Sunday, June 23, 2013

Simple Tools for Stress Management

Stress is part of everyday life, yet it is also a complex concept. Psychological stress occurs when a person perceives that the demands placed on them exceed their personal and social resources to help them cope.  This means someone can feel little stress when they have the time, experience, and resources to manage a potentially stressful situation. In other words, stress is not an inevitable consequence of an event - it depends on your perceptions of a situation and your ability to cope with it.  

Let's take the common everyday stressor of traffic.  If we perceive it as defeating and frustrating, and that we are helpless against it, we become di-stressed and sit in the car fuming.  If we accept it as just a fact of life, and that it's an opportunity to sit and meditate, catch up with a friend on the phone, or listen to an entertaining program, we create positive emotions for ourselves instead.  The prerequisite of this happening of course means that we have a phone or program available, and that we feel confident that these strategies will help us feel better.

Causes of Stress
To understand stress better, it may be helpful to think it terms of what usually causes people stress.  Here are four main categories that are common stressors in our society.
  • Life Transitions (for example, moving, job loss/change, diagnosis of illness, marriage, divorce, pregnancy/childbirth, death of a loved one)
  • Work- or school-related (for example, high demand job environment, boredom, team conflict, lack of support)
  • Problematic relationships (eg, unreasonable demands, high conflict, persistent sense of being taken advantage of, lack of supportive relationships)
  • Your environment (eg, housing problems, transportation problems, chronic traffic problems, noisy neighborhood, living in poverty, living and working in an environment that's not conducive to relaxation and recreation, dangerous living or working environment)
However, it's important to recognize that an accumulation of smaller, minor stressors can be at least as, if not more, detrimental to one's physical and mental health as one or two major life stressors.  Car trouble, an argument with your spouse, an important work deadline, and trying to plan a big family party all in one week can certainly add up.

Signs of Stress
The first step to effective stress management is understanding your own personal stress signals.  Stress can get expressed in many subtle ways.  Here are some examples - see if you recognize yourself in some:
  • Feelings: Anxiety, irritability, fear, moodiness, embarrassment, frustration, and anger 
  • Thoughts: Self-criticism, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, forgetfulness, preoccupation with the future, repetitive thoughts, fear of failure 
  • Behaviors: Crying, being disorganized, sense of time pressure, “snapping” at love ones, acting impulsively, alcohol or other drug use, teeth grinding or jaw clenching, stuttering or speech difficulties, having more accidents 
  • Physical: Sleep Disturbance, changes in appetite, tight muscles, headaches, fatigues, cold or sweaty hands, back/neck problems, stomach problems, getting sick more often, rapid breathing, pounding heart, trembling, dry mouth

Think Stress Away
One of the most important ways to bust stress is to practice positive thinking and keeping things in perspective.  Remember, how we perceive an event is a major contributor to stress.  If we can neutralize our initially negative perception of a stressor, we have more control over the impact it has on us.  In other words, re-think how you think about stress.

Here is a simple guideline:
1. Recognize your negative thoughts
2. Stop, breathe
3. Reflect: Is this thought really true? Did I jump to a conclusion? What evidence do I actually have? Am I letting negative thoughts balloon? What’s the worst that could happen? Does it help me to think this way?
4. Choose: Decide how to deal with the source of your stress. Create and write down an action plan. Recognize negative thoughts and let them go.

Here are some simple examples of negative thought patterns during stressful situations, and their more neutral alternative thoughts.

1. Should statements:
•I should be able to deal with stressful situations better.
•Better: I know how to deal with stress and I am having a hard time right now.

2. Disqualifying the positive:
•I hate my life, it always is so difficult.
•Better: There are some things going on right now that are difficult and also some things that are actually going right.

3. Emotional reasoning:
•I don't feel good right now so I can't handle anything.
•Better: I feel like I can't handle things right now and I know that I can.

4. Catastrophizing
•If I don’t do well on this presentation (insert other important task), I will be judged poorly.  I may become jobless and homeless.
•Better: Nobody’s perfect. I’ll do my best on the presentation and know that it’s not the end of the world if I don't do perfectly.

Relax Stress Away
A relaxing activity that provides relief from a stressful activity by reducing physiological activation.  Incorporating relaxation in your daily routine is paramount, as the physical effects of chronic stress can lead to many health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and a susceptible immune system.
Healthy examples for relaxation:

  • physical exercise
  • a hobby
  • spending time with friends and family
  • a warm bath or shower
  • prayer or meditation - here are some great meditation apps
  • Guided Imagery/Relaxation - there are many great resources online; here's one example

Finally, talking to a mental health professional about your stress can help you organize your thoughts, determine where to invest your energy, and learn skills in managing stressful situations and people in your life.