Stress from change is a natural part of life. Unfortunately, without appropriate stress management, it can affect our physical, mental, and emotional health. Therefore, understanding how change leads to stress, as well as how to manage that stress is an important part of leading a healthier, happier life.
How Change Leads to Stress
Throughout the course of your life, you will deal with change in many forms. Some changes are very minor and easy to get past. Other changes may be more significant, leading to elevated stress levels. Life changes can be both positive and negative.
In the late 1960s, two psychiatrists, Richard Rahe and Thomas Holmes, set out to determine how stressful life changes affected health via the stress response. They did this by examining more than 5,000 patient records to see if they could correlate stressful life events with illness. The result was the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, also known as the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. It measures the amount of change in one's life that may affect stress levels, assigning a weighted numerical value to each stressful event based on its statistical effects on human health. Rahe performed follow-up research that backed up earlier findings.
The inventory lists both positive and negative changes that can cause stress.
Positive change can be exciting, but it can also trigger a physiological stress response. Holmes and Rahe list multiple positive changes that may cause physiological stress responses including:
- Marital reconciliation
- Changing jobs
- Outstanding personal achievement
- Revision of personal habits
- Changing health habits
- Buying a house
- Gain a new family member
Change generally perceived as negative can be particularly stressful. Some negative changes that cause physiological effects of stress include:
- Death of a spouse or partner
- Job loss
- Sexual problems
- Death of a close friend
Physiological Effects of Stress from Change
Stress can lead to numerous physiological changes. When you experience stress, your body releases many chemicals and hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare you for fight or flight. This type of response is a natural part of human physiology, and occurs in order to allow you to react to a perceived physical threat, according to the Mayo Clinic. This causes a number of changes including elevated heart rate and respiration, suppression of the digestive system, increased blood flow, and immunosuppression.
Fight or Flight
All of your physiological resources are diverted from normal functions to prepare you for fight or flight. Ideally, once the perceived threat disappears, then the hormones and chemicals will leave your system and your body function will revert to normal.
Unfortunately, the body can't differentiate between stress from an immediate physical threat and stress due to life changes. Life change stressors activate the physiological response in the same way. Because stress from these changes typically lasts much longer than a fight or flight situation, your body continues to respond for the long-term with stress chemicals and responses. The American Psychological Association notes that because of these changes, chronic stress can contribute to a number of health problems such as:
- Poor immune function
- Muscle tension and pain
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
Signs of Poor Stress Adaptation
People react to change differently. Some people adapt quickly to stress, while others may not adapt as well and therefore experience the physiological changes of stress for longer periods. Brown University lists multiple signs that may indicate you're not adapting well to life's stressful changes, including:
- Anxiety that is constant or out of proportion to the situation
- Irritability and moodiness
- Constant worry
- Inability to relax
- Avoiding relationships or responsibility
- Poor self-esteem
- Racing thoughts
According to WebMD, your body may also give you physiological signs you are under too much stress, including:
- Aches and pains
- Frequent headaches
- Chronic exhaustion
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in sexual desire
- Frequent infections
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
Mitigating the Effects of Stress
Fortunately, you can mitigate the potential effects of stress associated with change with smart stress management strategies.
If you are aware of an upcoming change, such as a marriage or move, you can help to alleviate stress about the event in multiple ways.
- Create an action plan: The World of Psychology recommends preparing instead of worrying. By setting manageable goals and creating a series of steps to get from one goal to another, you will feel more in control of the situation, which should help minimize your stress. This preparation should also help you reduce uncertainty, which will minimize worrying about the unknown associated with upcoming change.
- Build a strong support network: According to the Mayo Clinic, social support is essential in alleviating stress. Seek mutually supportive relationships among multiple social groups, such as friends, family, work, volunteer activities, church, and hobbies. Having people you can lean on during your upcoming changes should help ease the way.
- Take care of your physical health: The CDC notes that caring for your physical needs by eating healthy foods, exercising, finding time to relax, and getting plenty of sleep can help you cope with stress. This is especially important if you know big changes are on the horizon.
- Eat healthy: According to WebMD, eating healthy can help boost your brain's serotonin levels, which will combat higher cortisol associated with stress.
- One change at a time: If you've got a big change coming up, it's important that you create consistency in the rest of your life as much as possible. That's why it's best that you minimize other changes in your life as you prepare for a big change. For example, if you're going to be changing jobs soon it may be best not to attempt to change personal habits at the same time.
Sometimes, change occurs without warning. If you're currently in the middle of stress associated with change, there are a number of steps you can take to help your body and psyche cope and adapt.
- Lean on your social network: Social support can greatly help increase resilience to stress, so spend time friends, family, and loved ones.
- Use relaxation techniques: The American Psychological Association recommends relaxation techniques like meditation or deep breathing as a tool for coping with stress. Likewise, try to take time to relax every day, even if you just put your feet up for a few minutes.
- Engage in hobbies: The American Heart Association recommends taking time to engage in activities you love, even if for just a few minutes.
- Minimize caffeine intake: According to Duke University, caffeine can increase the effects of stress, so it's best to minimize caffeine during stressful times.
- Laugh: The Mayo Clinic notes that laughter can help decrease the effects of stress, so pop a comedy in the DVD player or spend time with people who make you laugh.
- Care for your health: Eat right and get as much sleep as you can so you don't put additional stress on your body.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol: The CDC notes that turning to drugs and alcohol can add to stress instead of reducing it, so it's best to stay sober when you're under stress.
- Focus on the problems you can solve, not those you can't: The American Association of Family Doctors suggests working to resolve any issues you can and avoiding worry about things you can't control.
- Seek professional support: According to the National Library of Medicine, if stress management techniques do not work for you, then seek care from a qualified professional such as counselor, therapist, or social worker.
You're in Control
Throughout your life, you're likely to experience both change and stress many times. By recognizing that you have control over how you react to change and how you allow it to impact you, you can learn to effectively deal with the associated stress.