This week’s episode is a refresher on the causes and effects of stress, as well as some techniques for minimizing its negative impact on our lives and our productivity.
Stress is inevitable these days, but we can take steps to minimize its disruption of our daily lives or productivity
Lately I’ve been feeling the effects of stress brought on by various personal and work situations, and I’ve been hearing from other women who’ve mentioned the same, especially as, here in the US, the new school year has begun and schedules have gotten more hectic with various fall activities commencing. According to an article published just a few days ago in USA Today, a recent study involving over 66,000 women in 122 countries founds that “Levels of stress, anxiety, worry, sadness and anger among women worldwide are at a 10-year high.”
This article got me thinking about stress and its effects on our body, mind, emotions, and relationships. Looking back through the TPW archives, I saw it’s actually been several years since we really talked about stress, so I thought it was time to revisit it and some steps we can take to cope with, and even minimize, stress.
Stress and What It Does to Us
Like everybody else, I experience stress on a pretty regular basis. We talked about this back in early 2016. The world was a very different place back then, so I definitely thought it was worth a refresher on 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 subconscious 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–that instinctive reaction that floods our body with energy in preparation for either fighting off the threat or running away from it. As quoted in the USA Today article I mentioned earlier, Dr. Sofia Noori, co-founder of the Women’s Mental Health Conference and a clinical instructor at Yale University’s department of psychiatry, has explained: “If you’re constantly exposed to stressful situations… your nervous system doesn’t have a chance to rev down so you’re constantly in a state of fight or flight.”
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 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. I’ve seen this type of stress also referred to as “toxic stress.”
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–which seems like the whole world in the years of pandemic, economic instability, political uprisings, and more.
I encourage you to seek support to get out of these situations, if possible, or at least to cope with them. 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 discrimination. According 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 guilty for not being able to get everything we want done because of a lack of time or energy.
How does stress affect us?
According to Yale Medicine, “Chronic stress slowly drains a person’s psychological resources and damages their brains and bodies.” A Yale Medicine fact sheet tells us that symptoms of chronic stress can include:
- Aches and pains
- Insomnia or sleepiness
- A change in social behavior, such as staying in often
- Low energy
- Unfocused or cloudy thinking
- Change in appetite
- Increased alcohol or drug use
- Change in emotional responses to others
- Emotional withdrawal
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
- 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?
- 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.
- 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 to be when pruning things from your calendar and your to-do list.
- Take care of yourself to help minimize the effects of the stressors in your life.
- Play soothing music. (I’ve used [email protected] or classical instrumental stations on Amazon Music or Apple Music 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. [When I was in law school I had a stationary bike in my study room; when studying for exams I’d jump on and pedal hard for 15 or 20 minutes to burn off the tension and stress.]
- 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. Paper or digital, either can help you process the thoughts and feelings. 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
Experts from the Yale Stress Clinic recommend managing stress through a variety of lifestyle changes:
- Eating healthy foods
- Learning time management techniques
- Setting realistic goals
- Getting more sleep
- Making time for leisure activities
- Building stress reduction skills
- Learning and practicing mindfulness (learning to control attention)
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:
- 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.
- Develop mindfulness habits. Mindfulness can be a powerful practice to train the brain and promote resilience and productivity.
- Tools like Calm (our sponsor this week) can 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.
- 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?
Talking to a friend might be enough to help you vent and process your stress, but 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.
Neither stress nor its effects reflect a character flaw in the person experiencing them. A certain amount of stress might be inevitable at various stages of our life, but it doesn’t have to damage our health, well-being, relationships, or productivity if we take intentional steps to address it.
What do you think?
Have you been feeling the effects of stress in your life? What steps do you take to cope? Post your suggestions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me.
Resources and Link
- Chronic Stress > Fact Sheets > Yale Medicine
- Mental Health and Well-being – The Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine – NCBI Bookshelf
- UAMS Researchers Find That COVID-19 Pandemic Increased Stress for Women | UAMS News
- Women, Caregiving, and COVID-19 | CDC Women’s Health
- COVID: Stress levels among women are at 10-year high, survey shows
- Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior – Mayo Clinic
- Stress Management Center: Reducing Stress, Stress Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, and Relief
- Common Causes of Stress & Their Effect on Your Health
- [email protected]
- The Life Coach School
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