Are You Stressed Out?
It is no secret that many people in the US are overwhelmed and, simply put, stressed out! Many find themselves pressured by school, work, family, or social responsibilities with little time to switch off their duties and relax. Relax. A five letter word that at times feels foreign. Although we are generally able to describe what a relaxed state is, it can be near impossible for folks to describe how to get there. Can you? Take a moment and think about the things that contribute to your sense of feeling relaxed, rested, calmed, or content?
Were you able to come up with ways of relaxing and decreasing your stress? Now here is the tricky part, how often do you do those things? Do you find your stress levels increasing as you think about finding ways of decreasing them? That's precisely why it's is tricky, learning to relax can in fact cause some stress. Before jumping into how to fix this, let's first look at some of the ways in which stress can impact you physically and mentally.
Effects of Stress
Have you ever found yourself suffering from a headache, stomach ache, back pain, chest pain, or other physical ailment that your doctor can't find a cause for? What's worse is they tell you it’s stress, and recommend that you "take some time to relax." Of course that leaves you feeling even more stressed because now you are worried about finding time to relax amid all of the other "have to's." So what is stress anyway and why is it causing so much physical pain and emotional pain?
In 1936 a scientist by the name of Hans Seyle used the term stress to refer to "the non-specific response in the body to any demand for change." However the term stress originated even earlier as it was a term used in physics to explain the result of an external force on the "deformation" or changes in metals. Both determined that there was some outside force that resulted in an unnatural change. Selye's work with animals uncovered that long-term exposure to stress could have intensely damaging and even fatal affects. He also discovered that no matter the stressful condition (intense light, cold, or heat exposure) the animals exhibited the same symptoms, namely: heart attack, arthritis, and various diseases, as well as enlarged adrenal glands. Today not much has changed. We know that long-term exposure to stress can cause severe and persistent difficulties in humans, yet we continue to suffer from stress overload. The American Institute of Stress lists over 50 symptoms and signs of stress. A few include;
- Pain (head, back, stomach)
- Difficulty Focusing
- Gastrointestinal issues
Other symptoms manifest emotionally. Some people experience;
- Persistent Worry
- Intense Sadness
Such symptoms can have dire effects on one's health and well being. The big question is what can you do when you feel like you are barely treading water in a sea or responsibility? Let's look at some of the ways in which we can invoke that sense of relaxation, calm, or contentment. But before we do that, I just want to underscore that we tend to carry stress. What I mean by this is, we tend to hold a stressful experience, and ruminate on it well after the event has gone. For example, if your boss tells you to prepare a last minute presentation for next week your first response is to curse your luck followed by, “why me?” and all of the other factors associated with the project. Many take it a step further and begin to think about the task well beyond what is necessary to complete it. A sense of urgency develops, and calls in to question your method, ability, knowledge, and may block your ability to think, write, plan or prepare. You may begin to wish you had more time or someone else was required to do the presentation. At the end of the day the task initiated the stress response but the worry and concern about doing a good job, maintains it. Why do I bring in this example? Well because to change requires first knowing what you have the power to change. In short what do you have control over? If your answer in this situation is fighting your boss or quitting your job....well that may be another blog to discuss. You can, however control your response to the situation.
The best way to combat stress is identifying the factors, or triggers, that cause you stress in the first place. Identifying stressful triggers allows you to prepare yourself in a healthy way. I always recommend embracing a stressful situation rather than bracing yourself for one. What's the difference the level of tension within you. If you embrace something you are accepting it and able to let it in, while bracing yourself is the exact opposite. If you find that you are bracing yourself for stressful situations you might find yourself tensing up physically and emotionally which can invite conflict, or "bumping of heads." This takes practice and requires you to learn how you respond in stressful situations. What is your default response? Once you are able to identify whether you are a “bracer” (fake smile/mental block) or an “embracer” (acknowledged dislike...open-minded) you can shift to the latter.
The second method for decreasing stress is being clear and honest with yourself. Are you put in a situation that can cause significant stress to you or loved ones? The first question one should ask, "Is this required?" To better help you answer this question (as it can become emotionally complicated) ask yourself, "By not doing this task is my livelihood at risk? If the answer is no (not going to get fired, broken up with, lose your home etc... then the second question, "What are my options?" should follow. Many times we feel compelled to do something because we don't want to disappoint others or look weak and incapable. This can result in biting off more than you can chew, so you must learn to be mindful of what you can and cannot do. So, if the answer to the initial question is, yes, then you plan accordingly. Set aside a block of time, as much as you can spare, create a plan, break down the task, and work towards completing it (there are few situations that invoke this response). If the answer to the initial question is no, now you get to do some self-exploration. What does it mean to say no vs. yes? You can take a moment to think about your decision and what feels best for you.
When people begin to do this more frequently they find that they feel less compelled to make hasty decisions or act impulsively. Over time this method helps you to really get a sense of what is truly manageable or unmanageable. It is not until a person is able to recognize how their thoughts and emotions impact their stress levels, do I then bring in deep breathing. I choose this direction because (in my opinion) the person has now developed a little more awareness about themselves and can truly focus on integrating the breathing and relaxation techniques in to a routine. Deep breathing is a great way of reducing stress. Helpguide.org has a great description on how to use breathing techniques and meditation to decrease stress.
Other Ways to Combat Stress
The best ways to combat stress is to have a healthy start. To reduce stress make sure you are doing these simple task:
- Get a good night’s rest: try and get a full 8 hours of sleep or children 8-10 is better. If you are a parent make sure your kids also get enough sleep too, that will help keep them from stressing you out as well as, decrease symptoms of fatigue.
- Eat: Make sure you have three meals and at least two snacks in between. We often get too busy to eat and resort to eating something rather unhealthy. Take your time and enjoy your food. Try not to eat in front of a screen or while driving. Also eat healthy; too many carbs can result in that sleepy effect. Fruits and veggies with some protein is idea.
- Exercise: This can be as simple, pumping your arms or legs in place, walking, or as rigorous as P90x whatever you choose to do, Be Consistent. It will help your body get into a rhythm.
- Drink Plenty of Water, need I say more. Hydration is key to keep you alert, focused and, with proper energy.
- Make time for a hobby or fun activity: Have something you enjoy. This breaks up the monotony of the daily grind. Adults and children alike need to have daily play time. We all know the old saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!”
If you have tried these things and stress is still causing you to unravel at the ends, it may be time to see someone. A psychologist can provide you support and identify patterns that may be preventing you from being your best self. Seeing a psychotherapist can help you tease out whether or not you should talk to a psychiatrist about medication as an option or need to switch up your routine. No matter what you choose to do you must always remember that the first step is acknowledging your stress and determining what you have the power to change.