Stress is a natural part of everyday life. We’ve all experienced sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, and a boost of adrenaline in a stressful situation. This primal instinct to protect ourselves from threats or danger originated long ago with our ancestors, and it continues today.
Obvious stressors present themselves at key turning points in life — a death in the family, or a significant life change like a move or new baby. But there are also stressors that can live under the radar, undetectable by our conscious mind. Having gone unnoticed, these stressors can initiate an extended “fight or flight” response that can have serious consequences for your health.
According to the American Psychological Association, the longer stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body. Chronic stress can impact your physical and psychological well-being by causing anxiety, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, and other detrimental symptoms. Over time, these symptoms can lead to heart disease, depression, and obesity.
Here are five examples of secret stressors that could be wreaking havoc on your physical, mental, and emotional health while you’re unaware:
Lack of Work-life Balance
Many professionals spend more time at the office than they do at home, making it easy to tilt the tenuous work-life balance in favor of work. As employees move up the corporate ladder and take on more responsibilities, the stress from increased expectations grows in terms of time commitment both in and out of regular business hours. Plus, if your home life includes a partner and children or multiple volunteer commitments and hobbies, stress levels can gradually increase simply because you have so little time in the day to accomplish your to-do’s.
The Mayo Clinic warns of the implications of a poor work-life balance: fatigue, burnout, poor physical health, an increased risk of substance abuse, and lost time with friends and loved ones. Not sure if you’ve put too much stock in work? Check out these three questions to help gauge if your priorities need to be realigned to reduce underlying stress levels.
Obsession With Smart Devices
Our connected world comes with an endless barrage of notifications, emails, and texts that can lead to a state of ongoing stress. Many of us have accepted this as the new norm. Research shows that our phones become like our childhood teddy bears, carrying significant emotional attachment.
Dr. Nancy Cheever, who studied the relationship between cellphone use and anxiety, said that the more people use their phone, “the more anxious they are about using their phone.” The phones keep us in an endless state of anxiety where the only relief is to look at our phones more.
It’s an ongoing stress-inducing cycle, considering that on average, Americans check their phones 80 times per day. To fight back against this innate urge, set aside specific time intervals to respond to messages or scan your Facebook newsfeed. If needed, set a timer to avoid an unnecessary Pinterest or Instagram binge that keeps you scrolling for hours.
Stressful Home Environment
A basic question at any routine doctor appointment is: Do you feel safe at home?
While this inquiry aims to uncover abuse or other serious issues, it points to a larger notion that how we feel and act in our home environments matter. With the increase in dual income households, stress for both parents and children represents a real concern, as everyone juggles a jam-packed schedule and a finite amount of time to spend together. An increase in households split by divorce and blended families reveals another layer of stress that can alter a peaceful home life, as each individual navigates newly complex familial relationships.
With anxiety disorders representing the most common mental illness in the U.S., there’s a high probability that one or more family members struggle with some level of anxiety. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America also reports that 40 million adults in the U.S. are affected, yet only about 37% receive treatment. Additionally, Major Depressive Disorder affects more than 16.1 million American adults, which can lead to ongoing stress among family members, especially if left untreated.
Few Quality Relationships
Strong personal relationships can lift our spirits, offer support during difficult seasons, and help mitigate stress that arises in everyday life. Dr. Robert Waldinger, a clinical professor of psychiatry for Harvard Medical School, discovered in his 75-year study that relationships are a powerful influencer on life satisfaction. His research shows that quality of life, health and happiness are directly linked to strong relationships.
With screen time dominating human interactions and our increasingly crowded calendars, relationships can take a back-seat. By not prioritizing interpersonal relationships, we can feel alone and unsupported —- the recipe for an unfulfilling and stressful life.
Combat this underlying stress by investing in quality time with your partner, family, friends, and with yourself. Commit to stowing away smart devices and asking higher level questions to support greater intimacy.
Here’s a list of fun questions to weave in.
Confidence is essential for facing daily trials, helping to ward off negative vibes while feeling at peace with yourself and others. When we don’t feel confident about ourselves or our abilities, self-esteem suffers greatly. Research suggests that people with low self-esteem may lack the right coping skills to address day-to-day stressors, and in the case of individuals suffering from chronic disease, self-esteem is directly correlated to stress levels.
The connection between personal insecurities and stress plays out in the world of social media. As social media users compare their looks and experiences to algorithmically curated images on Facebook and Instagram, this social comparison and self-objectification can lead to poorer mental health, lower self-esteem, and greater body shame, according to several studies. Instead of becoming absorbed in virtual worlds where we only show our best selves, look for real-life experiences that boost your confidence and improve your view of the world. Take a class, volunteer, or set aside time for self-care. Your stress levels — and self-worth — will benefit.
Bringing these secret stressors out of the shadows is the first step to facing them head-on, supporting a happier, healthier you.
April is “Stress Awareness Month,” where health professionals and advocates team up to provide solutions for the modern stress epidemic. This piece is part of our series on understanding and combating daily stressors.