Dealing With Stress
We experience potential stressors throughout our lives. Situations that can create stress are unavoidable. What we can control is how we react to them. Psychological stress can best be defined as emotional strain or tension in response to a particular event, behavior, place or person. While it isn't always easy to find effective ways to manage the daily stressors we face it is important to try to find healthy ways to deal with stress. When we cannot, we often feel its damaging impact through anger, depression and a multitude of health problems.
Here are some facts about how stress impacts our lives:
- Stress has been linked to all the leading causes of death, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, accidents and suicide.
- Almost 90 percent of all visits to primary health care providers are due to stress-related problems.
- Nearly one-half of all adults suffer adverse effects from stress.
- It is estimated that 1 million Americans miss work due to stress-related complaints.
- Workplace violence has been attributed to stress. Homicide is the second leading cause of fatal occupational injury.
There are some situations that inherently rate high on the stress scale: divorce, death of a child or spouse, illness, a move or a change of job. But each of us has the ability to manage most stressful situations by altering the way we respond to them. It is impossible to manage or control all the people, events and places in our lives that place demands on us, and any attempt to do so causes our stress level to go up. We would be better off learning to accept those situations we can not change and to manage how we deal with stress by understanding the phenomenon of "being stressed."
Stress is classified into two types - acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term). People experience acute stress when they are dealing with a dangerous or life threatening situation. Because these circumstances were common in our evolutionary past, humans have a built-in mechanism that is commonly referred to as the "fight or flight" response, so named because of the way our bodies react to such an event. Immediate physiological responses, mediated by the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, prepare the body for this "fight or flight" response by increasing blood pressure, heart rate and respiration. In fact, blood flow can increase 300 to 400 percent in order to prepare the legs, brain and lungs for the added demands of either fighting off a physical threat, or running to safety. Conversely, other major body systems such as the digestive tract are shut down short-term, as they are considered non-essential during a stressful event. These physical changes were vital for survival in prehistoric times, and this response can still be important today when we are in a dangerous situation or even during an athletic event or a competition where a "ramped up" system can enhance the way we perform. The problem, however, is that this system now operates inappropriately in our modern world. Although heavy traffic, work deadlines and credit card statements are not life threatening, the system is activated by our response to them, often many times throughout the day. This is chronic stress, and over time the repetition of the "fight or flight" response, designed to allow us to survive occasional real threats, begins to alter our everyday physiology and health.
Some physical consequences of chronic stress:
- Heart Disease. Sudden changes in heart rate and increased demands on the cardiovascular system can precipitate angina even increase one's risk for a fatal heart attack. Repetitive increases in blood pressure can damage the inner lining of the artery walls, leading to atherosclerosis.
- Stroke. Prolonged or frequent episodes of stress can gradually worsen high blood pressure, affecting the cardiovascular system and the arteries that lead to the brain, thus increasing the risk of stroke.
- Depressed Immune System. Prolonged exposure to stress can blunt the immune system response, increasing the risk for colds and more serious infections.
- Weight and Body-Fat Changes. Chronic stress can cause either a loss in appetite and weight loss or an increase in cravings for fat, sugar and salt, which leads to weight gain. A recent study suggested that chronic stress can cause abdominal fat accumulation in otherwise thin women. The researchers attributed this fat accumulation to an increased secretion of the hormone cortisol, which is released during stress - some release more cortisol than others. Central distribution of fat increases one's risk for certain diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
- Insomnia. Chronic stress makes it difficult for people to get a restful night's sleep, which interferes with the body's mechanisms for recovering and repairing itself. A lack of sleep can also worsen psychological stress and prevent one from recognizing problems and dealing with them rationally.
- Migraines. Studies have suggested that migraine attacks occur more frequently when one is under increased levels of stress.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). A strong correlation has been associated between stress and IBS.
Not all stress is bad, however, and stressful challenges are necessary to become stronger both physically and mentally. The positive effects of overcoming stress can include:
- Increased energy and motivation
- Increased self-confidence
- Increased drive and productivity
- Enhanced work performance
- A feeling of excitement and a sense of purpose and challenge
Use these steps to help manage your stress more effectively:
- Determine what is causing stress in your life. There may be particular situations, people or events that make you feel nervous, anxious or fearful.
- Keep a diary to record the events or situations that are stressful for you. Record your physical symptoms and emotions.
- Strengthen your support system and communicate with family and friends. Most people who are able to cope well with stress have strong social support networks with family, friends and even pets.
- Open up. Learn how to express your thoughts and feelings.
- Don't be afraid to say "no" when someone asks you to do something. Learn your limits. You can't do it all and you shouldn't feel guilty about it.
- Learn how to express your feelings appropriately by not insulting or hurting others. Say "I feel angry" instead of "you make me feel angry." This will help maintain and improve the important relationships in your life.
- Simplify your life. This means restructuring your priorities. Evaluate what activities are most important, and get rid of the ones that aren't. You will feel less worn out and more rested. You'll also have more free time to spend with family, friends or even to be by yourself.
- Recognize that drugs and alcohol are not effective methods to solve problems. If you feel that you are relying on drugs or alcohol to escape from your problems, seek the advice of a mental health counselor or community health service about special programs for stress management.
- Improve lifestyle habits. Increasing physical activity and eating healthy can do wonders for your ability to manage stress. Regular physical activity and a healthy diet can improve weight, energy levels, self-confidence, and overall health and well-being, making it much easier for you to handle daily stressors.
- Reduce stress at work. Seek out support from your Human Resources department or a sympathetic coworker or manager. Learn how to communicate your needs in a non-confrontational manner, such as giving suggestions on how to improve working conditions to help increase productivity.
- Laugh it off. Did you know that laughter is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress? No matter how bad things are, laughing dissolves tension and seems to help brighten the situation. Try not to take things too seriously - a negative mood only adds to your level of stress. Another plus - laughter seems to help boost the immune system, in turn making you less prone to developing colds and other infections.
- Take a media break or a news fast. Research has shown that the emotional content of the news can affect mood and aggravate sadness and depression.
- Try mind-body exercises such as breath work, meditation, yoga and biofeedback. The Healing Rhythms Biofeedback training program (I am one of the "trainers") is an interactive way to monitor and relieve unhealthy stress; learn more here.
- Check your medications including over the counter medications, many can aggravate anxiety or depression.
- Eliminate caffeine and other stimulants from your diet.
- Increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids by eating oily fish or with supplements.
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