylight hours start to dwindle. Stress can be contagious, so if one member of a family isn't coping well, it can make the season a stressful one for everybody.

Many people struggle far too long with toxic stress before they realize it won't just pass with time and white-knuckled determination. You don't have to suffer and hang on for months or even years as you fall into a stress spiral and watch your health and well-being decline. Whether you need to make a major life change, expand your self-care regimen, or see a therapist, you can address the causes of stress in your life and regain your equilibrium.

What Is Stress?

Stress is the internal reaction to external pressures or events that require you to take action. How much and what kind of stress you experience depends on how much of an adjustment you need to make to restore your equilibrium, solve a problem, or address a threat. A fun challenge can cause just enough stress to make you feel focused and buzzy with energy without feeling anxious or unwell. Intense stress from negative events can have a more dramatic effect when it activates your sympathetic nervous system and sets off the fight-or-flight response.

Changes in the body caused by the stress response can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Sweating
  • Fast pulse
  • Rapid breathing
  • High blood pressure

In and of themselves, these effects are neutral. Stress is a natural and healthy response that not only helps you survive but can also enhance your well-being and drive personal growth. Eustress, or positive stress, generates energy, keeps you engaged with life, and motivates you to take on new challenges that can improve your self-esteem and confidence when you master them.

When stress overwhelms your capacity to cope, it becomes distress, which has the opposite effect and hinders your ability to act. Chronic distress can become part of a negative cycle in which you struggle, experience a setback, then feel more stressed and less able to fucntion. At its worst, long-term, unresolved stress can lead to lost jobs, ruptured relationships, and declining health.

What Are the Types of Stress?

The American Psychological Association identifies three types of stress: acute, episodic, and chronic. Acute stress has a sudden onset but a short course. Because it is caused by stressors that are limited to a specific set of circumstances, it doesn't last long. Acute stress can be positive or negative, depending on what caused it. Riding a roller coaster can give you a boost of acute eustress, for example, while getting in a fender bender typically causes distress. Most of the time, people can recover from a single episode of acute stress without special effort.

Episodic acute stress refers to repeated episodes of acute stress. A string of bad luck, unavoidable consequences of a singular powerful event, or personality factors can cause back-to-back episodes of acute stress. An accident might spiral into a series of unexpected medical and financial consequences, for example. An anxious person might experience episodic acute stress even when consequences of a stressful event are relatively mild if they worry just as much as if the outcome had been worse.

Chronic stress drags out over a long period of time and never quite goes away. While episodes of acute stress are like single notes in a short, stressful melody, chronic stress is a constant droning hum. The relentlessness of chronic stress can lead to insidious health effects if it is not addressed. Toxic jobs, dysfunctional relationships, and demanding classes are just a few potential causes of chronic stress.

Trauma is a special form of acute stress that can have severe long-term effects even if it is limited to the effects of a single event. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines trauma as "direct or indirect exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence." Trauma can cause a cluster of effects that can develop into acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What Are the Effects of Chronic Stress?

Even though it's usually unpleasant while it's unfolding, short-lived distress can actually have positive effects. When you resolve a frustrating problem or complete a difficult task, you feel good—relieved, proud, or even euphoric. You may learn something about yourself that boosts your self-esteem or walk away with knowledge that enables you to do something you couldn't do before.

When you're unable to resolve a problem, distress can persist, dampening your mood and health. The unresolved problem can continue to affect your life and develop into a pattern of chronic stress. We're wired to handle short bursts of stress, but over time, unresolved stress wears down the body and the mind.

Chronic stress can cause the following health effects:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Poor immune system function
  • Indigestion and other stomach problems

Chronic stress can lead to cardiovascular problems including heart attacks and heart disease. As it wears down the immune system over time, it increases the risk of several chronic diseases including diabetes. It can hinder learning and lead to poor decision-making. Among other psychological effects, it can cause anxiety and depression, worsen existing mental health conditions, and trigger the onset of psychotic and manic episodes in people who have or are predisposed to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

What Should I Do If I'm Struggling with Acute or Chronic Stress?

