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Four essential habits to control stress

A relaxing picture of sunset with ducks near open water.

When the civil rights leader Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968, an autopsy was conducted with shocking results: despite dying at 39 years old, King had the heart of a 60-year-old. According to biographer Taylor Branch, Martin Luther King's 13 stressful years in the civil rights movement were the root cause of his heart's poor condition.

King's example serves as a sobering reminder of the destructive forces of stress when it's left ignored. Hard stress affects sleep, focus, appetite, and even shortens your lifespan. There’s even a word for stress-induced death in Japanese, called karoshi (過労死, ”overwork death”), and according to WHO data, 750,000 deaths were attributed to long working hours in 2016 on a global scale.

Luckily, most of us don't need to worry. These are rare and extreme cases, and our bodies have plenty of built-in warning signs to help prevent them. Regardless, you should always take care of your mental health and well-being to avoid burnout. Now that the holidays are rolling in, this is an excellent time to ditch your obligations and indulge in some stress relief! Take a warm shower and enjoy what you like doing most – whether it’s reading books, playing video games, going hiking, or watching countless hours of Netflix. You've definitely earned it.

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What are the most common symptoms of stress?

Everyone reacts differently to stress so don't downplay your feelings if you aren't experiencing the symptoms usually associated with it. However, knowing the most common symptoms helps you identify future situations more easily so you can react and take care of yourself.

The most common mental symptoms of stress include:

  • having difficulty concentrating

  • struggling to make decisions

  • feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control

  • constantly worrying about everything

  • forgetting things constantly

  • being emotionally unstable: easily frustrated moody and angry

The most common physical symptoms of stress are:

  • having low energy

  • headaches or dizziness

  • muscle tension or pain

  • chest pain and a rapid heartbeat

  • stomach problems, like an upset stomach

  • sexual problems, like loss of desire

  • insomnia

I can relate to many of the symptoms on the list. During my burnout, I felt constantly overwhelmed and unable to make decisions. Things were competing for attention in my head, and I felt like I was juggling everything at once.

My physical symptoms were really strange: I had the typical low energy, but also started experiencing sudden back pain and difficulty breathing. This is why it's crucial not to downplay your concerns if your experience doesn't match the usual symptoms of stress. If you experience unusual symptoms that you are concerned about, please consult a medical professional immediately.

What are the effects of stress on the body?

To understand the effects of stress, you first need to understand cortisol. Let me explain it to you in simple terms: Cortisol is a steroid hormone, that helps keep you alert. During a short term emergency, like seeing someone threatening or noticing that you're late for the bus, cortisol is secreted to keep your blood glucose up. This affects your brain so that you stay alert, become very aware and react quicker.

This is why cortisol is good for a short term emergency. It's also why a little amount of stress and worry before an exam is actually more optimal than being overly confident, because cortisol improves your performance. But long-term, cortisol wrecks your body. You could make a simple comparison that cortisol is like coffee - you can use it to feel more awake, but if you live on little sleep and a lot of coffee, it's going to bust you in the long run.

Here's what cortisol does to your body long-term with research links:

Sadly this is not the worst of it. It has been recently discovered that not only is the common belief that stress speeds up aging true, but starting to get documented better. A groundbreaking study conducted in University of Michigan concluded that doctors just out of med school that work long and grueling 80-120 h weeks have their DNA age six times faster than the general population. This is related to how fast the telomeres shorten, something which is a well-established indicator of aging in organisms. The telomeres of the doctors were proven to shorten six times as fast on an annual scale as they would normally shorten for most individuals. This development is irreversible.

Now that you're aware of all the risk involved with stress, you might want to consider taking it easy. Thankfully, the next chapters cover four fantastic habits to help you with your endeavors. Less stress is more success, no matter how you measure it.

1. The lesson on worrying that changed my life

I'm not exaggerating the importance of this lesson: I used to be the stressed kid worried about anything and everything: Going to PE, having to give a presentation, and especially preparing for exams, even though I was always a good student because I studied and did my homework so religiously. Now I study in law school, work a part-time legal internship 3–4 days a week, and run my blog on top of that.

I can manage so much because I discovered a perspective on stress in my teens that changed how I approach every challenge: Ignore what you can't control and focus your energy on what you can change. This lesson is ancient and its origins stem from the writings of the great philosopher Epictetus, and it still holds true today: If you keep hitting a wall expecting it to move, you're wasting your time.

A picture of Parthenon and a block of marble.
Being born into slavery over 1900 years ago, Epictetus learned to accept that external events are beyond one's control. He was an influential philosopher and renowned speaker, and even attracted the interest of Emperor Hadrian.

