Stress Awareness Month has been held every April since 1992. During this time, health care professionals and health promotion experts across the country join forces to increase public awareness on how to reduce stress.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it, high stress levels have led to an increase in eating disorder behaviors around the nation. The National Eating Disorder Association noted a 70-80% increase in calls to their hotline during this time.
The reason is this: stress affects your mental health, physical health and emotional well-being. Although there is no medical term for stress, stress is very common and affects all of us in some capacity. Everyday routine stress, stress brought on by life changes (including those caused by a global pandemic) and even traumatic stress affect each of us in different capacities and different severities.
What Are Common Stressors?
Some of the most common stressors include:
- Stress in the workplace or at school
- Stress related to relationships or family members
- Financial stress
- The stress of a move or job change
- Lack of sleep
- A life transition such as a new baby, a divorce or a death
All of these stressors can greatly throw us off course in life. And while some of these stressors are unavoidable, many are not. But it’s how you cope with your stressors that matters most.
Stress, the Body and Eating Disorders
When we are experiencing emotional turmoil, either at school, work or in our personal lives, our cortisol levels increase, which puts our bodies under stress. High levels of cortisol enable us to work under pressure for a short amount of time but over time our bodies become depleted of energy and our immune systems become weakened. If the stress response goes on for too long or becomes chronic, such as when the source of stress is constant, or if the response continues after the danger has subsided, those same life-saving responses in your body can react to suppress immune functions, digestion, sleep cycles, and reproductive systems, which may cause them to stop working normally.
It’s so important to learn how to reduce stress because stress affects us in many ways including the following:
Physical symptoms — Mental and emotional stress can lead to physical symptoms like headaches, muscle aches and gastrointestinal symptoms. It can also make one more likely to suffer from eating disorder behaviors like bingeing and purging.
Immune system — With physical exhaustion being closely linked to mental exhaustion, when individuals experience burn out at work, they will often be tired and more susceptible to getting sick. Further, when we neglect our bodies by not getting adequate nutrition, engaging in negative social interactions or not acquiring adequate sleep on a nightly basis, health problems can occur.
Eating disorders — Many experienced the physical effects of stress firsthand during the 2020 pandemic. 62 percent of people in the United States with anorexia saw their eating disorder symptoms worsen due to levels of high stress. Further, almost one in three Americans living with binge eating disorder saw a worsening of symptoms during this period of time.
Stress, the Brain and Mental Health
The brain is a muscle in the sense that it requires energy in the form of food and rest in the form of sleep. When we over exercise our bodies, our muscles become sore, and as a result, we are at risk for injuries such as shin splints and torn ligaments. Our brain, although not technically a muscle, is no different and it, too, can be overworked.
Individuals who are under chronic mental or emotional stress are more likely to experience a number of physical ailments and mental health symptoms, including anxiety and depression. Plus, high levels of anxiety are strongly linked with an increased risk for eating disorders. For those diagnosed with both anxiety and an eating disorder, symptoms are usually more severe, and recovery is often more difficult.
How to Reduce Stress: 10 Tips
Stress is a part of life. What matters most is how you handle it. Individuals who have a strong support system and who practice positive coping skills have a better chance of overcoming negative stressful situations compared to individuals who self-sabotage and who only focus on their negative stressors instead of positive solutions.
The best thing you can do to prevent stress overload and the health consequences that come with it is to know your stress symptoms and learn how to avoid and manage them in a healthy way.
Here are 10 healthy ways to manage stress:
- Set realistic goals and keep track of them.
- Find a way to incorporate any type of movement into your day and keep it as stress-free as possible.
- Practice mindful eating, using all of your senses at each meal.
- Aim to sleep 8 hours a night.
- Form healthy, positive relationships that don’t drain you.
- Engage in an activity that makes you happy; find a hobby.
- Stay connected with people; try not to isolate.
- Learn your stress triggers and write them down.
- Avoid negative people and situations; avoid “toxic” people.
- Get comfortable spending time alone to help you “reset.”
More Ways to Reduce Stress
One of the best tips we can share is that you set priorities. Think about what you value most in life and what is most important and prioritize those areas. The rest can wait.
Another strategy to reduce stress is to learn how to let go of perfectionism. Perfectionism and eating disorders often go hand in hand. Let go of the need to do everything perfectly, to look perfect and to be perfect.
Get Help for Chronic Stress
Life under chronically high stress levels is brutal and takes a toll on the mind and body. However, there are periods of life where chronic stress is unavoidable. If you’ve become overwhelmed by high stress levels, and would like to learn how to reduce stress, we can help. Every day, we help individuals find new ways to cope and to thrive with a variety of treatment options for all people. If you’re really struggling, know that talking to a mental health professional can help you learn how to change any negative self-talk habits, compulsive habits or fears.
Related Articles on Center for Discovery
- Talking About Mental Health with Teens
- My Son Recovered from an Eating Disorder
- Trauma, Emotional Eating and the Path to Freedom
- NPR Interview with Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/09/08/908994616/eating-disorders-thrive-in-anxious-times-and-pose-a-lethal-threat
- International Journal of Eating Disorders, July 2020: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/eat.23353