You may think stress is what you feel when you are worried or anxious, but to your body, any change causes stress, whether it’s a good change or a bad one. Stress is your physical and emotional response to changes you experience that result in positive or negative feelings. Constant internal adjustments are needed to cope with the variety of demands placed on you—like temperature, noise, physical activity, achievements, financial and social worries, and poor health. Stress is not something that happens to you. Rather, it’s the set of physical and emotional reactions your body uses to adapt to change and stimuli. This is known as your stress response.
A small amount of stress can be beneficial. Mild stress can help you work energetically and thrive under pressure. It helps you grow and change, avoid danger, and strive for a goal. Likewise, exercise—physical stress—can produce a temporary strain on your body, but its health benefits are indisputable.
Good stress is usually short term and helps challenge and motivate you, improving your performance and well-being, and adding excitement to your life. Some specific examples of good stress include getting married, planning for a holiday, receiving a promotion at work, watching a sporting event, or playing a sport.
However, many negative effects occur when stress becomes overwhelming or is poorly managed. Prolonged or chronic stress is unpleasant, harmful, builds tension, and can lead to depression and burnout. Some specific examples of bad stress include worrying about having enough money to pay your bills, a bad relationship with a work colleague, or a prolonged illness, whether your own or that of a close family member.
Coping With Stress
We each have different capacities to cope with the events in our lives. The degree of stress in your life and your ability to cope with it depend on a number of factors. Some of the most important ones are your personality, your nutritional status, your energy reserves, your fitness and health, and the quality of your sleep. Also, your previous experiences in life, your support systems and interpersonal relationships, and the number of commitments and responsibilities you have can profoundly affect the way you handle stress. Your optimism and sense of humor will also affect your ability to handle stress. Can you laugh off an offensive remark, or do you carry a grudge? Finally, trusting your life to a higher power can significantly enhance your ability to handle stress.
Types of Stress
All stress isn’t the same. Recognizing the type of stress you are experiencing will help you to use the proper stress management and relaxation techniques to deal with it.
Physical Stress. These stressors involve easily identifiable physical demands and responses on your body, such as exercise, illness, typing all day without a break, eating irregularly, or overeating.
Emotional Stress. Emotional stressors include worries, arguments, disagreements, and other conflicts in your personal life.
Perceived stress. Your imagination and perception are powerful and can make false situations a reality as far as your stress response is concerned. For example, if you don’t like dogs, you could become stressed when visiting a friend who owns a dog, even if the dog is good natured. As long as you think an event or situation is real, you will experience the same stress reaction as if the issue was genuinely happening.
It is not possible to completely eliminate stress. Indeed, you wouldn’t want to. The key is to find the optimal level of stress that will motivate you without making you feel overwhelmed. The following five suggestions will help you to manage excessive stress, thus reducing its harmful effects on your physical and mental health.
Increased Awareness. You need increased awareness of three things. First, determine what events and specific situations cause you to feel distressed. Second, learn to recognize how your body responds to these stresses. Do you become nervous or physically upset, and if so, in what specific ways? For example, identify areas in your body where muscle tension builds. Third, recognize what your response to stress is. Do you lash out, or do you cave in?
Focus on what’s important to you. Have a look at the direction you are taking in your personal and professional life and identify what’s most important to you. Re-evaluate your goals, and work toward changes that will improve the situation. Try to spend more time doing the things that will result in rewards you value the most.
Strengthen Your Physical Reserves. Prepare your body to cope with stress by exercising regularly, following a healthy, well-balanced eating plan, and maintaining a healthy level of body fat. It’s also important to avoid nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine. Adequate rest and recreation are also good ways to build your reserves, so be sure you get enough sleep and take time for fun. Vacations are good, but so is an hour or two of play in a busy week.
Strengthen your emotional reserves. Develop mutually supportive friendships and other relationships, pursue realistic goals that are meaningful to you, expect and plan for some frustrations, failures, and sorrows, and be a friend to yourself.
Use relaxation techniques. One good way to relax is to take a break from work or other activities that cause you to feel pressured. This releases tension and helps you to feel more calm, happy, and energetic. It will also reduce the risk of stress-related illness and help you enjoy more restful sleep.
There are many relaxation techniques you can practice to reduce tension, prevent stress from becoming cumulative, and improve your health and well-being. Massages and saunas are physically relaxing, while meditation and deep breathing are emotionally relaxing. The key is to find a relaxation technique that is suitable for you, and which will be the most helpful in relieving the type of excess stress you are experiencing.
To reduce stress, look at ways to gain control over your thoughts, emotions, schedule, surroundings, and the way you deal with problems. The ultimate goal is to balance your life and have time for everything that’s important to you. To prepare for and minimize stress, you can either modify stressful situations by avoiding or altering them or by changing your reaction to them. Following are some tips on how you can gain control and prevent stress from occurring.
Avoid stressful situations. Learn to say No. Get to know your limits and avoid taking on too much. Rather than looking for ways to squeeze more into your day, find a way to leave some things out.
Avoid negative people. If certain people cause you stress, limit the amount of time you spend with them.
Take a break. If you begin to feel like you’re losing control to your stress, take time to clear your mind. Go for a walk, do something for fun, or take a day off for a long weekend. If you haven’t taken an extended vacation for a long time, use some of your leave time to “get away from it all.”
Talk About It. When something or someone is bothering you, express your feelings instead of bottling them up.
Improve your time management. Being organized can prevent a crisis, giving you energy and helping you sleep better. Time management helps you focus on getting the important things done and using your time more effectively.
Control your environment. Get your surroundings organized and uncluttered, free from noises or images that frustrate you.
Focus on the positive. When you are feeling overwhelmed, take a few moments to reflect on the things you have already achieved. Keep things in perspective and look at each challenge as an opportunity.
Alter your expectations. If you can’t change a stressful situation, try to change yourself. You can adapt to stressful situations and regain your sense of control by changing your expectations and attitude. Don’t expect perfection from yourself or others.
Look for a compromise. Don’t expect others to change without changing some yourself. Make a concerted effort to find a middle ground, and those around you will be more willing to do the same.
A little stress is good. Too much is bad. Learn to recognize both kinds in yourself. Then enjoy the good kind and learn to deal with the bad kind in ways that will reduce it or perhaps even eliminate it from your life.
How Relaxation Counteracts Stress
Relaxation leads to changes that are the opposite of the stress response, and when used effectively, can help to minimize the harmful effects of stress.
Stress Red Lights
Check which, if any, of the following symptoms you experience.
If they are unusual for you, they may be stress red lights.
- Tense muscles or back pain
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Sudden bursts of energy
- Cold or sweaty hands
- Eating too little or too much
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Heart racing or pounding
- Extremely tired
- Difficulty making decisions
- Difficulty concentrating
- Daydreaming and/or bad dreams
- Lack of creativity
- Thoughts of running away
- Constant worry
- Loss of sense of humor
- Overwhelming sense of pressure
- Feeling powerless to change things
- Feeling trapped or like a victim
- Feeling bad about oneself
- Feelings of inferiority
- Feeling lonely or blue
- Feeling hopeless or depressed
- Nervous and anxious
- Edginess—ready to explode
- Outbursts of temper
- Crying for no reason
- Deliberately doing sloppy work
- Grouchy, irritable, even mean
- Inability to get things done
- Loss of interest in appearance
- Getting into arguments
- Feeling empty
- Loss of direction
- Unforgiving attitude
- Loss of faith
Should you exhibit more than a few of these, you may wish to consult your physician, or at least alter your lifestyle to include some of the suggestions in the accompanying feature.