DEFINITION AND EXPLANATION OF STRESS:
Stress is a normal part of life for all of us. A mild to moderate level of stress can actually be a good thing because it keeps life active and interesting. However, when stress becomes too severe it can lead to feelings of anxiety, over-stimulation, depression, fatigue, or other physical and emotional symptoms. Even positive events can cause stress because they involve a change from something familiar to something different and unknown.
Some of the causes of stress are:
A. Physical or Environmental causes: for example physical pain. illness, hot weather, crowded subways.
B. Interpersonal or Social causes: for example conflicts with people, arguments, new relationships, loss of old relationships, or family problems.
C. Psychological causes: for example, worrying, mental conflicts, self-criticism, boredom, negative thinking, unrealistic expectations or restrictions on your independence.
Symptoms of stress can include: loss of appetite (or the opposite, eating too much), excessive sweating, upset stomach, diarrhea, asthma. tense muscles, moist palms, frequent headaches, pounding heart, feelings of panic, insomnia (or the opposite, sleeping too much), or a strong desire to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or use drugs. Also, irritability, anxiety, depression, and fatigue are common signs of stress. Sometimes we are not really aware of being over-stressed until it shows in physical symptoms.
"Situational stress" is normal reactive stress that is caused by unexpected events that happen to us. This kind of stress goes away after the event is over, so it is not usually a long-term problem. "Chronic stress", on the other hand, can be caused by constantly being in a stressful situation (such as a highly unpleasant job) or by constantly worrying about things that have happened in the past or might happen in the future. This kind of stress could be with a person for a long time. Because it lingers on, this kind of long-term mental stress may lead to stress-related problems like those mentioned above.
Stress is unique and personal to each of us; what may be relaxing to one person may be stressful to another. For example, "doing nothing" may feel enjoyable and restful to some people, while other people will experience it as boring, frustrating, and nonproductive.
YOUR BODY’S RESPONSE TO STRESS
The body responds to stress by going through three stages:
During the alarm stage, your body may respond by releasing stress hormones into the bloodstream causing your face to flush, perspiration to form, your heart to beat faster, and your muscles to tighten. During the resistance stage, the body tries to repair damage caused by the stress or to cope with the effects of the stress. However, if the stressor is chronic, your body does not have time to make repairs and you may find yourself having ongoing symptoms of stress.
In the exhaustion stage (if things progress that far), you may develop stress-related physical problems such as high blood pressure, stomach problems, etc.
HOW THE NERVOUS SYSTEM DEALS WITH STRESS
The autonomic or "involuntary" part of the nervous system in your body has two parts: the sympathetic "energizing" part and the parasympathetic "relaxing" part. The sympathetic nervous system is involved in stimulating and energizing the body (along with releasing the aforementioned stress hormones), making our hearts beat faster and our muscles tense so we are ready to fight or run away from a physical threat. However, in our modern lives most of the events that cause us stress are not physical threats and cannot be dealt with by fighting or running away. In fact, fighting or running responses would often cause more problems. Therefore, the tension produced by the sympathetic nervous system is not "burned off" by physical exertion and lingers in our bodies.
The parasympathetic nervous system calms our bodies, lowers blood pressure, relaxes our muscles, and slows down our heartbeat. When we are under pressure for too long or when we get in the habit of thinking in a stressful manner, the sympathetic nervous system works excessively and the parasympathetic nervous system does not work enough, leading to chronic feelings of stress. To feel less stressed, we need to learn how to "turn down" the sympathetic nervous system when we don’t need it and to "turn up" the parasympathetic nervous system to manage stress better.
One factor that increases nervous system tension is the fact that the sympathetic "energizing" part of our nervous system has a very rapid "on" switch. The sympathetic nervous system needs to respond rapidly for survival reasons, e.g. if a vicious dog begins chasing us, we need instant speed and strength from our sympathetic nervous system to get away. On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system has a slower "on" switch; it often takes several minutes to feel calm and relaxed. Thus, in our fast-paced and demanding lives, there is often an imbalance in our nervous system, with repeated rapid stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system but very little use of its counter-balancing opposite, the parasympathetic system.
All of us have already discovered ways to deal with feelings of stress, but some of these may not be efficient or healthy and could end up causing more stress in the long run (for example. using alcohol, smoking cigarettes. drinking too much caffeine, or over-eating). Therefore, it is helpful for all of us to learn and practice new, healthy ways to reduce our feelings of stress.
METHODS OF MANAGING STRESS:
A. ELIMINATE OR REDUCE THE CAUSE OR SOURCE OF STRESS (IF POSSIBLE): For example, if a noisy neighborhood causes stress by interfering with your sleep, moving to a new location or using earplugs can reduce this stressor. However, this strategy of eliminating the actual stressor is not always practical; we can not always change or eliminate stressors. Very often it is more realistic and more effective to change your attitudes about stressors and your reaction to them, as mentioned below (under letters C and E).
B. MEDICAL CARE: Medical problems can cause stress or can be caused (or made worse) by stress. If you are having medical problems, talk to a Doctor, nurse, or therapist as soon as possible to prevent the problem from getting worse and to keep yourself from worrying about it. Try to get a complete physical exam at least once a year. Anti-depressant or other medication may also be very helpful for some individuals to help them manage stress. All of us have unique, individual medical issues, nervous systems, and body system vulnerabilities, so we need to get individualized medical assessment.
