April is Stress Awareness Month. This purpose is to shed light on the increase of chronic stress and to provide resources to lessen the effects of stress on our health. Stress normally occurs in our lives, such as giving a presentation in front of people, planning a wedding or dealing with the stressors brought on by illness or COVID-19. These stressors influence us, but we can work through them and learn some resiliency skills — though, when there is constant stress affecting our lives, this can lead to chronic stress. According to the Centers for Disease Control, COVID-19 has impacted both young and old, as many face challenges, losses, illness and mental health struggles.

So how does stress affect us? First, we must understand what stress is. According to the American Institute of Stress, “Stress is a natural, physical and mental reaction to life experiences … Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and ready your muscles to respond [to the situation].” The body is affected when there is constant stress (chronic stress), where your body does not bounce back to its natural state and continues to release hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates, which takes its toll on the body. Some common signs of stress include frequent headaches, neck and back pain, insomnia, stomach pain, depression and many more.

With chronic stress, the heart beats faster, increasing blood pressure and blood sugar in our bodies. Under stress, the liver releases more sugar, which over time, increases risk of Type 2 Diabetes, or if already diabetic, causes more harm to the body. Stress also causes blood vessels to constrict, which can lead to high blood pressure or affect those who already suffer from the disease. Other effects are a weakened immune system and inflammation to heart arteries.

What can we do to lessen effects of stress? According to Extension Program Specialist Julie Tijerina, “By learning some simple techniques, we can learn to accept that stressors in our lives will exist, but how we choose to handle them, will help us lessen its effect on our bodies.”

Tijerina offers the following simple tips to help cope with stress:

• Avoid negative people or situations. If people, news, social media, traffic or other things cause you stress, try to avoid it. Although simpler said than done, removing something that is in your control to avoid can help you create a more positive environment.

• To Do list: There will be times when the To Do list does not have to be completed. The room does not have to be cleaned today. Take a walk outside, take deep breaths or listen to the birds, even if it is only for a few minutes. Changing your mindset with something positive will help.

• Learn to listen to your body. Do you clench your jaw when stressed? Perhaps your heart beats faster, or your thoughts are not focused. Take time to listen to your body, making a note of the things that affect you.

• Meditate: Learning how to quiet the mind and learning breathing exercises are two of the most popular methods to release stress.

• Exercise: Dancing, gardening, jogging, walking or anything that helps you get into a different mindset helps relieve stress. Even five minutes of activity can help.

• Sleep: Create a sleep routine that allows for some down time before bed; no phones, caffeine or other stimulants. During sleep, our bodies heal.

• Nutrition: Eating a healthy, well-balanced meal helps you think clearly and become alert. During times of stress, to boost mental health, eat plenty of fruits, dark green leafy vegetables, foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains, nuts, and legumes. Include, lean proteins and reach for healthy snacks. Avoid processed foods.

Kathy Smith is a Texas A&M AgriLife extension agent in Parker County.

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