Stressed Out: How stress affects us (and how to deal with it)

While being stressed out isn’t much fun, it’s a normal part of life. Stress is a natural response to dangerous situations, and can be helpful in the right circumstances. It makes us more alert and able to fight or flee in the face of danger.

Unfortunately, our modern lives tend to trigger our stress response far too often. While stress is healthy and helpful in small doses, long-term stress can be bad for your health.

Why we’re all so stressed out

Studies have found too much stress can lead to higher blood pressure, higher risk of cardiovascular disease and infection, weight gain, sleep loss, headaches, stomach aches, burnout syndrome, depression, and skin conditions like eczema and hives.

Stress can also carry over into different areas of our lives. For instance, one study found work-related stress such as tension between work and home life, or lack of support from work supervisors, tends to correlate with dangerous driving. Study participants who were feeling more work-related stress also had more dangerous ideas about what constituted “normal” driving practices, and were more likely to drive dangerously through habits like using a cell phone while driving.

Not only can stress transfer among different areas of your own life, but stress can be transferred between people as well.

A study in 2014 found our stress response can be triggered simply by observing someone else who’s showing signs of stress. 26% of study participants took on stress from those they observed, and the researchers found the more close the participant was to the person they were observing, the more likely they were to take on that stress.

So you might take on stress from a stranger, but you’re highly likely to take on stress from a close friend, colleague, or partner.

How to deal with feeling stressed out

Since many of us are stressed out, and increasing risks to our health as a result, it’s important to understand how to deal with stress. Luckily, there are some actions you can take to lessen the burden of stress in your life—whether that stress comes from others, from work, or just from the constant pressure of modern life.

Think about something important to you

A simple exercise you can use in times of stress (or perhaps before an event that might make you stressed out) is to think or write about something important to you. In 2013, a study found a particular self-affirmation exercise to be beneficial when facing a task under pressure.

Participants in the study had to complete a problem-solving task, but before they did, half the participants also did a self-affirmation exercise. This exercise involved writing a paragraph or two about a particular value or characteristic that’s important to you, and why it’s important. This could be your family, your faith, creativity, your job, being a good friend, or even being good at sports.

The study found what you write about doesn’t need to be related to the stressful task ahead, either. Simply writing or thinking about something important to you can help ease feelings of stress, which makes it easier to perform at your best. This exercise is quick to do, too, so you could easily fit it in before an exam, a job interview, or a meeting you’re worried about.

Be kind to yourself

If you’re like me, a lot of the stress you’re under comes from yourself, as you pressure yourself to do well and beat yourself up when you fail to meet your own high standards. Unfortunately, research shows this is not a great way to deal with stress.

People who are self-compassionate and accept negative feelings like stress as being simply part of life tend to fare better than those who fight their negative emotions. Those who accept negative emotions even seem to feel fewer negative emotions overall than those who fight them in the first place.

These conclusions come from a study of students struggling with the stress fo their first year at college. The study’s first author, Dr Katie Gunnell, explains why self-compassion is so beneficial:

Our study suggests the psychological stress students may experience during the transition between high school and university can be mitigated with self-compassion because it enhances the psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which in turn, enriches well-being.

Forgiving yourself has also been shown to help procrastinators overcome their procrastination tendencies in future, as compared to beating yourself up about procrastinating, which makes you more likely to procrastinate again in the future.

It seems there are many benefits to being kind to yourself when you’re under pressure.

Complete a ritual

Many athletes and performers complete rituals before performing to get them into the right mindset. But a study of made-up rituals has found they can also help reduce stress.

The research asked 250 participants to sing part of a song to a stranger—a stress-inducing task for most people. Participants’ heart rates were tracked during the study, and the researchers found heart rates soared when the singing task was announced.

But some participants took part in an extra step: they were asked to complete a short ritual before doing the singing task. The ritual involved drawing a picture of their feelings, sprinkling the picture with salt, reciting a countdown, and throwing the picture in the trash.

This ritual, despite being made up for the study, made participants’ heart rates drop down closer to normal levels, as well as reducing self-reported anxiety levels. Even more interesting: those who performed the ritual actually performed better, as well. Their pitch, volume, and note duration were better, on average, than those who didn’t complete a ritual (and thus had a higher heart rate when beginning the singing task).

Another experiment in the same study had participants completing the same set of math problems, but some were told these were “fun maths puzzles” while others were told it was “a very difficult IQ test”. In this experiment, performing a ritual didn’t improve performance significantly for the fun puzzles group, but it did have an effect on those who believed they were completing a difficult test. So rituals seem most useful in situations that are causing us stress and anxiety.

The researchers also found completing a set of behaviors that weren’t called a ritual didn’t have the same effect. It’s something about believing we’re completing a ritual that helps to reduce our anxiety before performing in a stressful situation.

Remember that stress is healthy

The way we think about stress and our response to it can affect our response a lot. Research has shown people who believe stress is unhealthy tend to have a less healthy stress response. That is, when your palms sweat, your heart rate rises, and you feel shaky from adrenaline.

For those who believe their body’s response to stress is healthy and helpful for dealing with stressful events, their bodies actually respond in a more healthy way to stress. And a more healthy response to stress can offset some of those health risks that come from prolonged stress.

While small amounts of stress, and our natural stress response are both healthy and normal, feeling continually stressed out over the long-term can be dangerous for our health. And we can even transfer that stress to others.

Small interventions like completing a ritual, writing about something important to you, and being kind to yourself can help you deal with stress in a more healthy way.

Check out these extra ideas for dealing with stress and let us know in the comments if you have another suggestion that works for you.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.