Managing stress important for mental and physical health

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By Melanie Dallas, LPC

I saw in the newspaper recently that April 16 was National Stress Awareness Day. It occurred to me that few people I know need a specific day to recognize stress—I mean, doesn’t every day seem to have some level of stress? Maybe the fact that April 16 is the day after taxes are due is coincidental, but the timing seems appropriate nonetheless.

Actually, according to the National Institutes of Health, April is National Stress Awareness Month – and that got me thinking about the effects of living day-after-day with stress, which so many people seem to do, and how that can impact both body and mind.

For many people, stress might seem like the weather – always there, and there is nothing we can do about it. But while stress may seem ever-present in our lives, unlike the weather, there is something we can do about it. Even if we can’t eliminate stress completely, we can take positive steps to manage it, minimize its impact on our mental and physical health, and in some cases, use it to our advantage.

Stress is our body’s natural reaction to a threat and enables the ‘fight or flight’ reaction early humans needed to survive. A stressful situation – a work deadline, an accident, a confrontation with another person – causes the brain to release hormones that raise alertness, blood pressure and heart rate, equipping us for quick action. But while this physiological response is a good thing, having too much stress too often can take a toll physically and emotionally.

You may recall learning in health class that there are two kinds of stress. Eustress, or good stress, is one we don’t seem to hear about very often. But the stress hormones released by our brain can also benefit us and help us focus. We might experience eustress during a job interview, work presentation, dance recital, or when playing sports – any situation where we want to bring forward our best.

The bad kind of stress, distress, seems to be the one with which we are more familiar. While distress can refer to a reaction to a specific situation – perhaps losing a job or the death of a loved one – the daily stress of traffic, workload, trying to afford groceries, and more, also floods our bodies with stress hormones. Chronic stress can have profound effects on both body and mind, and can cause anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, digestive problems and so much more.

But just as stress can be good or bad, how we choose to deal with it can likewise have positive or negative effects. Exercise, or any physical activity, can help – even a walk around your yard. Maybe taking a drive and listening to your favorite music, spending some time doing something you like, a hobby – those are all things that can calm your mind and body.

Interestingly, newer research tells us that one of the most basic things we do every day, actually every moment, can help us manage stress: breathing. Thoughtful simple breathing – in for four counts and out for six – can activate calming centers in the brain and help your body override the stress response you may be having.

And obviously, any of those things is preferable to drinking alcohol or using other substances. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, using substances to cope with stress is a sign you may need help. Professional help is always an option, too; a therapist can help you identify your stressors and, more importantly, develop positive coping strategies.

If you want to learn more, Mental Health America (MHA) has some good resources about stress I would recommend. You can take MHA’s stress screening at, and an MHA fact sheet about coping and reducing stress can be found at

Stress is a fact life, but with right strategies and support, everyone can learn to manage it.

Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Behavioral Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in a 13-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Bartow, Cherokee, Cobb, Floyd, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon, Haralson, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk and Whitfield counties.