“Stress is arousal of mind and body in response to demands made on them.” - Walt Schafer
Stress can be defined in many different ways, but this one works! A “stressor” is something that causes a person “stress”…
When we experience stress short term, it can have positive effects: a burst of energy, heightened memory function, increased immunity and lower sensitivity to pain. The problem comes when we don’t ever get a rest afterward, but continue to experience stress. Cortisol is one of the hormones produced by the adrenal gland during the body’s response to stressors. When cortisol remains in the bloodstream in high levels, it can have negative effects: impaired cognitive function, blood sugar imbalances, higher blood pressure, lowered immunity and increased abdominal fat.
Some of the symptoms we experience when we are “stressed” include (but are not limited to) inability to sleep well, fatigue, increased or decreased appetite, muscle tension, hard time focusing or being motivated, irritability, depression, and social withdrawal.
The effects of stress on our health are huge – 75-90% of all doctors office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints; it is estimated that stress costs the American industry more than $300 billion annually (from webmd.com). Stress can contribute to many different physical problems, including heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, ulcers, skin diseases, allergies, and more.
While many of us have similar problems, each of us has our own unique “set” of problems that create stress for us. We can deal with it by either (1) getting rid of stressors, or (2) learning how to cope better with stress.
Sometimes it can be helpful to remind ourselves that we CHOSE these stressors. We choose our spouse (each one comes with their own unique set of problems – they’ve all got ‘em, just different packages!), whether and when to have children (for the most part), to work, to go to school, what kinds of activities we agree to participate in… They all come with their own sets of problems, challenges, and sacrifices – BUT we choose them for good reasons. It can be helpful to remind ourselves of this.
GETTING RID OF STRESSORS
Remember to focus on things that are within our circle of control. If we have influence over something, we can also focus on that – but trying to control something that you really don’t have any control over is a GREAT way to create unnecessary stress in your life. Ask yourself if someone else is involved? If so, you may not have complete control over the outcome. Focus your ACTIONS on your circle of control.
Prioritize! Which category does this activity fall into? Not urgent but important, urgent and important, not urgent and unimportant, or urgent but unimportant. Try to focus your energies on the important areas (even the not urgent area – if neglected, it will move to the urgent area). Everyone’s categories will look a little different… Ask yourself: what are the negative consequences if I do NOT do this? Will it matter in 5 years whether I do this?
Where is this on your list of needs? (Pretend that you took your list of “needs” and “wants” and combined them into one list that is called “needs”! Sometimes we think if we can’t justify it with some set of rules, then it’s not a “need”… if it contributes to your emotional well-being, then it is important!)
If you can, cut back! Don’t feel guilty about saying “no” – there may come a time in the future when you can say “yes”, but you don’t have to do it all right now! Stay as organized as possible, as well as clean – disorder leads to stress. Prepare yourself as much as possible – this can reduce stress.
Sometimes people use addictive substances or behaviors to “cope” with life. Like some of the following, they do provide temporary relief – the problem is that you become dependent on these substances to make it through the day. Instead of making life easier, you have added a habit to your life that can be time-consuming, provide financial hardship, and have detrimental physical, emotional, and mental effects. If there is something like this you need to cut out of your life, do it! If it is past the point where you can do it on your own, there are many qualified professionals in the area who can help.
When you can’t cut back…
INCREASE YOUR ABILITY TO COPE
ACCEPTANCE is the opposite of RESISTANCE. Resistance creates pain, stress, fatigue, regret, and unhappiness. Sometimes if we understand that this is a time of life – something that won’t last forever – it can be helpful. Reminding ourselves that we have chosen this can also help.
Sometimes we experience chronic illness, a pain we did NOT choose, or lifelong challenges. This doesn’t mean it will always be hard, painful, tortuous, etc… We CAN find glimpses of hope, peace, understanding, contentment, and even joy.
