Stress Management


September 19th, 2015

Stress Management

What is Stress?

Stress is a response to threatening situations or demands. When threatened, we instinctively enter into fight, flight or freeze mode. This is an automatic sympathetic nervous system response that was once life saving when faced with a threatening snake or lion. Stress can be helpful if it is short-term and manageable, as it gives us the motivation and energy to perform under pressure. Adrenaline, cortisol and noradrenaline readies the body for action. When we are faced with too many demands or pressures, however, we tend to worry about things that are out of our control and feel overwhelmed. Burn out can happen if stress builds up over a long time.

Signs of Stress:

Physical signs include accelerated heart beat, increased blood pressure, stomach in knots, cold hands or feet, sweaty hands or feet, sweating, jittery arms or hands, cold chills, tightened muscles, tight jaw, clenched fists, shallow or rapid breathing, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, muscle tension, tight chest, stomach issues, suppressed immune functioning, aches and pains, loss of sex drive, etc.

Emotional/ Cognitive signs include moodiness, irritability, agitation, loneliness, isolation, being on edge, guilt, sadness, worry, blame, shame, fear, boredom, anger, feeling overwhelmed, hyper-sensitive, anxiety, memory issues, inability to concentrate, poor judgement, pessimism, racing thoughts, etc.

Behavioural signs include avoidance, withdrawal, isolation, aggression, relationship problems, procrastination, neglecting responsibilities, hyperactivity, substance abuse (drugs, alcohol, cigarettes), over-medicate, over-eating, under-eating, sleeping too much or too little, nervous habits (nail biting, pacing), too much tv/computer, etc.

How to Manage Stress:

Change the stressful situation if you can, accept the situation if you cannot change it, deep breathing, self-relaxation, pre-sleep technique, self-hypnosis, counting backwards from 10, self-talk, eat healthy, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, reduce caffeine and sugar, hot bath or shower, yoga, finish unfinished business/chores/duties (open cycles), visual imagery of happy place, self-care (make you time daily), adjust expectations, love yourself (know that you are enough and doing the best you can), use your social support network, find a mentor, talk to someone you trust, stay positive, meditation, practice mindfulness, prioritize, use healthy boundaries, seek counselling services, regain your sense of control, etc.

These techniques help you to de-stress, as it is in direct opposition to your sympathetic nervous system response. It is your parasympathetic nervous system taking over to help calm your body and mind.

A study carried out at Pennsylvania State University found that stress was not the problem, but rather how we react to stressors. It appears that how people react to stress was a predictor of their health ten years later, regardless of their present health and stressors. The lead researcher, David Almeida, said, “For example, if you have a lot of work to do today and you are really grumpy because of it, then you are more likely to suffer negative health consequences ten years from now than someone who also has a lot of work to do today, but doesn’t let it bother her.”

See Ted Talk on “How to make stress your friend”, by Kelly McGonigal. She says stress is not the enemy, it’s how we perceive the stress that matters. If you believe that stress is harmful for your health, it will be. It’s all about attitude. When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s reaction to it. Signs of stress can be seen as preparing you to meet the challenge before you. If you see stress as helpful, blood vessels do not restrict as they do when you are under stress and see the stress as bad. Your stress response (ex: shallow breathing, etc) becomes healthy when you see it as helpful to you. Oxytocin (cuddle hormone) is also released during stress response, which motivates you to seek social support. Oxytocin protects your body from the effects of stress, especially on your heart. Human connection and caring is built-in stress resilience. Kelly says, “How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you chose your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.” You can handle the challenges that come up in life, and you don’t have to face them alone. Go after what brings meaning to your life, and be confident in handling the stress that follows.

So, what’s the bottom line for you, the reader of this blog? Take time out for yourself to manage the day to day busyness that life throws at you with the “How to Manage Stress” suggestions above. When there is a stressful event that you recognize with “Signs of Stress” listed above, then view it as your body helping you to get over the particular hurdle. Your body reacting is not trying to hurt you, it’s trying to help you. Listen to your body, thank your body and address that particular stressor. It is especially helpful to reach out for help when needed. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. As Brené Brown put it best, “Most people believe vulnerability is weakness. But really, vulnerability is courage. We must ask ourselves…are we willing to show up and be seen?”