Facts about stress
- Stress is something that affects all of us in some form, but it is how we cope with the stressors in our life that makes the difference for our health.
- To respond to a stressor, our bodies release “fight or flight” hormones, which can increase your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and can tense your muscles. During a stressful situation, your brain activity, digestion and hearing decrease.
- In short term, or “acute” episodes of stress, stress symptoms often subside when the stressor is removed.
Complications of long-term stress
- Mental health concerns: Over time, high stress levels increase our risk of developing anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. Long-term exposure to stress can also lead to memory and concentration impairments.
- Cardiovascular disease: High levels of stress often leads to long-term high blood pressure, which can damage the blood vessels in your heart and in the rest of your body. When the blood vessels are damaged, blood pressure becomes harder to manager, and the risk of developing plaque in the arteries increases. When plaque develops in the arteries, it can reduce blood flow to the heart and other major organs. Stress has also been linked to certain types of heart failure, a condition wherein the heart muscle is weakened. For more information on heart failure, visit our Understanding Heart Failure section.
- Digestive problems: Long-term exposure to stress can impair our digestive or gut health and has been linked to symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, nausea and diarrhea.
- Weakened immune system: When we are stressed, the body’s immune system, which is important to fight off infections and disease, is reduced. This increases our risk of getting sick and makes it more difficult to recover if we do become ill.
- Weight and waist circumference: Many people who experience long-term stress are unable to exercise regularly, either due to a lack of time, lack of motivation, or both. To make matters worse, stress hormones that are released when our body experiences stress change our internal hunger cues. Stress can cause our body to crave high-calorie foods, such as that butter chicken dish, potato chips or ice cream, but can also cause you to completely lose your appetite for long periods of time. These long-term changes to exercise and eating habits can lead to unhealthy changes to body weight and waist circumference.
- Resilience is our bounce-back capacity to adapt and response from trauma, adversity, tragedy and sources of stress.
- Like a muscle, resilience grows through certain actions and approaches.
- Mental flexibility is the ability to recognize signs of mental or emotional stress and using mental agility to sooth inflamed emotions.
- Signs of mental or emotional stress usually present themselves in fight, flight and freeze responses.
- Fight responses: feeling defensive, angry, irritable, or wanting to throw something.
- Flight response: feeling you want to escape into junk food, screens (TV/phone/tablet etc.), substances, or social avoidance and isolation.
- Freeze response: feeling panicked, stage-struck, having a desire to shrink or feel invisible, and for some, this is accompanied with a dry mouth.
- Once you have recognized mental or emotional stress, it is important to acknowledge your negative headspace, honour your suffering and choose a different perspective. Questions to ask yourself are:
- What are other ways of looking at this?
- Am I reacting from facts or feelings?
- How would I advise a loved one in this situation?
Improving your stress levels
- You can strengthen your mental resilience by working on factors that are within your personal control. These behaviours include:
- Regular physical activity and exercise: Regular physical activity and exercise (especially outdoors) can release good mood hormones, and have a lasting positive effect on mood, sleep, appetite regulation and the stress response. Aim for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise each week and resistance training a minimum of twice per week.
- Healthy diet: Consuming a diet rich in whole, minimally processed foods can promote the production and release of the happy hormone, serotonin, which then travels the brain and can cause feelings of happiness and contentment.
- Get more sleep: Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Sleep regulates the hormonal balance necessary for mental clarity, mood stability and appetite regulation. For more information on sleep, and strategies to improve your sleep hygiene, visit our section on Sleep & Your Health.
- Talk about it: When we are stressed, many people often self-isolate, which can make matters worse. Talk to a friend, family member, or trained professional to help you find solutions to your stress.
- Relaxation technique: Some people find yoga class, meditation or deep breathing helpful to control their stress. Try a moment of relaxation.
- Keep a diary: Write down moments where you felt stressed and how it affected you.
- Engage in social activities, hobbies or recreational activities: Regularly setting time aside to participate in activities that you enjoy and distract you from stressful situations can help you cope more effectively with the stressors in your life.
- Practice self-compassion. In self-compassion, you show the same love and empathy to yourself as you would to a love one in a difficult situation. Some self-compassion techniques include: try a loving self-hug; recall your strengths and say them out loud; practice positive journaling to capture sweet moments as they occur; practice reflective and gratitude journaling; reflect of 5 qualities you appreciate in your spouse, friend, family member or child.
Mental health resources relating to COVID-19
- Taking care of your mental health (COVID-19) https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/diseases-conditions/taking-care-mental-health.html
- Wellness Together Canada https://ca.portal.gs
- Mental health and the COVID-19 pandemic http://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-health-and-covid-19
- COVID-19 and your mental health https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/mental-health-covid-19/art-20482731
Want more information?
- Speak to your Exercise Therapist.
- Speak to your family doctor or specialist.
- Watch our Mental Health & Covid19 Considerations Presentation
- Look for activities and programs offered by your local community centre, such as mindful meditation, yoga, guitar classes, or other recreational or social activities you may enjoy.
- Adult Resources:
- ConnexOntario (1-866-531-2600) – 24/7 helpline for addictions and problem gambling. Can offer contact information for local services, including crisis lines.
- IN CRISIS (1-833-456-4566)
- 211 Ontario – provided information and referral for community, government, social and health services, including mental health. Call 2-1-1 or 1-877-330-3213, or chat live over the web at www.211ontario.ca
- Wellness Together Canada – free online resources, tolls, apps, and connection to trained volunteers and qualities health professionals
- Togetherall – 24/7 an anonymous community of peer support, trained practitioners available 24/7, self-assessments and resources.
- Bouncebackontario.ca (1-866-345-0224) or email email@example.com – offers a free, guided self-help program for people aged 15+ who are experiencing mild-moderate anxiety, depression, or feeling low, stressed, worried, irritable or angry. Offers phone coaching, skill building workbooks and online videos.
- AbilitiCBT – an internet-based CBT program (OHIP covers 10 sessions), designed to help address anxiety symptoms related to the pandemic. CBT stands for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.
- MindBeacon – an internet-based CBT program, free to Ontarians CBT stands for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.