Clenched teeth, locked jaw, tension shooting up my shoulders and neck, feeling heavy as if my legs were glued to the floor, tightness in my low back set in, and finally a pounding headache crashed into my frontal lobes.
My name is Liam, and I’m a junior in the Public Health program at Temple University. Lately I’ve been dwelling on stress (literally).
Last semester was full of surprises. I was already late to register for my summer classes, scrambling to find a course before the deadline, all while in the process of moving, losing family to gun violence, not to mention dealing with burnout and vicarious trauma from work.
At the top of this long list: social isolation due to the COVID-19 restrictions and recommendations. Tired, worrying I wouldn’t get a course in time, I stumbled across one of the remaining courses available: ‘Stress Management’. I assumed it would be about deep breathing, and healthy social networks, which are both important, but instead the course focused more on the mind-body connection and interactivity. This course taught me a lot about myself.
As a master procrastinator, I do everything at the very last minute. This is accompanied with awfulizing (constantly worrying about the “what if’s” in life), not to mention the chronic back pain. Stress become that “friend” who always shows up unannounced and overstays. From time to time I noticed my stomach felt strange for no reason at all. My muscles were tense, and I had other aches and pains.
All of these symptoms are correlated to stress and how I deal with it.
There are many triggers that we naturally perceive to be stressful:
- environmental factors (where we live)
- life events
- our values and beliefs
- occupational stress
- decision making
- feelings of captivity or loneliness
- negative media (social and broadcast)
In fact, our life experiences give way to our thoughts and beliefs, which feed into our actions. During one presentation in my Stress Management course, one slide mentioned “Stress doesn’t necessarily cause any disease, though it can leave you more susceptible to diseases or illness. Some estimate 80% of all doctor’s visits are caused by or related to stress.”
We know there is a relationship between stress and disease. If we can find ways to intercept the events in our lives that tend to be ‘negative stress’ and find healthy ways to process them – talking with friends, going to therapy, practicing mindful activities – we all may all be a bit more well!
I was perplexed to hear Professor Jay mention that stress can suppress the immune system. The body’s natural responses to stimulants are called alarm reactions (acid secreted into the gastrointestinal tract from the adrenal glands when our body is alarmed). “Stress is neither good nor bad… rather it’s based on our perceptions of events and experiences.”
This created a revelation in my thinking: we need to completely view stress differently.
Putting the pieces together: what does it all mean?
It is vital to understand what stress is and how it works. Society conforms to the norm of promoting common stimulants of stress (long work hours, mid-term exams, comparing social status, etc.), and fosters close relationships with stress culture.
We have to see the task for what it is. We have a chance to ease the muscle tensions, release those clenched teeth, avoid panic attacks, slow that hypertensive heart and blood pressure.
I personally started expanding my coping skills with:
- deep breathing
- keeping track of completed tasks
- exercise (basketball, running, biking)
- going to a masseuse
- going out into nature
- separating from electronics
Try to focus only on things you can control. Minimize awfulizing. Make an effort to see the optimistic future. Be kind to yourself. These promote a sense of ease.
I am not a master at this so-called stress management thing just yet; but it’s a start. More importantly I am now more mindful of the physiological tolls stress can have on me. I am more mindful of the ways it shows up and sets in, which adds to my toolkit when trying to navigate and work through the maze stress can be.
With these tools I encourage you to shift stress to work for you. The journey is a bit different for everyone. There is no universal size or cure. So be kind to yourself, start small, add an extra cup or two of love and healing for the times when you’re overwhelmed and stress creeps up. By doing this you’ll see stress in a whole new way; you may even sprinkle some of your positive findings and joy to others across the community.
As public health advocates and caretakers, we need to educate, plan, and push to have stress awareness and resources in a multitude of settings. This includes preparing both public and private sectors. Employers have an ethical obligation to provide comprehensive wellness resources that go beyond paid time off. This responsibility resides with everyone, but especially with the leaders who have power, influence, and resources. Fostering a caring attitude for positive mental health will surely increase the quality of life for us all!
In Wellness, Healing &, Community
About the Author: Born and raised in West Philadelphia, Central High School grad, and current Temple student Liam, 23, is an emerging leader and catalyst, He uses passion and resilience from life experiences to fuel his ambition to bring marginalized and underserved populations the best help possible; both at the national and local levels. Being six of seven from a single parent home, Liam strives to use empathy, curiosity, and resilience to learn, adapt, and improve the quality of life for both himself and others’ around him.