Stress seems to be an epidemic in 21st-century life, and it has consequences–negative effects on our body, mind, emotions, and relationships. In this episode we look at some steps we can take to cope with, and even minimize, stress.
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Stress and What It Does to Us
I’ve received a number of listener requests for suggestions for dealing with stress. Like everybody else, I experience stress on a pretty regular basis, so I definitely thought it was worth looking into the causes and effects of stress, as well as some techniques for minimizing its negative impact on our lives.
What is stress?
Stress is the reaction to a situation that disrupts our lives. Our unconscious survival instincts perceive it as a threat, a danger, and hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released throughout the body, triggering the body’s natural “fight or flight” response. The stress is exacerbated when the energy flooding our body in preparation for that fight or flight has nowhere to go, because rather than racing through the jungle, fleeing the predator, we're simply sitting in a chair, trying to get our work done.
Types of stress
Acute stress is the most common. It's the occasional, temporary, short-term stress typically related to recent-past, current, or anticipated demands and pressures. For more information about the different kinds of stress, visit the American Psychological Association Help Center page.
Chronic stress is a more dangerous type. This is seen as more of a long-term, continuous, unrelenting stress resulting from demands and pressures that leave a person feeling like there is no way out of his or her current situation.
Chronic stress is the stress that grinds people down as time goes on, and can destroy bodies, minds, and lives. Some articles I read relate it to highly emotional or dangerous ongoing circumstances, such as dysfunctional families, poverty, or living in parts of the world with ongoing turmoil.
I encourage you to seek support to get out of these situations, if possible. Visit the American Psychological Association’s Psychologist Locator website to find resources in your area.
What causes stress?
Stress comes from our body's instinct for self-preservation. It’s a response to “threat,” triggering the fight-or-flight response. Change — even good change — can cause feelings of stress, because the instinct-driven part of our brain perceives any change with suspicion, as a possible source of danger.
An article on WebMD categorizes various sources of stress:
- Work stress can come from being unhappy in your job, from a heavy workload or too many responsibilities, or from facing harassment or discriminationAccording to an article in the Harvard Business Review, workers spend an average of 34-48 hours at work each week, and many engage in work-related activities outside business hours. Work environments that place importance on multitasking are “killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy.”
- Life stress comes from any of the myriad changes and challenges we come across in life: death, divorce, job loss, increased financial obligations, getting married, moving to a new home, chronic illness or an injury, or a traumatic event like theft, natural disaster, or violence against you or a loved one
- Internally caused stress comes from worrying, fear, or uncertainty. It is born of our own attitudes and perceptions, and can come from having unrealistic expectations or even just how we view a change we're facing in our life.
These different types and sources of stress are almost inevitable when we’re trying to do it all, be it all, for everybody in our lives. We can be stressed because we’re trying to do our job, as well as be a good wife or mother. It’s easy to also feel guilt for not being able to get everything we want done because of a lack of time or energy.
How does stress affect us?
Stress can affect us physically (such as headaches, body pains, upset stomach), mentally (perhaps anxiety, inability to focus, or depression), or behaviorally (like over- or under-eating or drug or alcohol abuse). The long-term effects of stress are serious enough to merit our attention. We need to do something about it. Fortunately, we can.
How can we minimize stress?
I'm no expert on eliminating or even coping with stress. But I thought I'd share some of the steps I take when I'm feeling stressed, and then look at some of the tips I gleaned from researching what the experts have to say about it.
How I deal with stress
1. I start by trying to determine what's causing the stress
- Too much to do?
- Time management?
- Trying to meet unrealistic expectations (my own or someone else's)?
- Disorganized workspace?
- Overloaded schedule?
2. If it’s any of those, I go back to the first principles of productivity:
- Write things down.
- Set reasonable expectations.
- Make sure you’re taking steps toward what you want in life.
Take a look at episode 11 in which I share nine steps to handle overwhelm.
3. Get things in order. Clean up your desk. Straighten up your bedroom (create an oasis of calm there or some other room of your home). Re-organize your planner or schedule. Be as ruthless as you need when pruning things from your calendar.
