Dealing with Stress

One Step at a Time

Stress isn’t always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price. If you frequently find yourself feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, it’s time to take action to bring your nervous system back into balance. You can protect yourself — and improve how you think and feel — by learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms of chronic stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.

HOW MUCH STRESS IS TOO MUCH?

Because of the widespread damage stress can cause, it’s important to know your own limit. But just how much stress is “too much” differs from person to person. Some people seem to be able to roll with life’s punches, while others tend to crumble in the face of small obstacles or frustrations. Some people even thrive on the excitement of a high-stress lifestyle.

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EFFECTS OF STRESS

Your nervous system isn’t very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats. If you’re stress level is building up over an argument, a deadline that you need to meet, or bills that you are falling behind to pay, your body may react the same as it would when you’re faced with a life-or-death situation. The problem is the more your emergency stress system is activated, the easier it becomes to trigger and the harder it becomes to control.

If you are someone that gets stressed out frequently—as many of us do in today’s demanding world—your body may be in a heightened state of stress most of the time.


And that can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speed up the aging process. It can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.

CAUSES OF STRESS

The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.

Of course, not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be internal or self-generated, when you worry excessively about something that may or may not happen, or have irrational, pessimistic thoughts about life.

Finally, what causes stress depends, at least in part, on your perception of it. Something that's stressful to you may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it. For example, your morning commute may make you anxious and tense because you worry that traffic will make you late. Others, however, may find the trip relaxing because they allow more than enough time and enjoy listening to music while they drive.

IMPROVING YOUR ABILITY TO HANDLE STRESS

Upping your activity level is something you can do right now to help relieve stress and start to feel better. Regular exercise can lift your mood and serve as a distraction from worries, allowing you to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed stress. Rhythmic exercises such as walking, running, swimming, and dancing are particularly effective, especially if you exercise mindfully (focusing your attention on the physical sensations you experience as you move).

CONNECT TO OTHERS

The simple act of talking face-to-face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress when you're feeling agitated or insecure. Even just a brief exchange of kind words or a friendly look from another human being can help calm and soothe your nervous system. So spend time with people who make you feel good and don’t let your responsibilities keep you from having a social life. If you don’t have any close relationships, or your relationships are the source of your stress, make it a priority to build stronger and more satisfying connections.

LEARN HOW TO RELAX

You can’t completely eliminate stress from your life, but you can control how much it affects you. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the polar opposite of the stress response. When practiced regularly, these activities can reduce your everyday stress levels and boost feelings of joy and serenity. They also increase your ability to stay calm and collected under pressure.

THINGS THAT INFLUENCE YOUR STRESS TOLERANCE LEVEL

Your support network - A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against stress. When you have people you can count on, life’s pressures don’t seem as overwhelming. On the flip side, the lonelier and more isolated you are, the greater your risk of succumbing to stress.

Your sense of control - If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to take stress in stride. On the other hand, if you believe that you have little control over your life—that you’re at the mercy of your environment and circumstances, with limited ability to make changes—stress is more likely to knock you off course.

Your attitude and outlook - The way you look at life and its inevitable challenges makes a huge difference in your ability to handle stress. If you’re generally hopeful and optimistic, you’ll be less vulnerable. Stress-hardy people tend to embrace challenges, have a stronger sense of humor, believe in a higher purpose, and accept change as an inevitable part of life.

Your ability to deal with your emotions - If you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or troubled, you’re more likely to become stressed and agitated. Having the ability to identify and deal appropriately with your emotions can increase your tolerance to stress and help you bounce back from adversity.

Your knowledge and preparation - The more you know about a stressful situation—including how long it will last and what to expect—the easier it is to cope. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less stressful than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.

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COMMON EXTERNAL CAUSES OF STRESS

  • Major life changes

  • Work or school

  • Relationship difficulties

  • Financial problems

  • Being too busy

  • Children and family


COMMON INTERNAL CAUSES OF STRESS

  • Pessimism

  • Inability to accept uncertainty

  • Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility

  • Negative self-talk

  • Unrealistic expectations / perfectionism

  • All-or-nothing attitude

 

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