“Stress Awareness Month has been held every April since 1992 to raise awareness of the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic. The last two years have been the most challenging we have faced, and in 2020, our services were overwhelmed by people that are struggling and seeking support. This year our theme is ‘community.’ We have chosen this theme because lack of support can cause loneliness and isolation, which lowers people’s well-being, impacts mental health, and leads to mental illness. Social isolation is a significant risk factor for deteriorating mental health and suicide. As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s vital that the community support experienced by many people during this challenging time continues. Although restrictions have mainly been lifted, people need support now more than ever to adjust to a new way of living.
The pandemic has hugely detrimental effects on the nation’s mental health and sense of community. Disrupted social lives, the cancellation of large gatherings, travel restrictions, and working from home have kept us in one place for long periods. However, one of the positives to emerge from this unparalleled situation has been the community spirit and support shown by so many to so many.”
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s natural response to handle fear or a tense situation. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) is responsible for the stress reaction known as the fight or flight response. This fight or flight response prepares the body to react appropriately, causing the following:
- Increased breathing
- Increased heart rate
- Acute vision and hearing
- Increased alertness
- Blood is directed to the muscles and brain and away from the skin and gastrointestinal systems.
- Decreased sexual arousal
- Repair of the body and growth tissues slow down
In other words, essential body systems needed to fight and run away from a situation are activated, and other body systems that are not needed for immediate action are suppressed. Physical and psychosocial stressors trigger this same physiological fight or flight response. However, there is a fine line between acute and chronic stress and how the body responds and adapts. Short-term stress can be good for the body as it helps drive people to overcome obstacles while undergoing a stressful situation. On the other hand, chronic and overabundant stress can wear down the body, making it difficult to adapt and cope with this ongoing stress. As stress and anxiety levels increase, so do performance and efficiency, but only up to a certain point. At this turning point, further stress and anxiety can lead to cognitive burnout, a compromised immune system, and the breakdown of social relationships.
How stress affects relationships
Often individuals in relationships choose to bottle up their stress and keep it away from their loved ones out of fear of burdening them, shame, or low self-esteem. Not dealing with stress in an appropriate and healthy manner and keeping this stress away from your loved one can make it difficult for others to understand what you are dealing with and make it challenging to support you during this time. Ignoring your stress can create a negative cycle within a relationship where adverse reactions due to stress can bounce off one another, creating a vicious cycle of negative emotions.
Stress depletes individuals by draining their cognitive resources and increasing vigilance, meaning that one is always on edge and exhausted, which can be a dangerous combination for a relationship. When you are stressed, you are more likely to notice negative behaviors and less able to stop yourself from reacting negatively to them. These negative behaviors and adverse reactions can lead to impatience, irritability, hostility, and mistrust, leading to fighting. When fighting, stress may cause individuals to be less emphatic and not want to listen to each other. Stress can turn non-issues into issues and prevent your ability to deal with the problem constructively.
Stress also affects our physical and mental health, which can strain the relationship. Chronic or repetitive stress can lead us to feel exhausted, use alcohol or drugs to cope with our feelings, and feel anxious or depressed.
The relationship between stress and loneliness
Loneliness can lead to long-term “fight-or-flight” stress signaling, which negatively affects immune system functioning. Individuals who feel lonely have less immunity and more inflammation than those individuals who do not feel alone. It is important to note that being alone and feeling lonely are two different things. Being “alone” is a physical state where you are physically by yourself. Being “lonely” is an emotional state where you feel alone or disconnected from others, even when you are in a room full of people. Loneliness is not only a source of acute stress but also chronic stress. Many believe that loneliness can qualify as a psychosocial stressor, especially if it affects your well-being or interferes with daily living. Studies have shown that the stress associated with loneliness does have psychosocial effects on the neuroendocrine (brain hormones) and immune system. For example, loneliness has been associated with impaired cellular immunity, as reflected by lower natural killer (NK) cell activity and higher antibody titers. In addition, loneliness among middle-aged adults has been found to be associated with a smaller increase in natural killer cells in response to acute stressors.
Combating stress and loneliness
One of the best things to help prevent and fight loneliness is to get out of your comfort zone by forcing yourself to meet people. Sometimes meeting new people can seem overwhelming, but within time and if you are your authentic self, you will eventually meet others who share similar interests and mindsets. Ways to meet like-minded people include joining a gym, a class such as cooking or art, participating in church groups, or outdoor activities such as running clubs, ski clubs, or participating in races. In addition, it is essential to surround yourself with people who help you grow, as surrounding yourself with those who pull you down can be detrimental to your stress levels and mental health.
Seeking help at AKUA Mind and Body
AKUA Mind and Body is a full-service addiction and mental health treatment center with multiple locations across California. We believe in treating the individual and not just the disorder and have a team of mental health experts who have experience in treating those who have mental health disorders or substance use disorders brought on by stress. No matter your range or severity of symptoms or the type of stress you are experiencing, your thoughts and words are valid. Our team at AKUA Mind and Body wants to help you navigate through this challenging journey and seek out a healthy and successful recovery.