The Connect Between Stress and Mental Health

Stress can be felt throughout the body, leading to life-changing and debilitating illnesses if left unmanaged. Here, we discuss the connection between stress and mental health. We also explore techniques that can help you manage chronic stress.

Stress & Mental Health: Changes in the Brain

Most people know that stress isn't good for the body and mind, but the actual impact of stress may surprise you. One study reported in the EXCLI Journal found that stress:

  • Can cause structural changes in the brain
  • Can change the weight of the brain, impacting mental functioning and memory
  • Causes impaired immune system functioning, increasing the risk of illness
  • Is linked to cardiovascular health issues
  • Causes stomach and gastrointestinal issues

Keep in mind that these are just some of the long-term effects of stress on the body. Stress has a powerful ability to break down the body, open the pathway for disease, and prevent healing and recovery.

Chronic Stress Can Worsen Mental Health

Stress can be overwhelming. Chronic stress can also impact our mental health and well-being. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the levels of stress in the United States are so high lately that it's caused a national mental health crisis. Chronic stress can lead to "burnout," or a debilitating, seemingly unending state of distress.

Stress can also impact factors related to our mental health, like mood, attention, and energy level. It can exacerbate preexisting mental health issues and lead to increased substance use and abuse.

Now that we know how devastating stress can be on the body and mind, we want to talk about the signs of chronic stress. How do you know if you are too stressed, and how might it impact you?

Physical Signs of Chronic Stress

Some effects of stress are physiological. These include symptoms like the following:

  • Clenching your jaw
  • Tensing your muscles
  • Having a rapid pulse
  • Experiencing chronic pain
  • Headaches, migraines and other inflammatory responses

Emotional Signs of Chronic Stress

Some effects of stress are psychological, affecting our moods. This includes:

Why Do Some People Feel More Stressed Out?

While most people will admit to feeling stressed, at least occasionally, some people find that chronic stress really worsens their mental health. The truth is that chronic stress looks different for each individual. We process and experience stress differently. The circumstances and events that cause each of us our own stress are different, too. For some people, major stressors can come from:

  • Work
  • Relationships
  • Parenting

For others, the stressors are related to particular incidents such as:

  • An argument with a close friend or family member
  • Car trouble
  • Bills piling up

Sometimes stress results from events entirely out of one's control such as global pandemics, an economic downturn or war.

The reality is that only you can tell what is stressing you out. Stress is highly individualized. Some people thrive in a fast-paced, chaotic work environment, whereas others flounder. Some people can handle interpersonal conflict without issues, whereas others are entirely overwhelmed. Knowing what causes you stress is essential to addressing and managing your mental health.

Manage Stress-Before it Affects Your Mental Health

Unfortunately, stress doesn't always just go away on its own. Stress management is an active process. It requires effort, intentionality, and mindfulness.

Step 1: Build Connections

A source of stress for many people nowadays is the experience of chronic loneliness. Many of us are heavily exposed to social media but lack a real connection to other people. This can lead us to experience many negative aspects of socializing, such as comparing ourselves to others, or feeling inadequate or jealous — without feeling a sense of connection.

How to change: Find ways to give and receive genuine support, find opportunities to be open and vulnerable with another person, and focus on building trusting relationships with others.

Could you take a social media break? What if you took your relationships offline for a short time period, just to try it out? Instead of logging onto an app, spend time with friends and family in person. Pick up the phone and call someone instead of just “liking” pictures of each other.

If you need more support: Sometimes we need more help than a friend or family member can provide. If you're looking for more mental health support, consider joining a support group or exploring virtual therapy

Step 2: Keep a Journal

Studies have shown many positive mental health benefits associated with journaling. Those who journaled were shown to exhibit better mental and emotional health, improved self-care, decreased blood pressure, and enhanced quality of life.

How to benefit: Here are some prompts to get you started on journaling for stress management.

  • What was my biggest stressor today? How do I know that it caused me stress?
  • How did I manage the feelings of stress and anxiety when they arose? Did it work?
  • What advice would I give to somebody experiencing this stress? And in what ways do I feel like the advice I would provide could apply to me?
  • Whom have I leaned on for support during this stressful experience? Do I feel like I'm receiving adequate support? If not, what do I need to do to make those connections?
  • Are the sources of my stress within my control? If not, why am I holding onto them? If they are within my control, what am I doing to work through them?
  • What activities did I do today to promote my mental health and well-being?

You can also just free-journal, and let your thoughts flow as they come to you. Watch them evolve on paper (or on a screen).

If you'd like more support: If you'd like to start journaling but don't know where to begin, take a look at this free downloadable activity journal.

Step 3: Practice Self-Soothing Activities

While it would be nice to effortlessly eliminate the stress in our lives, this is not realistic for most stressors. If it were as simple as walking away from things that cause stress, chronic stress wouldn't be such a widespread problem.

Often we must embrace the responsibility of learning how to cope with stress rather than simply running from it. We can do self-soothing activities to actively decrease the effects of stress on our bodies and minds.

How to begin: Here are some examples of self-soothing activities.

  • Ask yourself, "Is this situation within my control?" Often anxiety stems from feeling like we should do something when in fact there's nothing we can do. If you cannot actively fix the situation, work on mindfully detaching yourself from the responsibility of experiencing stress over it.
  • Deep breathing has been shown to decrease stress. Practice some deep breathing exercises.
  • Physical activity is a great way to destress.
  • Put the phone away. If you find yourself "doom scrolling" and getting worked up over irrelevant drama or bad news, log off for a while and focus on life in the here and now.
  • Give to others. Sometimes the key to de-stressing is to gain perspective through helping others. Finding an animal shelter or soup kitchen to volunteer your time can do wonders for your mental health.

If you need more support: See this article for more self-care activities you can do to decrease stress.

Take Your Power Back Over Chronic Stress

Managing your mental health and emotional wellness is not a passive process. To make a change, you will need support and intentionality. finding others on the same recovery path and practicing the skills listed above can help to decrease chronic stress.