What is Stress? Stress is an everyday fact of life. We cannot avoid it. Stress is any change we must adjust to. We often think of stressful events as negative...a big exam, a flat tire...however, positive events can create stress as well. For example, that 'A' on the exam can create performance stress in that you may feel the need to maintain the same level of achievement. Falling in love may be as stressful, for some, as breaking off a relationship.
Thus, the goal is not to eliminate all stress. Life would be dull without both joyful stressors for which we have to adjust, and distressors requiring a response. In fact, stress and anxiety often motivate individual's toward peak performance. The Chinese apparently have two spellings for stress, one meaning 'danger,' the other 'opportunity.' Thus, what we want to do is limit the harmful effects of stress, while maintaining life's quality and vitality.
Note that experienced stress is actually the interaction of a stressor and an individual's stress reactivity. A stressor only has the 'potential' to elicit a stress response. Therein lies some personal control, and possibilities for more effective management of the stressors in your life. Stressors come in many packages that vary with each of us as individuals. They may present as external events, such as relationship conflicts, or be more internal, such as personal expectations or life crises.
Stress begins with a life situation that knocks you out of balance. We all know that the same situation presented to different people may result in very different reactions. Different people will interpret the situation differently. Therefore, a life situation to which you must adapt is a necessary but not sufficient component of stress. What is also necessary is your interpretation of the life situation as stressful.
What occurs next is an emotional and physiological reaction to the distressing life event, such as anger, fear, helplessness and concomitant physiological arousal. Over time, increased physiological arousal (i.e., the 'fight or flight' response) can lead to health consequences. Some experts estimate that as much as 50-80% of all physical illness is stress-related. Consequences may be seen interpersonally as well, as when someone lashes out angrily at another due to stress. Schematically, this may be presented in this way:
A. Life Situation→B. Perception as Stressful→C. Emotional Arousal
Stress management entails setting up roadblocks at various points along the stress pathway (above). Change can be made in an individual's life situation, and in the way s/he perceives and responds emotionally and physiologically to the stressor. You are in much greater control over yourself than you ever realized, and managing stress is simply exercising that control. Since stress results from the interaction of a stressor and an individual's stress reactivity, stress interventions aim to reduce stress reactivity, thereby enabling you to cope more successfully with the array of stressors that impinge upon you. Remember—"A pearl is the result of an oyster's victory over an irritation." (author unknown)
Self-care involves taking steps to manage stress and maintain wellness. Self-care takes place at each level of the stress model. For example, early in the model, it involves getting sleep and good nutrition. Next (at level B), it involves thinking realistically and positively, and checking our perceptions. Later in the model, we are encouraged to take care of ourselves emotionally and physically—to nurture our friendships, to express ourselves, and to exercise our bodies and minds.
Lifestyle Changes for Effective Stress Management
- Learn to Plan. Don't procrastinate and let things pile up. If you must take on more than one project at a time, prioritize work to be done and space deadlines far enough apart to control the buildup of stress. Learn time management skills.
- Recognize and Accept Limits. Set realistic expectations. Nobody can be perfect so try not to be hard on yourself if you don't meet some of your goals.
- Have Fun. Give yourself a break. You need to occasionally escape from the pressures of life and have fun. Find pastimes which are absorbing and enjoyable to you, no matter what your level of ability. Identify activities both physical and mental that you find enjoyable and helpful in dealing with stress.
- Be a Positive Person. Avoid criticizing others. Learn to praise the things you like in others. Focus upon the good qualities those around you possess. Learn to do this for yourself also. Notice and reward yourself for your good qualities and for even small improvements.
- Learn to Tolerate and Forgive. Intolerance of others leads to frustration and anger. An attempt to really understand the way other people feel can make you more accepting of them. It is important to become aware and accepting of your own feelings as well.
- Avoid Unnecessary Competition. There are many competitive situations in life that we cannot avoid. Too much concern with winning in too many areas of life can create excessive tension and anxiety and make one unnecessarily aggressive.
Perception of Threat Interventions
- Try to maintain a reasonable perspective. To a large degree, your perceptions determine what is stressful to you. Blowing a job interview or task isn't as catastrophic as it may feel when it happens. Take time to sit back and think about it. Failing does not mean you are a failure!
- Imagine doing what stresses you and having it come out well.
- Avoid cognitive distortions that may skew your perception.
- Recognize that you've been through many stressful, and perhaps similar, experiences before, and you lived to tell about it.
Psychological Effects Interventions
- Share your feelings with someone to prevent a build-up of pressure, frustration, and emotions. This could be a friend, relative, or counselor.
- Become more aware of your thoughts. Avoid excessive worry and negative self-talk. Replace these with positive self-talk, task relevant thinking, and a more positive attitude.
- Talk out your troubles. Find a friend, member of the clergy, counselor, or psychotherapist you can be open with. Expressing your bottled-up tension to a sympathetic ear can be incredibly helpful.
Physical Effects Interventions
- Make sure you get enough sleep and nutritious food. Your body must be in good shape for your thinking to be at its best.
- Get regular exercise to keep your body healthy and to get rid of some physical tension.
- Take time out to rest and relax using methods already comfortable and effective for you, such as reading a novel, listening to music, playing an instrument, going to a movie.
- Learn a systematic, drug-free method of relaxation such as meditation, yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation.
*Managing stress effectively is a skill that you learn. Like all skills, it takes time and active participation for it to work effectively. Chronic conditions should be evaluated by a competent medical professional to exclude physical causes.