The holidays can be one of the most joyous times of year for adults. But when the pressures tied to holiday shopping, events and travel combine with complex family relationships or loneliness and grief, it can also be one of the most stressful.
The School of Public Health communications team recently caught up with Dr. Mona Mittal, associate professor in the Department of Family Science and supervisor at the Center for Healthy Families at the University of Maryland, to understand how stress affects us in different ways, why so many people seem to be stressed out year-round and how we can find relief.
How common is stress, and how does it affect people?
Stress can be defined as mental tension and worry that can have physical, emotional, and behavioral manifestations. Stress is a natural human response to life’s challenges and difficulties. People can experience stress for a variety of reasons including work, relationships, finances, education, health, discrimination and life changes. While the experience of stress can differ from person to person, everyone experiences stress to some degree.
Stress can manifest in many ways and affects us physically, emotionally and physiologically. Physically, people can experience headaches, muscle tension, dizziness, high blood pressure and gastro-intestinal issues. Mental health symptoms include feelings of sadness, anxiety and irritability. Physiologically, people can report increased heart rate, sweaty hands, dry throat, a feeling of exhaustion, chest pain and heartburn.
However, not all stress is bad. Within a certain threshold, stress is good for us and helps us in performing different tasks. A lot of stress or chronic stress though can have a negative impact on our emotional and physical health.
What are some main reasons that stress is so common now? Have people always experienced this much stress?
There are many reasons why people feel stressed in today’s world. More recently the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on people’s stress levels. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of the adults surveyed identified the following as significant sources of stress:
- Healthcare (66%)
- Mass shootings (62%)
- Climate change/global warming (55%)
- Immigration (47%)
- Opioid epidemic (45%)
- Uncertainty in our nation (65%)
- Issues in the U.S. (60%)
The prevalence of stress appears to have increased over time. Various factors have contributed to this increase. However, it is difficult to identify specific statistics on changes in prevalence of stress at the population level.
How important is stress relief, even if you only deal with stress occasionally?
Even if people only experience occasional stress, it is still important for them to develop stress relief strategies that work for them.
Given the big and small stressors people are dealing with on a day-to-day basis, it has become critical for all of us to develop sustainable self-nurturance practices to promote one’s physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual health. Examples of such practices include:
- Relaxation techniques
- Sleep routines
- Positive affirmations
- Getting massages
- Engaging in hobbies
- School of Public Health
- Department of Family Science