Toxic Stress? November 3 is National Stress Awareness Day, and I don’t know a single person who hasn’t been deeply stressed over the past few years. Maybe as you’re reading this, you’re on coffee number four or still trying to process the latest scary economic news headline.
But what if I told you stress itself is actually not the problem?
That’s right. Stress is good for us. Feeling stressed during performances or work events shows that your body and brain are working. They’re taking care of you and making sure you’re prepared to achieve your goals. It’s normal and good to be stressed when you’re taking tests or giving a presentation because when you get stressed, your body kicks into “fight, flight or freeze” mode, and you go about solving (confronting or avoiding) the challenge.
But your body can’t handle being in fight, flight or freeze all day every day. If stress is pervasive (you’re stressed about multiple things) and persistent (you’ve been stressed for a long time), your stress may become toxic. So today, I want to help you identify and work through toxic stress.
What Is Toxic Stress?
Toxic stress is the result of having too much going on at once and being in fight, flight or freeze mode for so long that our bodies finally say, “Enough!”
We know we’re dealing with toxic stress when we start feeling like everything’s pointless. We start isolating ourselves or choosing addictive actions like drinking, doing drugs or inhaling every gummy worm, burger and bag of chips we can get our hands on (been there). Toxic stress can result in numerous physical and psychological issues like high blood pressure, heart problems, inability to focus, anxiety, depression and a whole lot more.
But there is a healthy way to deal with stress and pursue wellness no matter how many stressors you have — so here are my top five tips.
How to Deal with Toxic Stress
Before you reach for the carbs and try to numb out your feelings with 10 hours of “Law and Order” or endless internet scrolling, do one or all of these five things:
1. Write down what’s stressing you out
Sometimes getting it all out of your head and onto paper can make a world of difference, so go ahead and make a list of everything that’s contributing to your feelings of stress. Once you see it all laid out, you’ll be able to make informed choices about what you can deal with today, what doesn’t need to be addressed today, and what’s out of your control.
2. Learn to control your thoughts and actions
The only things you truly have control over are your own thoughts and actions — and yes, you can learn to control your thoughts. Thoughts will automatically come into your mind (you can’t control that), but you can control what you do with them once they’re in there. My favorite strategy when I’m hit with a thought I don’t like is to loudly say “nope” and then intentionally think of something better. It’s awkward and a discipline that takes time to learn, but it is possible.
And since you can control your actions, you can also choose what you do and what you focus on. You can stop reading the news and start a gratitude journal instead. You can choose to go for a walk outside instead of listening to so many true crime podcasts that you start thinking everyone you know is a serial killer.
3. Take care of your health
Mental, physical and spiritual health are all interwoven and connected, so when you do something that’s good for your body, you’ll also help your mind and soul, and vice versa. A few simple ways to take care of your health are eating well, exercising (just move your body—it doesn’t have to be CrossFit), journaling, spending time in meditation and prayer, and getting plenty of sleep.
4. Invest in relationships
We all need to have other people in our lives. Stress can make us want to isolate ourselves and tune out the world, but relationships and community are absolutely essential to us as human beings.
You’ve heard of an emergency fund for your finances — well, people are an emergency fund for life. Find ways to actively connect with people, whether that’s having dinner with a friend, visiting your family, or joining a club or group with people who share your interests. I get that relationships aren’t always easy, but they’re worth your time—I promise.
5. Seek professional help
If you’re struggling to identify what’s making you feel stressed, or you’re experiencing addiction, out-of-control thoughts or toxic relationship patterns, find someone to talk to. A professional can help you figure out the why behind your feelings and unpack any trauma you may or may not know you have.
At the end of the day, know that you’re not crazy, damaged or alone. In most cases, you are normal, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. So put in the work it takes to be well. You’re worth it!
For more tips on dealing with stress and anxiety, check out this article.
*Dr. John Delony is a mental health expert with PhDs in Counselor Education & Supervision and Higher Education Administration from Texas Tech University. Prior to joining Ramsey Solutions in 2020, John worked as a senior leader, professor, and researcher at multiple universities. He also spent two decades in crisis response, walking with people through severe trauma. Now as a Ramsey Personality, he teaches on relationships and emotional wellness. Follow John on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube or online at www.johndelony.com.