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Triggers and Tips to Counteract Hidden Stress

Four main triggers for hidden stress and how to ease that tension.

Key points

  • Hidden stressors are all around, and in activities you may not realize.
  • Ways to cope with stress include maintaining a routine, managing social anxiety, laughter, and practicing picturing the best outcome.
  • Burning up stress-related adrenaline by jogging, walking, or dancing even for five minutes can help reduce stress symptoms.
Source: chalermphon_tiam/Shutterstock

The good news is, by now, we are well aware of the major stresses in our lives and turn to self-care to counteract them. The bad news is that there are also many hidden stresses that are activating adrenaline production, and since we are not aware of them, it’s difficult for us to counteract them.

It’s time to change that. Here are four main triggers for hidden stress and how to ease that tension.

1. Changes in Routine. Did you know that any change, even good change, increases adrenaline? Change means we can’t predict what’s coming next, lowering our sense of control and choice. Since our brains are wired to be ready for the unexpected, change means our brain goes on high alert. So welcome changes like the end to some COVID restrictions, seeing friends and family again, attending weddings and graduations, starting family building, and returning to the office, can mean unwelcome stress symptoms.

Changes can lead to trouble falling or staying asleep. We may become hypervigilant and startle easily, be hyperactive and jittery, and hyperventilate.

In addition to the physical effects after a change in routine, there are psychological and emotional effects because the upheaval reminds us of earlier ones, like when we had a new teacher or new neighbor, and we feel like an insecure kid again. We look for the island of order in the ocean of change.

So, seek routine and create schedules as quickly as possible during times of change since they reassure us when we can predict what's coming next. If you can increase your sense of control, your adrenaline level will begin to drop, and the stress symptoms will subside.

Find ways to burn up the extra adrenaline by walking, jogging, dancing, and even cleaning the closet. Times of change are busy times, but don’t wait until things quiet down to reduce the adrenaline. This is when you need relief and when you can practice stress symptom prevention.

2. Social Anxiety. It’s your day. You are being promoted, toasting your sister, reporting on your project, addressing your committee members, onboarding new staff, or even being interviewed. You try to feel proud, but all you feel is anxiety. You worry about making a foolish statement and of public scrutiny in general. You feel exposed!

Take some comfort knowing that glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, and social anxiety, create stress for about 75 percent of the population, women slightly more than men. It is pervasive hidden stress because we are so frequently meeting new people through work, at celebrations, with friends of friends, or even when we are dealing with new doctors and their staff.

Every time you feel yourself tensing up in anticipation of social interaction, try substituting a mental image of yourself relaxed while communicating or mingling.

Studies find it works because our body listens to our brain. Our brain listens to our body as well. So, if you find yourself tensing up, try breathing as if you are relaxed, slow, and steady, or practice mindful meditation. If you don’t have time, find a private spot and do jumping jacks until you’ve burned up some of the extra adrenaline your stress is generating and send more oxygen to your brain. Recognizing this hidden stress is the first step, but reducing it is just as important.

3. Success Distress. Why would success be considered hidden stress? You’d think it would be the antidote to stress. But with success comes rising expectations and new roles – in other words, change and change are always stressful. In addition, as the ante goes up, performance anxiety usually increases, entitlement issues may emerge, and the next step may be unpredictable or even harder.

You may be confronted with jealousy and lose part of your support system. If you compare yourself to those less fortunate, success can make you feel guilty and wait superstitiously for a disaster. Enjoying success without stress takes practice.

You can practice by picturing the best, not the worst, outcome. If your thoughts are wandering away from appreciating your success, bring yourself back to the present. If you are going through fertility treatment, for example, positive prophecies will not jinx the pregnancy, and negative ones will not protect you from disappointment.

Even if things don't work out the way you want, you don’t exhaust yourself worrying, watching, and waiting before moving on to the next step. If things work out for the best, practice staying in the here and now and embracing it.

4. Television Tension. Although most of us turn on the television to relax and escape, it is also a major source of hidden stress because seeing upsetting events on tv has many of the same effects as seeing the event in person. We may be watching a comedy, but a news bulletin about a mass shooting, a COVID spike, or a hurricane is enough to stimulate our adrenaline output and create disaster overload.

A Stanford University study1 found that after seeing a live report on terrorism, 90 percent of us will have stress symptoms, 70 percent will have some depression, 40 percent will have difficulty concentrating, and 33 percent will have insomnia.

Unfortunately, in this kind of stress response, fight or flight hormones keep circulating 24/7, and our brain and body stay on alert until we feel emotionally and physically exhausted.

To recover from exhaustion, schedule breaks and pauses from stress a few times a day. Each break can be as brief as five minutes. For your body, use the break for any activity that is repetitive, so you will know exactly what’s coming next.

Try rocking, jogging, sewing, walking, or dancing, anything that restores relaxed breathing. For your brain, laugh. Stream a farce, share a meme, or create a TikTok. Laughter turns off fear and anxiety. It relaxes muscles. It regulates blood pressure. It increases mood-elevating endorphins. It helps us sleep more deeply.

What could be better for counteracting hidden stresses than laughter? Nothing.

Regardless of your stress levels, it’s important to recognize the source of the stress and where the hidden ones may be. Our minds and bodies are meant to deal with stress in sprints, not a full marathon.

Take a few minutes to remind yourself that you have control of how you deal with stress. Over time you will find those coping mechanisms will trigger automatically. It may not always be perfect, but one step in the right direction can work wonders for your mind and body.


Stanford SCOPE, Exposure to terrorism coverage on TV seems to impact women's mental health more than men's Lia Steakley, October 31, 2011

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