Dr. Kelleher has been a behavioral health care executive, consultant and clinician with over 25 years of experience in both public and private sectors. She is a nationally recognized expert in the areas of behavioral disability and the impact of mood and behavior on productivity. Dr. Kelleher also serves as Comcast's Benefits behavioral health expert.
Feeling stressed some of the time is an accepted part of modern life. Unfortunately, the number of people experiencing extreme or chronic stress has been on the rise. In fact, according to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, 45% of participants reported a chronic feeling of "nervousness or anxiety," with millennials reporting higher stress levels than older generations. The good news is that there are ways to become more stress-resilient.
Should I be worried?
The acute stress response is an automatic and normal response. It's your body's alarm system getting you ready to fight or flee from danger. For example, you're driving and need to react quickly to avoid a car swerving in front of you. In an instant, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, there's an "adrenaline rush" as hormone levels rise, your muscles tense, your breath becomes rapid, sweat breaks out, and you feel a burst of energy. You avoid the collision and your body returns to normal since the danger has passed.
A more common example at work is getting sweaty palms or an ache in the pit of your stomach right before giving a presentation or going into a job interview. There's a fine line between the useful bit of anxiety that can enhance focus and performance and the chronic stress that can hurt you.
Chronic stress is when physical and emotional responses get triggered routinely by every day stressors -- like juggling work and personal demands, money problems, or dealing with a tough daily commute. You can end up feeling chronically tired, nervous or irritable. If chronic stress goes on long enough, you can develop chronic high blood pressure or other medical problems, including chronic depression and anxiety. What is good in small doses becomes emotionally and physically destructive when stuck in the "on" position.
So, what can I do about it?
Practice resilient behaviors until they become second nature. Research has shown that resilient people share certain traits and responses to life's challenges that make them more stress-resistant. These behaviors can be learned by anyone.
Become aware and act
Chronic stress can quickly become your new normal. It's important to become aware of what stresses you out. Start paying attention to what your stress feels like and what situations trigger it. Then take a solution-focused approach. For example, say you constantly feel pressured for time to finish work. You recognize that the problem is too many meetings scheduled on your calendar every day. What actions can you take? Is it a matter of talking to your manager and asking for help to solve the problem? Or does it mean bowing out of meetings where you are not a main participant? Regardless of the fix, having better awareness and a sense of control can reduce stress and improve confidence.
Develop a network of supportive family, friends and co-workers
A supportive person or persons in all aspects of your life not only can serve as a stress releaser and offer practical support but also provides opportunities to relax, laugh, enjoy life and experience positive validation. In the example above, a supportive network of co-workers could not only sympathize but help solve your time problem. If co-workers are experiencing similar issues, the group could collectively try to make changes.
Focus on caring for yourself
Eat healthy and exercise in whatever way fits you and your lifestyle; walking, riding a bike, going to a gym, or a yoga class. Relax your mind through meditation or simple relaxation techniques. Most importantly, get enough sleep. Not only do these activities decrease stress, they can strengthen your immune system and promote a general sense of well-being. The trick is to make your activities an enjoyable part of your routine and keep it up.
Seek help and use resources
If you feel overwhelmed or you suffer from significant anxiety or depression, consider seeing a mental health professional. Your employer may have a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that includes no cost counseling. Many employers offer a broad range of health, wellness, and well-being services that are available to employees at little or no cost. Put finding out about them on your resilience action plan.