And What to Do About It
Stress is something everyone in the history of existence has to deal with from time to time. And considering stress can impact the quantity and quality of our work, and stress-related injuries can render us unable to make art for a time, we artists are no exception.
Moreover, though, stress is one of those ubiquitous things about the human experience that ties us all together. Some people are more affected by it than others, to be sure, and what causes stress varies widely from person to person, but everyone experiences it at varying points in their lives to some degree or another.
Recently, I've touched on anxiety, and how it can interfere with being a productive member of a community. These anxieties are a source of much stress for those who experience them, but we have yet to really examine what stress actually is, which is an important thing to understand, especially if one would like to cut back on the amount of stress in one's life, which I think most of us definitely would.
Further, removing the source of one's stress (such as the social anxieties discussed in my last article), while helpful, does not always remove the stress itself, especially not immediately. To understand why this is, and how to cut back on stress in our lives, we need to understand what it actually is. So let's talk about that.
Stress: it's Not Always a Bad Thing...
So...what is stress, exactly? Well, speaking from a medical perspective, stress is one's mind and body reacting to a perceived harmful situation, whether that perception is accurate or not. Stress actually evolved as a beneficial response to such situations that helps one survive.
When stressed, one's body releases cortisol, the primary “stress hormone,” causing one’s heart rate and blood pressure to increase, breathing to grow faster, and one’s mind to become more alert and aware of one's surroundings, as well as muscles tightening some, getting the body ready to react quickly.
All of these things happen because one's body is preparing to deal with a perceived dangerous situation, historically by running away quickly or to allow one to defend oneself better, though it can be helpful in other ways as well; for instance, the increased alertness could aid one in seeing to all the duties of a new position after a promotion. When stress happens in small to moderate amounts and is helpful like this, it's referred to as “eustress.”
When our ancestors felt stress because they encountered signs of a dangerous predator nearby, it helped them run faster and/or fight harder to survive. And even in modern day, feeling some stress over things like crossing the street is good, because it makes you be sure to be careful, look both ways, etc, instead of just walking across fearlessly staring at your phone...which can get you killed.
And even in situations that are hardly life-threatening, eustress can be helpful too. An important deadline may cause stress, but that stress can motivate one to work that much harder to finish in time. So in short, stress does actually have a purpose, and can be helpful, even necessary at times, in small doses.
...But it Certainly can Be
Of course, the problem arises when one has far too much stress to function, and/or when stress is caused by the wrong things; things that don't actually benefit from it. If one feels crippling stress just thinking about a deadline, to the point of feeling paralyzed, it can make one less likely to finish on time, or at all. While a small amount of stress might motivate one to finish in that case, too much actually does the opposite.
"When you constantly release this stress hormone, you deplete your adrenals and create havoc in your body" - Kimberly Palm, Conquering Stress: The real fountain of youth.
Further, everyone reacts to stress differently and for some, even a small amount of stress can be negative and difficult to manage.
And if one were to feel stress from something typically innocuous like say, touching a doorknob, that would be counterproductive and make it difficult to function. Not only that, but feeling more stress than one needs is just plain uncomfortable, potentially causing emotional unease—Including worsening or even causing depression, anxiety, and mental illness—headaches, tensed muscles, high blood pressure, stomach upset, and chest pain, among other possible symptoms. When too much stress happens at once and is harmful like this, we call it “distress,” the opposite of helpful eustress.
Stress and your Health
"Stress is the health epidemic of the 21st century" - Kimberly Palm, Conquering Stress: The real fountain of youth.
As one might imagine given all the short term discomfort distress can cause as mentioned above, when distress continues to happen frequently over long periods of time, it can actually become a health risk. Headaches can become severe and chronic, elevated blood pressure can go from a temporary occurrence at the time of stress, to being dangerously high all the time, stomach problems can likewise become constant and worsen, anxiety can become near-unmanageable, and one can even develop heart problems from chronic, long-term distress.
Our own BogusRed, creator of PaperDemon, knows this struggle quite well. For her, chronic stress caused widespread, long-term muscle tension which led to injuries in her wrists, neck, and arms, halting her ability to make art or work for some time while she recovered. There is a reason stress causes muscle tension; as said before, it gets the body ready to react quickly when it needs to, but being tensed all the time is a problem, because our bodies just aren’t built to carry that much tension constantly.
Often, people who face long-term distress in their lives will turn to things such as alcohol, tobacco, unhealthy amounts of sugar or caffeine, or other substances to cope. Generally speaking, this will make things worse rather than better. While they can provide some temporary relief, relying on such substances to manage distress typically creates a reliance on them without actually alleviating the source of the harmful stress.
And further, overdoing it on any substance will create its own health problems that simply exacerbate and add to those already caused by the stress itself. If you're already using such substances in excess, see if you can cut back a little at a time as you find better ways of coping.
Hope Is Far from Lost
So if heavy substance use just makes things worse overall, how does one make them better? Well, the bad news is that there is no simple easy fix, and what exactly will help alleviate it will vary from one person to another depending on one's personality and unique situation. But the good news is that if you're dealing with chronic and painful long-term distress, hope is far from lost.
The first part of overcoming a problem like this is understanding it, and you, reading this right now, are already doing pretty well on that front if you've read this far in the article. So now that we have a bit of a better understanding of what stress is, how it can be helpful, how it can be harmful, and what not to do to cope with it, let's talk about what will actually help.
First off, you have to know your own stress symptoms and recognize them when they occur. This is important, especially because it's different for everyone. I've already covered a lot of possible and common symptoms of stress, but which one's you might experience varies widely from one person to another. So pay attention to your body, when you feel stressed, locate the feeling. Pause and describe your symptoms to yourself. This kind of mindfulness can ease stress some on its own, and it allows you to be informed as to your own symptoms so that you can better manage and control them.
Secondly, if you're suffering from chronic distress, make an appointment with your doctor. For one thing, a lot of common symptoms of stress can also be indicative of other problems, so if nothing else it's good to see a doctor soon and rule out any more serious conditions that could be causing your symptoms. If your doctor determines your health is being negatively impacted by stress, they can recommend or prescribe medications, as well as therapy and counseling that can help you manage your stress and keep it within healthy levels of eustress.
And finally, turn to your peers for support. There's plenty of people here on Paperdemon who struggle with an overabundance of stress in their lives (if there wasn't, I probably wouldn't be writing this article for the site). Talking to others with similar experiences can give you a change to vent, empathize with others, and get useful insights and ideas for how to handle your own stress. After all, Paperdemon is all about helping each other be more awesome, so don't hesitate to tap that resource; the community will be more than happy to offer support.
Just a Few More tips…
Here’s a convenient bulleted list, with the advice above summarized nicely and a few more tips and tricks sprinkled in:
Be aware of common stress symptoms, and learn how your own body reacts to stress.
Avoid heavy substance use, it will make things worse, not better.
See a doctor, and look into psychological counseling.
Try meditating. If you have no experience, just google “mindfulness meditation.”
Remember Self-care. Make it a point to do things that make you happy and relax you.
Exercise, it’s an amazing stress-reducer as well as just good for your health.
Avoid the news if you can afford to. It’s been pretty stressful lately.
Avoid too much violent media if that causes you stress.
In general, learn what causes you stress and avoid those activities if you can afford to.
Seek out peer support; you can start right here at Paperdemon!
And with that, it’s time for me to turn in this draft and follow my own advice...which means de-stressing and taking some time to myself now! Stay awesome, everyone!