C. TALK TO SOMEONE: Talking regularly about your feelings with a Doctor, Minister, Rabbi, Psychologist, counselor, or a good friend can help reduce stress, if that person is supportive, calming, a good listener, and gives sensible feedback. We all have our own "trigger issues" that may predispose us to be especially bothered by certain stressors. Some examples of common psychological issues include: power, control, and authority issues; self-esteem issues; acceptance and rejection issues; identity issues; and difficulty dealing with interpersonal conflicts. There are many other individual issues that can sometimes be identified by a counselor, so that we can understand ourselves better and feel less stressed when situations happen to touch on our issues.
D. RELAXATION TECHNIQUES: Relaxing your body can help reduce stress. Some relaxation techniques are: 1) deep, slow breathing; 2) progressive muscle relaxation (relaxing the muscles in your body, starting at the top of your head and working down); 3) meditation; 4) taking a nap; 5) listening to enjoyable music; 6) aerobic exercising or doing stretching exercises (ask your Doctor first); 7) Taking a warm shower, bath, or massage; 8) Using relaxing images, such as picturing yourself in a calm, relaxing setting.
E. MENTAL TECHNIQUES: The way we think about problems can have a huge effect on how stressful the problems are. Some tips are:
1. Don’t use rigid, all-or-none thinking (for example, don’t think "this must not happen" if it is unavoidable). Be willing to "roll with the punches" and to deal with whatever happens in an adaptive way.
2. Don’t put pressure on yourself by trying to do too much, too fast. Don’t over-schedule yourself or make unrealistic plans.
3. Try to use different, less stressful interpretations when thinking about the things that happen to you. so those experiences don’t seem as stressful. Remember, it is not only what happens to us that makes us upset; it is also how we interpret what happens to us. We can choose to interpret things in a less stressful way.
4. Try not to have negative thoughts about yourself, your life, or other issues. Forgive yourself for mistakes and try to learn from them. Mistakes and imperfections are a normal part of being human. Positive thinking and optomism are anti-stress attitudes; negative thinking and pessimism are stress-increasing attitudes.
5. Use "Problem Solving" thinking: This involves looking at a problem logically (not reacting impulsively or emotionally), and planning constructive ways to solve or deal with the problem.
6. Don’t pile problems "on top of each other" in your mind. This can make you feel that you have an overwhelming set of problems. Deal with one problem at a time and put the others on "hold".
7. Don’t dwell on past problems or experiences. See if you can learn anything from them (so you don’t repeat them), then let them go.
8. If you know that a stressful situation is coming, prepare yourself for it ahead of time by planning for it or talking about it; but try not to worry too much about it. Worrying doesn’t help. but preparing and planning do.
9. Rebound after getting off course; do something to help stop the feelings of depression and stress as soon as you notice them, before they get worse. Every moment can be a new start toward feeling better.
10. Try to take more control over your stress: do something active (but not impulsive) like talking to someone about what is bothering you.
11. Remember to use your sense of humor to help deal with stress. Seeing the humorous side of a problem makes it seem less upsetting.
12. Keep busy with fun or interesting activities to distract yourself so you won’t always be thinking about your problems. Go window shopping, take a short trip to a new place, go to museums, participate in hobbies, etc.
F. DIET, EXERCISE, AND SLEEP CAN HELP TO DECREASE STRESS: Too much coffee, cola, cigarettes, junk food, or sugar can make feelings of stress worse. Also, alcohol and street drugs cause much more stress in the long run. Eating a balanced diet, including fresh fruits and vegetables, can make your body feel less stressed. Also, getting regular exercise such as a walk or a swim can help. (Be sure to check with a Doctor before starting an exercise program). Getting enough sleep at night is also very important for managing stress.
G. FIND OR CREATE A SOCIAL SUPPORT NETWORK: This refers to friends, co-workers, family, or organized groups where you can relax and discuss your feelings.
H. SPIRITUAL, RELIGIOUS, OR PHILOSOPHICAL BELIEFS: These attitudes can be very helpful for coping with stress.
I. MAKE TIME FOR RECREATION, HOBBIES. AND SOCIALIZING: This doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming to be helpful. For example, reading a novel, watching TV or a movie, playing a card game, doing arts and crafts projects, etc.
J. LEARN AND PRACTICE NEW SOCIAL SKILLS, IF NECESSARY: Since we all grew up with different learning and social environments, we may need to learn new social skills to cope with situations that we did not master earlier. These can be learned and rehearsed in counseling sessions. They may feel awkward and unnatural for us at first, but when we practice enough they become a part of us.
K. LEARN TO BE ASSERTIVE (WHEN APPROPRIATE): This means getting your point across to people without being aggressive and without being passive or pushed around. It is also important for some people to learn to be more cooperative and less assertive at times, to avoid unnecessary conflicts that can lead to stress.
L. LEARN MORE ABOUT STRESS MANAGEMENT AND PRACTICE THESE TECHNIQUES: You can get books about stress management in the library or bookstore, or you can find information on the internet. Remember, the more you practice these techniques, the better they will work for you.