Stress is a normal response and is commonly experienced following a change in health status.


What is stress?

Stress can be defined as the condition or feeling you experience when you perceive that internal or external demands exceed your personal and social resources. Stress is a normal response and is commonly experienced following a change in health status, including concussion.

The following table lists some of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress. Many of these symptoms are the same ones you may be experiencing as the result of your concussion. 

Signs and symptoms of stress

Cognitive Symptoms Emotional Symptoms 
  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability or short temper
  • Agitation, inability to relax
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Depression or general unhappiness
Physical Symptoms Behavioural Symptoms
  • Aches and pains [e.g. headaches]
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds
  • Fatigue
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)

What is stress management?

Stress management refers to the practices, habits and environmental factors that can influence stress. Following a concussion, it is very important that you use healthy ways of dealing with stress in order to promote a good recovery. Psychological factors like stress and anxiety can increase all of your concussion symptoms and slow down your progress.  

Here are some suggestions to help you manage stress in an effective manner. Commit to trying these strategies for at least four weeks before deciding whether or not they work.

Stress management strategy #1: adopt a healthy lifestyle

You can increase your resistance to stress by strengthening your physical health. 

  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress. Make time for some light aerobic activity, such as walking, treadmill, stationary bike; gradually increase [first frequency, then duration and lastly intensity] as your symptoms allow.  Nothing beats exercise for releasing pent-up stress and tension.  
  • Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress, so be mindful of what you eat. Start your day right with breakfast, and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout the day.  
  • Reduce caffeine and sugar. The temporary 'highs' caffeine and sugar provide often end with a crash in mood and energy. By reducing the amount of coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and sugar snacks in your diet, you’ll feel more relaxed and you’ll sleep better.  
  • Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs may provide an easy escape from stress, but these substances are both toxins and depressants. Don’t avoid or mask the issue at hand; deal with problems head on and with a clear mind.  
  • Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep fuels your mind, as well as your body. Feeling tired will increase your stress and may cause you to think irrationally.

Stress management strategy #2: make time for fun and relaxation

You can reduce stress in your life by nurturing yourself. If you regularly make time for fun and relaxation, you’ll be in a better place to handle life’s stressors when they inevitably come. 

Healthy ways to relax and recharge

  • Go for a walk
  • Spend time in nature
  • Call a good friend
  • Sweat out tension with a good workout
  • Write in your journal
  • Take a long bath
  • Light scented candles
  • Savour a cup of tea
  • Play with a pet
  • Work in your garden
  • Get a massage
  • Curl up with a good book
  • Listen to music
  • Watch a comedy 

Don’t get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of life that you forget to take care of your own needs. Nurturing yourself is a necessity, not a luxury.

  • Set aside relaxation time. Include rest and relaxation in your daily schedule. Don’t allow other obligations to encroach. This is your time to take a break from all responsibilities and recharge your batteries.  
  • Connect with others. Spend time with positive people who enhance your life. A strong support system will buffer you from the negative effects of stress.  
  • Do something you enjoy every day. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it be stargazing, playing the piano, or working on your bike.  
  • Keep your sense of humour. This includes the ability to laugh at yourself. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.

Learn the relaxation response

You can control your stress levels with relaxation techniques that evoke the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the stress response. For example you can learn strategies for relaxation and mindfulness through yoga and meditation that will help improve coping skills. Regularly practicing these techniques will build your physical and emotional resilience and boost your overall feelings of well-being.

Stress management strategy #3: avoid unnecessary stress

Not all stress can be avoided, and it’s not healthy to avoid a situation that needs to be addressed. You may be surprised, however, by the number of stressors in your life that you can eliminate.

  • Establish your priorities. Analyze your schedule, responsibilities, and daily tasks. Decide where you want to spend your time and energy. If you’ve got too much on your plate, distinguish between the 'shoulds' and the 'musts.'  If possible, ask for help or delegate some responsibilities. Drop tasks that aren’t truly necessary to the bottom of the list or eliminate them entirely.
  • Learn how to say no. Know your physical and mental limits and be firm. Over-exertion and fatigue may slow down your recovery from concussion. Do not over-extend yourself. Once you have established your priorities and stamina it is easier to say no.  
  • Avoid people who stress you out. If someone consistently causes stress in your life and you can’t turn the relationship around, limit the amount of time you spend with that person or end the relationship entirely.
  • Take control of your environment. If the evening news makes you anxious, turn the TV off. If traffic’s got you tense, take a longer but less-traveled route. If going to the grocery store is an unpleasant chore, choose a quiet time and a small marketplace or do your grocery shopping online. 

Stress management strategy #4: alter the situation

If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Figure out what you can do to change things so the problem doesn’t present itself in the future. Often, this involves changing the way you communicate and operate in your daily life.

  • Express your feelings instead of bottling them up. If something or someone is bothering you, communicate your concerns in an open and respectful way. If you don’t voice your feelings, resentment will build and the situation will likely remain the same.  
  • Be willing to compromise. When you ask someone to change their behaviour, be willing to do the same. If you are willing to bend at least a little, you’ll have a good chance of finding a happy middle ground.  
  • Be assertive. Don’t take a backseat in your own life. Deal with problems head-on, doing your best to anticipate and prevent them. If you’ve got an exam to study for and your chatty roommate just got home, say up front that you only have five minutes to talk.  
  • Manage your time better. Poor time management can cause a lot of stress. When you’re stretched too thin and running behind, it’s hard to stay calm and focused. But if you plan ahead and make sure you don’t over-extend yourself, you can alter the amount of stress you’re under.

Stress management strategy #5: adapt to the stressor

If you can’t change the stressor, change yourself. You can adapt to stressful situations and regain your sense of control by changing your own expectations of yourself.

  • Re-frame problems. Try to view stressful situations from a more positive perspective. Rather than fuming about a traffic jam, look at it as an opportunity to pause and re-group, listen to your favourite radio station, or enjoy some alone time.  
  • Look at the big picture. Take perspective of the stressful situation. Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run. Will it matter in a month? A year? Is it really worth getting upset over? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy elsewhere.  
  • Adjust your standards. Recognize your limits and adjust your expectations while you are recovering. Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress. Stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection. Set realistic and reasonable standards for yourself and others, and learn to be okay with good enough.   
  • Focus on the positive. When stress is getting you down, take a moment to reflect on all the things you appreciate in your life, including your own positive qualities and gifts. This simple strategy can help you keep things in perspective.

Adjust your attitude

How you think can have a profound effect on your emotional and physical well-being. Each time you think a negative thought about yourself, your body reacts as if it were in the throes of a tension-filled situation. If you see good things about yourself, you are more likely to feel good; the reverse is also true. Eliminate words such as always, never, should and must. These are tell-tale marks of self-defeating thoughts.

Stress management strategy #6: accept the things you can't change

Some sources of stress are unavoidable. In such cases, the best way to cope with stress is to accept things as they are. Acceptance may be difficult, but in the long run, it’s easier than fighting a situation you can’t change.

  • Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control — particularly the behaviour of other people. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems.  
  • Look for the upside. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” When facing major challenges, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes.  
  • Share your feelings. Reach out and accept support from family or friends. Talking with someone you trust or with a therapist can be very healing, even if there’s nothing you can do to alter the stressful situation.  
  • Learn to forgive. Accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes. Let go of anger and resentments. Free yourself from negative energy by forgiving and moving on.

Reference: AnxietyBC