One powerful tool for coping is our THOUGHTS. All of us have occasional dysfunctional patterns of thinking. If we can recognize what we are doing and STOP ourselves, we can take a step back and try to be more rational (or just stop thinking about it until you are rested, feel better, and CAN be rational). Some dysfunctional thought patterns include: black & white thinking (all or nothing – it either is or isn’t!), mental filters (only seeing the bad in a situation), personalizing (taking random behavior and making it personal), generalization, “shoulding” (I “should” do this, he “should” do that…), blaming (this gives away our power to do anything to change the situation), and snowballing (having one negative thought that reminds you of another negative thing, and another, and another…).
Another way we can cope with stress is to look at how we deal with CONFLICT. The way we start a conversation with potential conflict can make all the difference in the outcome of the conversation. The goal is to avoid making the other person feel defensive, so use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. (“I feel _____ when you ____. We should ____.”) If the other person is angry, try to listen and understand what is really going on – and as hard as it is, avoid being defensive. If you are angry (or both of you), wait till another time to talk about the issue (but don’t stew over it in the meantime!) Know how to calm yourself down. DON’T be a doormat… if there is an ongoing pattern of disrespect, this should be addressed!
Learn to be fully present. Instead of having your head in the clouds, thinking about your to-do list, stressing about the future – live in the PRESENT. Pay attention to your five senses – this can help!
Meditation is an exercise for your brain that can help you be able to think more clearly throughout the rest of the day. Spending a few minutes clearing your mind of all thought at the beginning of the day can help you be better focused on what is important.
BREATHING is way underrated! We do it so automatically, we forget about it. When we become stressed, our breathing becomes shallow – taking a minute to get a few deep breaths can have immediate effects.
Progressive relaxation is done by tensing then relaxing each group of muscles in the body from one end to the other, and can be combined with visualization. Visualization employs the power of the mind and your own creativity to help shape your experience.
Sleep deprivation can lead to depression, poor concentration, irritability, & stress… (and stress can lead to sleep deprivation!) If you are struggling to sleep due to an active mind, make a list before going to bed. Journaling can be very beneficial as well. Remember the circle of control…
Exercise can have a huge impact on our ability to cope with life’s challenges – it affects not only our health, but our ability to think clearly, anxiety, depression, effects of hormones, and aging. In one study, a group taking medication responded faster than a group exercising, but the exercise group “caught up” – by the end of the study, their symptoms of anxiety had decreased just as much as the group that was taking medication – and without the side effects. A common mistake in starting an exercise program is going so “gung-ho” at the beginning that you can’t continue. Start small, and pick something you enjoy that you will stick with. If you don’t see any way to add exercise to your life right now, think of a time in the future when you would be able to do so.
Get outside, listen to music, LAUGH, bring the smell of lavender into your home, have fun with your pet… (but don’t go out and buy a new one – training is stressful!) Get a massage, enjoy a creative outlet like painting, forgive a grudge you’ve been holding, let someone serve you, serve someone else spontaneously when IT FITS… Everyone is different – find what helps you most in dealing with stress.
Expressing gratitude for what we have, as well as spending any amount of time with a support group can help to keep things in perspective. We all have been blessed in so many ways – and there are others who can relate to what we are going through – just remembering these things can ease our stress.
Using spirituality and religious practices can also be helpful in dealing with stress. Use the support available to you in these areas! If you would like more support in this area, explore options, but be patient with the process - it may take some time before you settle in with relationships as well as practices. Remember you are rubbing shoulders with other imperfect humans. Recognize that the lack of peace you feel may not be related to either a lack of faith or an absence of truth - it may be your own biological processes getting in the way! Be kind to yourself as you seek peace in this area as well.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST
I've given you many options for dealing with stress - being a unique individual, you will find some of these appeal to you, some you know you should do, and others that you won't come near with a ten-foot pole! You may even be overwhelmed by the list! Final advice:
Pick what feels right for you.
Start small - small shifts may make a big difference.
Come back to this article after you've had a little time with your first shifts, and see if there's something else that can be helpful.
Be kind to yourself in the process!