Over time the little stresses of everyday life take their toll on a person. Quality of life suffers and symptoms of illness and disease may develop or worsen.
How to build your stress management toolkit
WHAT IS STRESS?
Stress happens when we are challenged to adapt to changes in our environment or our circumstances. Change happens, so stress is inevitable. Some stress is even desirable! Stress, per se, is neither good nor bad; our perception of stress is what makes the difference. Good stress is happy and motivating. Some bad stress can be protective. Prolonged stress, though, can have negative effects on our health.
Human beings developed a fight-or-flight response to stress long ago. Originally this response was necessary for survival. Stressors (causes of stress) today are different, but our stress response remains the same. The stress response floods our systems with stress hormones. It unfolds through the nervous and the endocrine systems—the two body systems most responsible for keeping everything working well together (homeostasis). During the fight-or-flight response, non-critical functions (like the immune system and digestion) are shut down. We are designed to deal with and fully recover from short episodes of stress; we are not designed to cope with stress that continues for long periods without time for recovery.
The fight-or-flight response is triggered when we perceive a threat, whether that threat is physical or psychological, large or small, real or imagined. Some modern stressors may be life-threatening, but most of them are minor stressors, called hassles. Today's fast-paced lifestyle means that hassles are almost constant. As a result, we may be almost always in stress-response mode. Most of our modern stressors lack a physical component. In these cases, fight and flight are not useful options. Stress chemicals that are not spent by either fight or flight accumulate in the body. It takes proper exercise and rest to disperse them.
Chronic, long term stress that is not addressed can weaken the immune system, contribute to high blood pressure, heart problems, depression, colitis, obesity, skin problems, insomnia, “foggy brain,” headaches, muscle aches and other ailments. It can make existing disease conditions worse and accelerate the aging process.
SOURCES OF STRESS
Many aspects of lifestyle and environment contribute to stress. Work and family are major contributors; even friendships can sometimes be stressful. Time and finances are also major stressors for many people.
Events we happily look forward to are actually stressors! Birthdays, weddings, births, graduations, promotions, vacations, and so forth all have a stress component. (This good stress is called eustress; the bad stress is distress.)
Nervous tension is not the same as biologic stress. Just because we don't feel stressed-out doesn't mean we are not under stress. We are subject to physical stress, mental/emotional stress, social stress, nutritional stress, spiritual stress and environmental stress.
STRESS MANAGEMENT TECHNIQUES
Hans Selye, the "father of stress," asserted that it’s not the stressor itself that harms us, it’s “how we take it” that counts. If we believe we have little or no control in a situation, or if we view a situation as unpredictable, we tend to react poorly to stressors.
But we can learn to change our reaction to stress; we can become more stress hardy. Stress management can help us invoke the relaxation response—the opposite of the stress response—and counter some of the adverse effects of stress.
Because stress is personal, a stress management technique that works well for one person may not work as well for another. Different personalities require different approaches. A long-term study at The Canadian Institute of Stress has identified 6 stress types and 5 key stress management skills. The study revealed that each stress type benefits most from one or two specific skills.
A wide variety of stress management techniques exists. Some are physical, hands-on approaches. Some address the mind-body connection. Lifestyle techniques include nutritional and environmental approaches. Some techniques do take time to learn and practice. It's nice to have an assortment to choose from so you can employ the stress management technique that best fits the moment.
HOW TO BUILD YOUR STRESS MANAGEMENT TOOLKIT
Begin by identifying the sources of stress in your life. How do you react to these stressors? You may want to click here to learn about stress types.
Realize that stress is inevitable; you must expect stress. This step, alone, can help reduce the impact of stress!
Determine whether you can avoid some of your stressors. Can you do anything to reduce stress you cannot avoid? If you know there's a stressful situation coming up, how can you prepare in advance to deal with it? Can you do anything to make it feel less threatening or to give you more control over the situation?
Learn to think more objectively about your stress. When something goes wrong, do you think "why does this always happen to me" or "I'll never get this right"? Realize that this is not literally true. An easy way to stop the negative self-talk is to think "cancel!" when you catch yourself thinking this way.
Learn and practice a variety of stress management techniques. Include physical, mental and lifestyle approaches. Also be prepared with some quick techniques (breathwork or EFT, for instance) to use on the spur of the moment.
Got Stress? (pdf)
Stress Awareness Month (website)
Stress: Portrait of a Killer (video)
Your Pathway from Stress to Wellness (website)
Dr. Andrew Weil (website)
Focusing Resources (website with free e-course)
Institute of Hearth Math (website)
Be sure to check Articles & Links for more information and resources!