All of us have stress. Life is an unpredictable string of events, and sometimes it feels like a circus juggling act. Lily Tomlin said, “Reality is the leading cause of stress for those in touch with it.”
Stress is any physical, chemical, or emotional factor that places tension on the body, mind or spirit. This tension may disrupt the balance of health and the body’s ability to maintain wellness. Common stressors are work, family, illness, money and world events. Sometimes we are so overwhelmed that everything becomes a source of stress. From traffic to a dispute over a bill, everything can tip us over when there is too much of it.
Not all stress is harmful. Eustress is a positive form. Moderate exercise is a good example of eustress. Marriage, birth of a child or job promotions are other examples. However, these same factors may lead to harmful stress or distress. For instance, the birth of a baby may bring joy, but it may also bring less sleep and the disruption of lives. This type of stress is unlikely to cause health problems if coped with adequately.
The body is designed to respond to stress. If under pressure to finish a work-related project, then your body may help you by producing stress chemicals to keep you alert and active. If you have to take a test, your body will provide a little boost that may help you to do well on the exam. We want this stress response.
Stress becomes a potential problem when it is ongoing or intense. If you are constantly under deadlines or have too much to handle, your body is not going to be happy. If multiple stress factors visit you all at once, this may be distressful. It’s up to you to learn how to manage it.
Research shows that stress interacts with the immune system. Eustress may boost immunity while distress may reduce it. Chronic stress may cause immune cells to age prematurely. In its early stages, stress may cause stomach problems, headaches, weight gain or loss, insomnia and other conditions. Chronic stress may contribute to more serious conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease or substance abuse.
For me, managing stress is an integral part of managing my health. I prefer to avoid stress whenever possible. I do not like the way stress feels. I like feeling calm. Realistically speaking, stress is a part of life. So in order to stay calm, I need stress management tools.
Recognizing the effects of stress is an important part of stress management. In its early stages, it is common to feel irritable, anxious or angry. Muscles may feel tight, particularly the jaw, neck, and shoulders. It is easy to get upset at the slightest provocation and have sleeping problems. Headaches and stomach problems are more frequent. Heart rate and blood pressure may increase. Smoking, drinking or excessive eating may occur with stress. (Some people are unable to eat when they are stressed. In short, one feels overwhelmed and tense.
If the effects of stress are severe, you may need professional help. If you have thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself or others, seek immediate professional help. If you have chest pain or any symptoms of a stroke or heart attack, call 911. Do not drive yourself to the emergency room.
Fortunately, most of us never have to face severe consequences of stress. Ours is more garden-variety. However, don’t let this fool you. Even mild stress may have long-term harmful effects if it is a constant companion. Imagine holding a one-pound rock at arm’s length. Then imagine holding the same rock at arm’s length for days, weeks or months. It would be very painful and damaging. This is much like the effects of chronic stress.
Learning how to manage stress is the best way to avoid these potentially harmful effects. My go to stress tool is self-care. When life is throwing too many things my way, I take time out for a nap, entertainment, distraction, or to putter. I may not be able to take charge of the events in my life, but I am in charge of my response.
The following are some stress management tips. Note: If you do not think you can spare the time to try any of these activities, consider this – you may be more efficient if you manage stress. Learning stress management skills is time well spent. Besides, can you risk getting a stress-related illness?
- Do not aggravate stress by turning to smoking, overeating, skipping meals, drinking, or drug use that isn’t prescribed by your health care provider.
- Find a physical outlet. Try walking, running, dancing, biking, golfing, swimming, gardening, playing with kids, or yoga. Do this for at least 15 minutes daily. Even better, do this twice a day or increase your activity to 30 or 45 minutes.
- Maintain good nutrition. Try to eat a low fat, high fiber diet. If you are short on time, fast food restaurants now offer healthy alternatives to the usual fried fare.
- Find ways to relax and turn your mind off. Spend time with friends and family. Go to the movies, play some music, watch a sporting event, play cards, read a magazine, take a hot bath, go to a favorite restaurant, get a massage, light a candle, do a crossword puzzle, read the comics.
- Attend a stress-management class. Some employers, health care plans, health insurance and adult education services offer stress management classes.
- Talk about it. Sometimes others can see ways to improve our situation.
- Put a positive spin on things. Don’t turn little things into big things. Try saying to yourself, “This too shall pass.”
- Help others. Sometimes the best way to get out of our head is to help someone else.
- Let others help you. Perhaps you can off-load some of your responsibilities.
- Set limits. Remember that the word “no” is a complete sentence.
- Take issues one task at a time, one minute at a time. Don’t overwhelm yourself by thinking about everything you have to do. Make a list and focus on what you can accomplish. Be realistic. Prioritize. Put your health at the top of the list.
- Prune your “to do” list. My favorite way to shrink my “to do” list is to cross something off without doing it. This is very liberating.
- Waiting in long lines can be uncomfortable when we are stressed. Prepare for this by bringing along a puzzle or something to read. Try finding the longest line rather than the shortest one. This can be surprisingly therapeutic.
- Avoid others who increase our stress.
- Practice acceptance. Let go of what is unchangeable.
- Find ways to laugh. When we laugh, the body produces helpful stress hormones. “He who laughs, lasts.”
More Information about Stress:
- The American Institute of Stress www.stress.org
- Mayo Clinic www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress/SR99999
- Medline www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/stress.html