According to the American Psychiatric Association, “One-third of Americans are living with extreme stress, and nearly half of Americans (48 percent) believe that their stress has increased over the past five years. Stress is taking a toll on people - contributing to health problems, poor relationships, and lost productivity at work.”
Some short-term stress can be positive - causing us to deal constructively with daily problems or meet challenges or deadlines. But, when stress remains long-term - chronically or continuously - it can be damaging both emotionally and physically.
When we become stressed, it’s like an alarm goes off in the brain, and our body prepares to deal with the stress by going into a biological “fight-or-flight” response. The nervous system is aroused, and hormones are released to sharpen the senses, quicken the pulse, deepen respiration and tense the muscles. This response is positive when it helps us defend against threatening situations. When stressful situations go unresolved, however, the body is kept in a constant state of activation, which increases the rate of wear and tear to biological systems. Ultimately, fatigue or damage results, and the ability of the body to repair and defend itself can become seriously compromised. As a result, the risk of injury or disease escalates.
So what can be done about stress in our lives? First, we need to identify what is causing the stress. Take time to really think about what causes your stress. If it is shopping with your spouse or going to an office party, you may be able to just choose not to participate (of course, with your spouse, this requires communication, but you may be able to say “no thank you” to the occasional office gathering). Think about whether your stressors are major or minor (e.g., lost keys or lost job), temporary or permanent (e.g., giving a speech or a poor marriage relationship), relational (e.g., uncomfortable living situation or stressful work relationship) or internal (e.g., unrealistic expectations, perfectionistic or pessimistic attitude, or low self-esteem or self criticism).
Once you identify the cause(s), it may be easier to choose strategies to help alleviate the stress. Here are four approaches that may help.
EMERGENCY STRESS STOPPERS
When you need to deal with stress on the spot, try these strategies: count to 10 before you speak; take three to five 5 slow, deep breaths; go for a walk; walk away from the situation and say you’ll handle it later; say “I’m sorry” if you make a mistake; drive in the slower lane or avoid busy roads (if possible) to stay calm while driving; and begin the day by breaking bigger problems down into smaller ones.
The healthier you are, the better able you are to manage stress.
Try to get 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Exercise not only helps you get in shape, but it also helps you relieve pent up tension, sleep better and burn up some of the chemicals that are released with the bodily response to stress.
Get enough sleep. Not getting enough sleep increases stress and can make you less able to handle stressful situations. Regardless of age, most adults need about eight hours of restful sleep a night.
Eat a healthy diet, which includes lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Also, choose lean meats and eat less refined sugar, processed foods and saturated fats.
Have a healthy attitude. Changing the way you think can help you manage stress. Most people who are resilient to stress do two important things: They focus on immediate issues - what needs to be done right now - and they have an optimistic explanatory style - assuming their troubles are temporary (“I’m tired today”) rather than permanent (“I’m washed up”); specific (“I have a bad habit”) rather than universal (“I’m a bad person”). And they credit themselves when things go right, while externalizing their failures (“That was a tough audience,” not “I gave a wretched speech”). Frame the words you say to yourself about the situation in a positive way - “I can do this if I take it one step at a time,” or “Things will work out,” rather than “I can’t do this,” “I hate it when this happens” or “Everything is going wrong.”
Find enjoyment in life. Doing things you enjoy is a natural way to fight stress. Try to find one thing to do each day that you enjoy, even if it’s just for 15 minutes.
PREPARE, PRIORITIZE, REALIZE AND ORGANIZE.
Prepare to the best of your ability for events you know may be stressful. Prioritize what needs to be done. Be realistic. Realize your limitations, and say “no” if you need to. Take small steps to get organized. Getting organized can take time, but it can go a long way in reducing stress.
AVOID, COMMUNICATE AND RESOLVE
Avoid controllable stressors, like saying “No, thank you” to a stressful gathering. Communicate by listening, smiling, admitting wrong, giving compliments and expressing thoughts and concerns assertively. Seek resolution by being willing to negotiate, compromise or seek outside help (mediation or counsel).
Understanding how our bodies respond to stress; identifying our personal stressors; using strategies such as emergency stress stoppers, the wellness approach and organizational and interpersonal skills can be useful tools for reducing the stress in our lives and keeping us healthy in mind and body. Left alone, stress can be bad for both your physical and mental health. The time and energy you spend managing your stress will pay off in the long run.
For more information, contact Patrice Dunagin, Smith County FCS agent for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, at 903-590-2980.