Millennials are doing amazing things like championing rights of others, combatting bullying, and fearlessly answering hate with love, but making the world a better place can get pretty stressful. According to the American Psychological Association, Millennials are the most stressed-out generation, followed closely by Generation Xers.
Here's what we need to know about stress and why we need to deal with it now:
What exactly is stress, anyway?
We tend to think of stress as a list of responsibilities or circumstances, but those are things that cause stress.
For most of our evolutionary history, humans were primarily concerned with not being eaten by predators or needing to catch food. This led to the adaptation of a "fight or flight" response, which either prepares us to take on a physical challenge or flee a dangerous situation.
When we perceive a threat, our autonomic nervous system springs into action to give our bodies what they need for demanding physical activity. This includes ramping up our heart rate, slowing down digestion (because stopping for a bathroom break isn't ideal when running for your life), focusing vision, and surging certain hormones.
While that system works great for responding to actual physical threats, most people have never lived through war or been preyed on by a wild animal. We're much more likely to view big expectations, responsibilities, and negative experiences as threats. Our body still reacts to the threat in the same way.
Is it really a big deal?
When our bodies shoot up our heart rate and surge hormone production. That's great if we need to run from a bear and put that fight or flight response to use. It's less great for when we need to deal with college finals or go through a divorce, because those problems can't be solved with physical activity.
Unfortunately, this response puts a lot of strain on the body. While the damage is a small price to pay in life-or-death situations, being constantly stressed can weaken our immune systems and make us more prone to infections and make existing health conditions (like irritable bowel syndrome and asthma) worse.
Stress is also linked to obesity and diabetes because the body requires a lot of sugar and energy for physical activity. To meet that need, the liver ramps up the amount of sugar available in the blood. When that activity doesn't happen, the extra sugar is stored as fat. We're also drawn to high-sugar and high-fat foods when we feel stressed, which doesn't help.
While a little bit of stress is necessary to give us a short burst of energy we need, too much of it produces a number of problems, which is a big concern for those who experience more stress than average because of mental disorders like anxiety and PTSD.
How can we make it better?
The best way to reduce the damage to our bodies from stress is learning how to calm ourselves down so we don't feel like there's a threat anymore. While some people drink or smoke in response to stress, that isn't a great option and will likely cause more problems than it solves.
One of the best ways to fight back against stress is to exercise. Not only does it use up the extra blood sugar and hormones, but exercise releases other chemicals that improve mood, memory, and improved muscle function.
Another good way to alleviate stress is to do something that takes your mind off of whatever is bothering you. Whether that's accomplished through yoga, meditation, reading, playing music, or some other activity will differ from person to person. Taking a few minutes to focus on something calming is another great way to end the fight or flight response.
The most overlooked part of dealing with stress is actually dealing with it. Even if you can't solve a problem in a single sitting, there is usually something that can be done. Feeling like there is too much to do can be helped by writing out an actual list and visualizing the tasks at hand. Major tasks like planning a wedding can be broken down into small milestones.
Everyone is different, so what works for one person may not work for another. The most important thing is that stress is being managed in a healthy and effective way.
Remember, if stress is impacting your everyday life because of anxiety or PTSD, please see a doctor and begin treatment.
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