STRESS: CAN I MANAGE IT OR AVOID IT?

Shared by: Judy Lemke, MS, LPC, LCSW.

It seems that no matter to whom I am speaking – friends, family members, co-workers, or patients, stress inevitably comes up in our conversation. If you ask anyone in your circle of contacts if they have stress, odds are the answer is a resounding “YES”! IF appears we have not mastered the ability to avoid it. So, if we cannot avoid it, how can we manage it?

I am a firm believer in resilience. Resilience, as I see it, is the ability to adapt to and recover from stressors in your life. I truly do not foresee a time in our lives when there will never be stress from either external or internal forces. It is also important to understand that not all stress is bad. Stress is necessary and good, and we can handle some stress some of the time, but when we are under a lot of stress all the time, our minds and bodies protest by failing to return to that place of balance and rest.

Stress is your body’s natural defense against predators and danger (think cave man and the need to be on alert for food sources and avoiding becoming the food source for predators!). It flushes your body with hormones to prepare to avoid or confront danger. This is known as the “fight or flight” reaction. When we are faced with a challenge, part of our response is physical. Our body activates resources to protect us by preparing to stay and fight or to get away as fast as possible. Our bodies produces larger quantities of the chemicals cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. These trigger physical reactions such as increased heart rate, sweating, alertness and muscle readiness. These factors improve the ability to respond to a hazardous or challenging situation with hopefully greater success. Factors in the environment that trigger this reaction are called stressors. Things such a noises, aggressive behavior, speeding cards, scary movies or even being in uncomfortable social situations are just a few examples of external stressors. The more stressors we experience, the more stressed we tend to feel.

From a physical standpoint, stress slows normal bodily functions that we may tend to take for granted such as digestive and immune systems. This is done so that all internal resources can then be concentrated on rapid breathing (because continuing to breathe is important!), blood flow, alertness and muscle use which is then noted by increased pulse rate, heightened alertness, tense muscles, and faster breathing.

How we react to a difficult situation will affect how stress affects us and our health. Those of us who feel we don’t have enough resources to cope will be more likely to have a stronger reaction and one that can trigger health problems. Stressors affect each and every one of us differently. Even those events which are commonly regarded as positive can lead to stress, such as having a new baby, being promoted, moving to a nice house, going on a trip, etc. This is because these events involve change, extra effort, new responsibilities and a need for adaptation. They are also steps into the ” unknown” and the body goes into preparation mode in order to cope.

If you are the type of person who persistently and/or instantly reacts negatively to challenges, the risks are higher for having greater consequences on your health and happiness. I have learned, both personally, and professionally, the importance of being aware of how you react to stressors. The awareness is such an important step in reducing the negative feelings and in learning how to manage the “threat” more effectively.

Most of us would love to be able to eliminate stress, but I believe it’s probably more realistic to strive to better manage it. Recognizing what TYPE of stress is the first step. Acute stress is short-term and the most common. It is often caused by thinking about the pressures of events that have recently occurred or upcoming demands coming soon. This might be events such as a recent argument that has caused upset or an upcoming deadline. The stress will be reduced or removed once these are resolved. Short term effects may include tension headaches, upset stomach, mild sleep disturbance, as well as a moderate level of distress. Of concern is that repeated instances of acute stress over a long period can become chronic and harmful.

People who frequently experience acute stress or have frequent triggers of stress have episodic acute stress. If we have too many commitments and poor organization skills, we may experience episodic stress symptoms, such as increased irritability and overall sense of being tense, or “wired”, which can in turn affect relationships which can lead to increased arguments which leads to bodily changes, etc. Those of us who worry too much on a consistent basis are also candidates for episodic acute stress which over time can lead to serious physical health concerns, and ongoing anxiety and/or depression.