4. Take care of yourself to help minimize the effects of the stressors in your life.
- Play soothing music. (I use [email protected] to help me concentrate and relax.)
- Get some exercise. By channeling the excess energy generated by our natural “fight or flight” response to perceived threats, exercise will burn off some of the tension, which should also make you more peaceful and help you sleep better.
- Brew a cup of tea and sit somewhere quiet, either with a book or staring into space to gather your thoughts.
- Take time to do nothing, if you need a break.
- Try to get an adequate amount of sleep
- Make sure you’re eating well.
- Talk to a friend or loved one.
- Journal to help you work through what’s stressing you. I use the Day One app available for the Mac and iOS devices.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a trained professional counselor.
Suggestions from the pros
- A WebMD article about stress management suggests journaling, meditating, exercising, talking to others, or engaging in a hobby.
- An article from the Mayo Clinic also recommends physical activity, relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, tai chi, getting plenty of sleep, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding tobacco use and excess caffeine and alcohol intake.
- The writer of the Harvard Business Review article mentioned above, noted “while the rigors of a high-performance culture may require consistent focus, ‘always on’ is a dangerous and unproductive mindset because it fails to take recovery time into account.”
We always need some downtime following stressful periods, time to disconnect from work and the demands that have stressed us, time to process what's going on in our life and in our head.
- An article from FamilyDoctor.org has another list of suggestions to cope better with life’s challenges and manage stress, such as not worrying about the little things we can’t control, like the weather.
- It also suggests finding a small thing you can do right now, a way to gain a feeling of control in some small way.
- When stress comes from anticipating a challenging task (say, a speech or an important presentation for work), prepare ahead of time and be OK with the outcome.
In addition, consider these tips:
1. If your stress is coming from difficult relationships at work or at home, find effective ways to deal with conflict. Relationships at work, at home and in your personal life can be a source of stress. Addressing and resolving these conflicts, either before they happen or in a reasonable amount of time, can save you time, energy, and stress in the future.
2. Develop mindfulness habits. Mindfulness can be a powerful practice to train the brain and promote resilience and productivity.
- Tools like Headspace, Calm, and Muse to help you become more mindful in your everyday life.
- Being present and aware of what’s happening and how it’s affecting you will help you feel less lost.
3. Take control of your thinking. I've gained a lot of help and encouragement from something life coach Brooke Castillo (her podcast is called The Life Coach School) teaches, called the “Model” (my paraphrase follows):
- Our results in life come from our actions, our actions are driven by our feelings, our feelings are triggered by our thoughts.
- Become consciously aware of what you're feeling, then ask yourself “What thoughts am I having that are triggering this feeling?”
- Stress may not actually be caused by the situation, but in most situations, stress comes from what you think about the situation.
- We may not be able to change the circumstances or the people in our lives, but we can change what we think about our circumstances or those people. If we take control of our thinking, and change our thoughts to something more positive and healthy, those new thoughts will change our feelings.
When should you seek help?
Consider seeing a doctor or trained counselor when your stress is affecting your health and the way you feel. A trained professional can help you treat the physical symptoms and help you find healthy ways to address and cope with stress. The important thing to remember is you don’t have to deal with these things alone. Sometimes we need to be strong enough to ask for help when it just gets to be too much.
- “Understanding and Dealing with Stress“
- “Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes“
- “Fact Sheet on Stress” from the National Institute of Mental Health
- “Stress” from Psychology Today
- “50 Common Signs and Symptoms of Stress” from The American Institute of Stress
- “Stress Management” from the Mayo Clinic
- “Stress: The Different Kinds of Stress” from the American Psychological Association
- “Stress: How to Copy Better with Life's Challenges” from FamilyDoctor.org
- “Help Your Team Manage Stress, Anxiety, and Burnout” from the Harvard Business Review
What do you think?
Do you have a mechanism for dealing with stress in your life I didn’t mention in this episode? Please feel free to ask your questions or share your thoughts by commenting below or on the Facebook page or email me.
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