Stress in life runs along a spectrum from the mundane, like being stuck in heavy traffic, to the profoundly traumatic — like experiencing sexual assault, domestic violence, or war. Stress can also be caused by significant life events like starting a new job or having a baby, or everyday happenings like dealing with a difficult boss, or facing pressure to succeed in life. And we all respond differently to the various degrees of stress we encounter on an individual and global scale. If you find yourself wondering how much stress is "normal" to have, there is no one correct answer. But if your stress response is interfering with your quality of life and relationships, that’s may be a sign that you need more support to manage it.
"A lot of people have trouble managing stress or managing their anxiety." Dr. Thea Gallagher, director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Bustle. "There are plenty of people who have general anxiety, or who are in stressful life or work environments, where, over time, that does take a toll." Dr. Gallagher also notes that chronic negative stress over time can lead to "more depressive symptoms, more anxiety symptoms, having more limited functioning, or things like quality of life — like not enjoying things in the way that we used to enjoy [them]."
Dr. Mithu Storoni, author of Stress Proof, tells Bustle that a number of factors influence how stress "resilient" a person is, which simply describes their ability to be affected by stress, including prior exposure to trauma or even our gut bacteria. But for those of us who don't have that resilience, it can be more difficult to manage our stress response. But how do you really know if you’re handling stress in a positive way — or even if how you handle stress is causing you stress itself?
If your stress trigger plays on a loop in your head that you can't shake, that’s a sign you may be struggling to regulate your stress response, according to Psychology Today. Dr. Storoni says that "rumination is a way of prolonging the [stressful] episode in your head," and suggests that engaging your mind completely on a different subject is a way to cope. Psychology Today suggests tools like writing down your fears and concerns, and re-framing them in a solution focused way — like meeting with your boss to discuss solutions to your stressor — can help quiet your mind down.
Another sign that your stress response may not be working in your favor is if you're struggling to stay focused on conversations, on your workload, or any given task at hand. When we’re chronically stressed, our creativity and problems solving skills tend to dry up, and we may end up veering into anxiety symptoms like diffuse thinking and obsessive thoughts. Those with high levels of stress resilience tend to lean on coping skills like maintaining their physical health, keeping problems in perspective, and accepting stress and difficult emotions as being a natural part of life — they lean into their challenging life experiences, and aim to handle them as best they can, according to Inc. The good news is, with practice, stress resilience is something that can be cultivated more and more over time. Dr. Storoni adds that adopting proactive resiliency techniques can actually change the way the brain reacts to stress for the better moving forward. As we get more stress resilient with time, "the next time you have a short episode of stress, your brain will know [it] will be over in two minutes."
While you may not think twice about stress, the truth is that it can take a major toll on your quality of life and your mental health in the long-term. If there are factors in life that consistently deplete your energy reserves, cause you chronic stress or distress, or just generally cause you to feel more crappy than good, it may be time to reevaluate those aspects of your life. Otherwise, by making mindful choices to cope with stress in ways that work for you instead of against you, you’ll get better at dealing with stress over time.