The Skinny On Stress and What To Do About It

Aaahhh, good old stress, can’t live with it, and can’t live without it. Stress is a part of life. It helps us stay motivated and ready to respond to life’s challenges, and at the same time, can lead to emotional and physical health problems when it becomes severe and chronic.

The important thing is finding a balance, and uncovering what causes you stress and how you can respond most effectively to it.

Being a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) I receive a monthly edition of the Monitor on Psychology. This month’s edition offered a wonderful article titled Is Stress Getting to You? The article provided some interesting statistics on stress in America and information about how to deal with it.

Gaining awareness is the first step, so I want to share this information to prompt consideration about what’s causing you stress and how you manage it. If you’re going through a rough time, hopefully this sheds some light on impact of stress and how you can begin coping with stress to live a healthier and happier life.

Stressed in America:

The survey findings show stress is up and has increased for many people over the last 5 years. People feel a sense of less control in their lives and don’t seem to be taking initiative to make healthy changes that would lessen stress.

For instance, many Americans are indulging in unhealthy ways of managing stress, such as sleeping less and engaging in unhealthy eating, as opposed to making self-care a priority and exercising and watching their diet.

One major problem reported is that people express a lack of willpower to change unhealthy behaviors. I believe this could be related to a self-perpetuating aspect of stress, where once someone feels overwhelmed and exhausted, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage life and cope with stress. Who feels like putting in extra effort when their exhausted and overwhelmed? I know in my life, the more stress I’m under the more difficult it becomes to deal with. It can feel as though the walls are caving in.

In this sense, taking a proactive approach to coping with stress is crucial. This involves recognizing stress in our lives, and dealing with it in a healthy way, as soon as we can.

Here’s a few statistics from the article:

Top 10 concerns of 2010:

  1. Money – 76%
  2. Work – 70%
  3. The economy – 65%
  4. Family responsibilities – 58%
  5. Relationships – 55%
  6. Personal health concerns – 52%
  7. Housing costs – 52%
  8. Job stability – 49%
  9. Health problems affecting my family – 47%
  10. Personal safety – 30%

Top 10 Physical Symptoms of Stress in 2010:

  1. Irritability or anger – 45%
  2. Fatigue – 41%
  3. Lack of interest, motivation or energy – 38%
  4. Feeling nervous or anxious – 36%
  5. Headache – 36%
  6. Feeling depressed or sad – 34%
  7. Feeling as though you could cry – 30%
  8. Upset stomach or indigestion – 26%
  9. Muscular tension – 23%
  10. Change in appetite – 21%

Chronic stress can obviously be very debilitating and disruptive to our lives. If any of this sounds familiar here are a few ideas to begin managing stress in your life.

1) What are your stress symptoms?

First off, start paying attention and noticing when you’re experiencing stress. Just as an automobile can overheat and breakdown, we as people can red-line and become exhausted, break down, and feel unable to function if we aren’t aware of accumulating stress.

A way to begin cluing in to this is to ask yourself, “What are my physiological and emotional reactions to stress?” Do you get a headache? Have muscle tension? Tend to feel irritable? Lose sleep? How does your breathing change?

All of these subtle changes can be a signal that you need to start using coping skills and make efforts to manage stress.

2) Assess your current stressors

Now that you recognize symptoms, you can begin to take a more proactive approach and manage stress before it becomes overwhelming.

When you notice stress symptoms coming on ask, “What is causing this stress in my life? When during the day do I feel most stressed out? What am I doing at this time? Who am I with? What am I thinking about?

Maybe you stress about something from the above list, or maybe it’s something completely different. Regardless, discover what is causing you continued stress, and determine what can be done about it.

3) Explore ways to respond and cope with stress

Begin making a list of what you can do to cope with the stressful experiences in your life. Make sure these are healthy coping techniques though (i.e. no drinking, drugging, or avoiding the problem).

Remember that it’s initially easier to change the body than it is to change our thinking or attitude, so relaxing the body is a good place to start.

Regardless there are countless ways relax your stress away.

Here are a few suggestions:

Relax the body

  • Deep/conscious breathing – Close you eyes and breathe in slowly. Breathe out for a count of 5-10 seconds. You can do this anywhere. Focus on taking deep breathes with your diaphragm.
  • Stretching – Practice simple stretches such as the “power stretch” where you raise your hands and arms above the head and stretch from toes to fingers.
  • Exercise – Regular aerobic exercise is one the best defenses against stress. This can include anything from hiking, running, bowling, walking, etc. During exercise the body releases endorphins, which are the hormonal opposite of the fight or flight response.
  • Get a massage – A massage in a great way to get rid of muscle tension. It will only take about 30 minutes, and can work on specific areas of tension in the body.
  • Eat well – Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake. Try to have as well-balanced a diet as possible. In particular, drinking plenty of water, and eating fruits and vegetables.
  • Meditate – Concentration meditation is a great weapon against stress. Select a word or phrase to repeat and focus on in order to remain in a meditative state. You can also meditate on the flame of a candle, or to the sounds of nature, such as water.
  • Take a bath – This can offer great relaxation and a nice break from household activities.

Relax the mind

  • Talk with friends – Take time to socialize and talk with people who can offer you comfort. Express your feelings that you may have been holding in.
  • Have a good laugh – Watch a funny movie, go to a comedy club, or spend time with people who can make you laugh.
  • Listen to music – Put on some relaxing or soothing music and really get absorbed in it. Music can be listened to in conjunction with meditation, exercise, taking a bath, etc.
  • Reading for pleasure – Reading can be a nice escape from the stress of daily life. You can read books that offer inspiration and encouragement, or books that are funny or sad to help you release pent-up emotions.
  • Do something you love – Whatever you enjoy doing, make time for this activity. When we enjoy ourselves we are able to relax our emotions by living in the moment.

Many people have good reasons to be stressed, but if there is anything I have learned, it’s never to worry about what I can’t control.

Find a way to establish a sense of greater control in your life. Find some balance in your life between work and play and seek help when you’re feeling overwhelmed. The same thing won’t work for everyone, so make it a priority to find out what works for you to relieve stress.

The more we know about what causes us stress, and what we can do to effectively deal with it the better. Let’s not let stress become an epidemic in our life and society. Be proactive and take control of your stress today.

Please share your insight and experience! What causes you stress and how do you deal with it? How do you know when your stressed out?