One of the first things you should do if you're stressed out is see if there's something you can do to address or resolve the stressor. Sometimes even negative stress can be positive when it alerts you to an important change you need to make. It might be time to get a different job, start saying "no" to new after-school commitments, or tell your family you need more time for yourself each week to exercise, read, or meditate.

Some stressors are easier to resolve than others, and personal actions aren't always enough to address collective causes of stress. Over the years the American Psychological Association has held its Stress in America™ Survey, the following have consistently ranked as the top causes of stress for Americans:

  • Work
  • Money
  • The economy
  • Relationships
  • Housing costs
  • Family responsibilities
  • Personal health concerns
  • Health issues affecting family members

In recent years, the stressful political climate and worries over the future of the nation and world have become even greater sources of stress than they were before. Stress about the cost of health insurance has also been on the rise. When you're worried about environmental disasters, political conflicts, or economic issues, you can increase your sense of efficacy and feel better by doing something to make a difference, such as advocating, volunteering, or donating to charity. However, this won't fully resolve the stress you feel over these complex, ongoing issues.

Take Care of Yourself

Practicing self-care is an important part of coping with stress. Some of the most important things you can do at home to manage your stress level include:

  • Going for walks and doing other forms of exercise regularly
  • Keeping time open in your schedule for restorative activities
  • Practicing good sleep hygiene and getting a good night's sleep
  • Connecting with loved ones and talking about what you're going through
  • Engaging in creative or expressive activities that bolster your confidence

Self-care and stress management is highly personal. Some people might prefer to headbang to heavy metal on the way home from work, while others might prefer listening to gentle harp music while soaking in the bath. The important thing is to make sure that your self-care regimen doesn't become another source of obligation that you dread and avoid. Cardiovascular exercise is one of the best ways to bust stress, but it can also become a source of guilt when your life is just too busy to commit to it. Chronic health problems can also put it out of reach.

Even though it's important, self-care isn't always enough. Sometimes there's just too much stress to manage on your own, and sometimes the sources of stress are too deeply rooted, insidious, or intense to offload with a round of exercise or night of reading. When stress is overwhelming you, lean on your support network. Ask for help with stressful tasks and seek emotional support as you cope with loss or other major life changes. Too many people worry too much about rocking others' boats when they're drowning and need rescue. Let the people who love you pull you onto a lifeboat and help you get to shore.

Consider Therapy

Sometimes, family and friends can't provide all the support you need. The issues you're facing might be too personal, too complicated, or too overwhelming for them. They might inadvertently make it worse when they try to help in ways that stress you out. They might think the answer is too simple, might not understand, or might find your distress too overwhelming and shut down. Even when they are helpful, you may need more help than what they can provide.

Seeing a therapist can make a huge difference when you're going through a stressful period in your life. In therapy, you can learn techniques that will help you cope with stress and resolve stressful problems. Therapy can help you build the confidence you need to set boundaries and say "no" when you need to. By providing a neutral perspective and giving you a safe space to vent where you don't have to hold anything back, a therapist can help you process emotion and gain insight into your situation. They can also help you dig into deep issues that are causing or exacerbating stress, like unresolved past traumas or emotional wounds.

If you think it's time to start seeing a therapist but haven't found one yet, there are many ways you can find an affordable therapist. If you have a private insurance plan with good mental health benefits, you can search for a local therapist on your insurance plan's website. You can call a local mental health crisis or information line to learn about public mental health services in your area and whether you might be eligible for them. You can also use the search tools on OpenCounseling to find free or low-cost local therapy or try affordable online therapy through BetterHelp (a sponsor). 

Whatever stressors you're dealing with, you don't have to go through this alone. Make a call or send an e-mail today to start your journey back to equilibrium.

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Stephanie Hairston, MSW
Posted on 09/02/2019 by Stephanie Hairston, MSW

Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a masters-level clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments. She has also worked as a technical writer for a medical software company and as an editor for a company that appeals denials of insurance coverage for behavioral health treatment. As a writer, she is motivated by the same desire to help others that brought her into the field of social work and believes that knowledge is one of the most essential recovery tools. She strongly believes in the mission of OpenCounseling and in making therapy accessible for everyone.