When I discovered this, I experienced a revolutionary mental breakthrough: Instead of constantly worrying about things out of my control like "what if the exam questions are too hard" or "what if I forget what to say in my presentation", I directed my efforts elsewhere. I started going over my notes once more or checking my presentation slides for errors. That sudden realization changed me immensely. I understood that instead of punching the wall I could go around it, or climb it, and if I couldn't there was nothing I could do.

With this in mind, what's your biggest worry and what can you do about it? If there's nothing you can do, you just need to focus on dealing with what happens after and then let it hit you. I'm utilizing this lesson as I write this post, since I have my last exam very soon: I'm under-prepared because I've had so much work, running the blog, and attending to my other obligations. But then again, I have had no other options. I can't suddenly stop going to work or stop cleaning my apartment or buying groceries. So, I'm heading to that exam with as much as I know and I will try my best regardless.

2. Remember to unwind to avoid burnout

I’ve (sadly) gone through one burnout and had it almost happen to me for the second time and I've yet to finish university. Both instances happened in very different circumstances but shared one common problem: I didn’t focus on what made me happy.

I was so focused on being productive that I forgot I need to relax. I paused my hobbies, stopped talking to friends, and no longer gave myself a break just to work 5–10 % more. The funniest thing about it? I ended up with a bad burnout that put me on two weeks of sick leave, so from a productivity standpoint it would have been better not to go the extra mile.

What’s the takeaway, then? When you notice low energy either due to work, school, or something else, it’s time for a mental health break. Reduce the source of your stress as much as possible: Any employer understands that a burn out will result in sick leave, and most would rather give you a few days away from work. The same applies with school: sometimes it’s worth dropping a course and do it later to deal with your current situation.

Even if you can’t affect the source of your stress, you can alleviate the symptoms by focusing on what makes you happy: Buy that game you’ve waited so long to get or treat yourself to a restaurant meal you postponed for the weekend. I strongly feel that doing what you love for a small while is the best form of stress relief.

A person playing a video game with a controller in hand.
When's the last time you've escaped reality with your favorite hobby? One of my favorite activities is playing video games and I play them every holiday to relax and disconnect.

3. Don't worry – categorize instead

Have you noticed that when you're super stressed out, you don't stop to think about what bothers you? It's like a "going from A to B while sending emails and remembering you needed to buy dog food" type of vibe. My stress usually stems from racing thoughts, when I'm struggling to determine what's the most important thing to do next.

This is where categorizing comes in. When you're juggling too many things at once, thinking helps. Going on a brief 15–20 minute walk not only makes you feel better physically, but you get some time to really slow down and think about yourself: You can sort your problems into separate categories and deal with them individually. Most of the time you also notice that your issues are not that bad or never-ending after all. It's like those simple math problems from primary school where Jack has 50 apples but instead of Jack it's you with 50 different tasks to do. Dealing with 50 tasks with a plan is much more manageable than freestyling it one by one.

Naturally, categorizing isn't very helpful if your stress is caused by one big problem you're painfully aware of. In that case, take an evening or two to do what makes you happy. Being very stressed is when you should focus on yourself the most – if you are like me and often feel guilty about taking it easy, remember that slowing down is completely normal. You deserve the rest, and it will be easier to tackle any situation with a well-rested body and mind.

4. A researched method to help with anxiety and stress

Anxiety and stress are often grouped together, although they definitely aren't synonyms and shouldn't be used interchangeably. With that said, anxiety and stress are often linked together as stressful situations can cause anxiety and constant anxiety can cause stress.

A relatable and typical instance of anxiety is the morning before a job interview. Most people dread preparing for job interviews with their mind easily preoccupied with all the things that could go wrong. The most common advice related to these situations is to try to calm down and relax, but that's not your best option.

According to Harvard research, the most efficient way to deal with nervousness is to try to turn it into excitement. Not only is it difficult to switch from this "high-arousal" state (being nervous) into a "low-arousal" state (being calm and relaxed), but it's counterproductive. When you're feeling anxious like this, your body is on alert, it's prepared for the task ahead that it has classified as challenging. That's why you need to respond accordingly.

You can efficiently switch into excitement by resorting to optimism, listening to your favorite music, doing anything that gets you motivated and excited. On interview days and before exams, I always listen to fast, energetic music to get me into my headspace: My sole purpose in that moment, in that day, is to show my skills. It is not only a challenge, but an opportunity to show and get rewarded for what I've worked for.


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