Here at The YMCA of Greater Toronto, we respect and admire the expert advice provided by our partners at The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. That’s why we’re excited to bring you even more great reading material written by the team at this other health-focused charity! In this next piece, Heart and Stroke experts talk about managing stress.

Stress is a part of life for just about everyone. Sometimes it is not easy to recognize stress because we are caught up in the flow of life; at other times, it can be very obvious. Many of us are noticeably more stressed out due to COVID-19.

Often, stressors are things you cannot control, like major life events (a global pandemic, or the loss of a job) or conditions in your life (like not getting along with someone close to you). Your responses to these stressors are your stress reactions. Stress reactions vary from person to person. For example, if you hate your job, losing it can make you feel free. For someone else, losing a job may be terrible.

Although stress happens first in the mind, it has a strong impact on the body. Stress can even damage your heart health. Sudden intense stress increases the short-term risk of a heart attack. Too much stress over a long time (months to years) is called chronic stress and it has been linked to an increase in coronary artery disease.

Recognizing your stress reactions

Everyone has his or her own individual stress reactions. Think for a moment about when you are stressed out or upset. What happens to you?

Consider your thoughts:

  • Do you have trouble concentrating?
  • Do your thoughts race, or freeze up?
  • Do you start to think “the worst”?
  • Are you more likely to see yourself, your future or other people negatively?

What about your emotions:

  • Does stress lead you to have angry, anxious or sad feelings?

Check-in with your body:

  • How do you feel physically?
  • What happens to your breathing?
  • Are your muscles tighter?
  • Does that create pain anywhere, like headache, back or jaw pain?
  • What happens to your sleeping patterns?
  • How does your stomach feel?
  • Do you sweat, have dry mouth, diarrhea or constipation?
  • What happens to your heart rate?
  • If you measured your blood pressure, what would you see?

Behaviour and actions:

  • How do your habits and behaviours change?
  • Do you eat more or have more junk food and sugary drinks?
  • Do you stop exercising? Do you start smoking? Drink more alcohol, or use prescription or non-prescription drugs?
  • Do you become nervous or keep to yourself?

All these signs point to something real that you can feel: your mind and body are connected. Stress happens first in the mind, but has effects all through the body, including, of course, the heart and circulatory system.

How can I manage stress?

It may be possible to change or remove the stressor – for example, you may be able to change your job, your work schedule, or avoid difficult people or unpleasant situations.

But in many cases removing the stressor is not possible. In this situation, you need to change your stress reaction. Here are some strategies to help you:

Mental responses: You cannot control all parts of your life, but you can control your response to stress and keep a positive attitude. Identify your “thought habits” that can make stress worse (most of us have at least one). Here are a few examples:

  • Deciding right away that it is going to be really bad, without looking closely at the facts
  • Looking only at the bad parts and not seeing the good
  • Worrying about problems that are really not yours

Emotional responses: Figure out your emotional reactions to stress and talk about them.

Physical responses: Try deep breathing and relaxation exercises, like one of our online Yoga classes.

Behavioural responses: Decide what you can change about the stressor and then take action and do it. Keep up your healthy habits. Spend time with friends and family.

Try our activities page for online group fitness classes or social events. Or you can read more about ways to integrate mindfulness and meditation into your day. 

Thanks to our partners at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada for their expert advice. Look out for more relevant information on our site, or visit theirs for more details.