In many ways, Americans are more stressed than ever before. Near-constant stress is a deeply ingrained part of our culture, and it's hitting us from all sides. According to the American Institute of Stress, we're most anxious about the future of our country, our finances, and our jobs. And while this sort of tension affects nearly everyone, long-term stress can have profoundly negative effects on our health.
To deal with chronic stress, many people turn to unhealthy behaviors or vices. Excessive alcohol consumption, poor food choices, smoking, and inactivity are all ways you might cope with the stress in your life. Even though you might turn to unhealthy behaviors now, it's possible to make healthier choices to help deal with stress. For many people, the key to leaving vices behind is mindfulness, a way of thinking that's focused on accepting your feelings and life's circumstances in the present moment.
Coping With Stress
It's completely normal to feel stressed from time to time. In fact, a little stress can be a good thing — in small doses, stress motivates you to perform better, such as when you have a job interview. In dangerous situations, stress can save your life by activating your fight-or-flight response.
But exposure to stress over a long period of time can damage your health. Chronic stress affects your sleep patterns, immune system, digestive health, and emotional stability. As a result of stress, as many as 77 percent of people experience physical symptoms, and up to 73 percent of people have some form of psychological symptoms.
As a result, many turn to unhealthy behaviors for comfort. According to recent statistics, almost 20 percent of Americans deal with stress by binge drinking, while a full 19 percent of adults over age 18 use smoking to cope. While most people know these behaviors are harmful, many still engage in them to temporarily feel better.
These vices can have tremendously negative consequences, especially if practiced over long periods of time in response to chronic stress. Recent research shows that vices such as smoking and drinking contribute to 45 percent of all cancer deaths. Additionally, as many as 42 percent of people who are diagnosed with cancer may have developed their condition because of these types of behaviors.
How is it possible to reduce the effects of long-term stress without turning to vices? As we learn more about stress and its effects on our bodies, many health care providers are turning to mindfulness as a treatment recommendation for their patients. Put simply, mindfulness is a mental practice that brings us into the present moment, allowing us to accept the circumstances that surround us to better control our reactions.
Everyone can practice mindfulness. You don't need any special equipment to practice, but it's generally helpful to set aside some time each day to develop your mindful skill set. Sit comfortably and allow your mind to rest in the moment. Try not to think of anything directly, but make note of any strong feelings or thoughts as they occur. Then allow them to pass and return to the present moment. By doing this over and over again, you can begin to notice patterns in the way you think and recognize how specific thoughts affect your mind.
Many people assume mindfulness means making your mind totally blank, but that's not the goal. The goal of practicing mindfulness is to simply observe your thoughts as they occur without judgment.
Changing Unhealthy Behaviors
Changing unhealthy habits can take time, and it's important to be gentle with yourself throughout the process. Acknowledge how hard it can be to give up your vices, and take time to recognize your efforts to deal with stress in healthier ways. In most cases, replacing an unhealthy behavior with a healthy one helps establish a new habit that can be used anytime you feel overly stressed. Instead of having a drink after work, for example, try taking a walk. The exercise helps you burn off steam while improving your physical and mental fitness.
Talking to supportive friends and relatives can help you maintain perspective and stay on track while changing your behaviors. Also, what works for one person may not work for you. Take time to discover which types of healthy activities you enjoy. The more you enjoy something, the more likely you are to continue to do it.
Even though unhealthy behaviors are common, it's possible to make changes in your own life and work toward better ways of dealing with life's stressors. Developing a mindfulness practice and taking daily steps to change your behaviors helps you live a better, healthier life.