Chronic stress is the most harmful type of stress and grinds away over a long period. Ongoing poverty, a dysfunctional family, an unhappy marriage, a high demand/low rewards job can cause chronic stress. It can also be caused by a traumatic experience early in life. What is unique about chronic stress is that it can continue unnoticed, as we can become used to it, which is unlike acute stress that is new and often has an immediate solution. Chronic stress can become part of a person’s personality, making them constantly prone to the effects of stress. Chronic stress is likely to lead to the most traumatic events, such as heart attacks, strokes, violent actions, suicide, etc.

How is it that I might find myself totally”stressed out” over a situation that involves being on time to an event, whereas my close friend never seems concerned about being late? We all react differently to stressful situations. Almost anything can cause stress. Sometimes, just thinking about something or several small things can cause stress. It is well known that major life events can trigger stress, such as retirement or job issues, lack of money or time, grief, family conflicts, illness, moving, and relationships, marriage and divorce. Other common stressors are driving in heavy traffic or fear of a accident, fear of crime or problems within a neighborhood, pregnancy, excessive noise, overcrowding, uncertainty or waiting for an important outcome. Sometimes, there is no identifiable causer. Mental health issues, such as depression or an accumulated sense of frustration and anxiety, can make some of us feel stressed more easily than others.

Physical symptoms of stress may include sweating, pain in the back or chest, cramps or muscle spasms, erectile dysfunction or loss of libido, fainting, headache, heart disease, high blood pressure, lower immunity against illness or diseases, muscle aches, nervous twitches, pins and needles sensation, sleeping difficulties, and gastrointestinal upset to name just a few! Emotional reactions might include anger, anxiety, burnout, concentration issues, depression, fatigue, feeling insecure, forgetfulness, irritability, nail biting or hair pulling, restlessness, and sadness. Behaviors linked to stress include food cravings and eating too much or too little, sudden angry outbursts, drug or alcohol abuse, high tobacco use, social withdrawal, frequent crying, and relationship issues.

If you have decided you would like to manger your stress more effectively, what can you do? There are several options you can choose. If you choose to seek professional help, with either your physician or therapist, the first step is diagnosis by providing information about your symptoms and life events. Often , questionnaires, biochemical measures and physiological techniques are used, but the most effective method is through a comprehensive, stress-oriented, face-to-face interview. From there, a course of treatment  can be developed. Self-help, medications, relaxation techniques, aromatherapy and reflexology are just a few options.

Medications are not prescribed for coping with stress. Many of my patients have found this surprising. The medication is to treat the underlying illness such as depression or anxiety. Studies have shown that most effective methods of treating depression and/or anxiety include a combination of medication and “talk therapy”. Once you are feeling better emotionally, the odds are in your favor for being able to identify and manage your stress.

There are very important changes/choices you can make to manage or prevent the feelings of being overwhelmed. Engage in exercise; reduce the intake of alcohol, drugs and caffeine; strive to eat a healthy balanced diet; prioritize your “to-do” lists to see what is most important then focus on what you complete or accomplish for the day rather than what you have yet to finish; set aside time each day just for yourself to do something you enjoy; breathing a relaxation; and talking to supportive family, friends, and colleagues to “let off steam” and brainstorm solutions.

It is also important to acknowledge the signs. We may be so anxious about the problem that is causing the stress that we don’t notice the effects on our body. Find your own “de-stressor”. Most of us have something which helps us relax, such as reading, walking, listening to music, spending time with a friend or a pet. Take the time to engage in your “de-stressor” daily, so it becomes a part of your routine. This allows your mind and body to take a much needed break and decompress. This stress management helps to remove or change the source of the stress; alter the way you view a stressful event; lowers the impact stress might have on your body and, ultimately, learn alternative ways of coping.

I do my best to manage my stress on a daily basis. Some days I am more successful than others. I have found it helpful to have several techniques to use, as some days it seems nothing works! However, since my health and happiness are my top priorities, I believe I can get the upper hand in stress management. To do this, I have an agreement with myself that I will practice stress reduction techniques daily, even if I am not feeling particularly stressed that day so that when I am stressed, those techniques are easier to put into action.  Ask yourself: Do I want to be a better manager of my stress? If so, embrace it an find what works for you!