Stress Management

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“I’m really stressed out.” Have you ever felt this way? In our culture it’s pretty easy to feel a bit overloaded at times, with work and family obligations. To manage our stress, we might “kick back” and enjoy our hobbies, or engage in relaxing activities with loved ones

However the stress of life might outstrip our coping resources. Since 9/11, the world may be experienced as less safe. The drama of life in these times might feel especially challenging and overwhelming, as our nervous systems become barraged with data and excess stimulation. Unforeseen and abrupt changes in many of our circumstances, have left us feeling jittery and on edge. The release of stress hormones and the long term wear that can accompany this can wear down our immune systems and create more vulnerability to physical and emotional dis-ease.

Stress: Signs and Symptoms

The increase in tension associated with uncertainty lessens our effectiveness and can temporarily cripple us. A certain amount of stress can improve performance, increase and better our focus, and improve learning. However, there’s a tipping point. If one imagines a simple scale where the stress or anxiety levels are measured on a 1-10 basis, a level of about 5-6 is perhaps the most useful. In the normal course of things, all of us adapt to the weather, new schedules, changes in work situations, school duties, and the evolution of our relationships and family life. The adaptation to change is a built-in thread of living.

But as the balance tips, often with the introduction of uncertainty and/or dramatic change, our primitive arousal responses may trigger a chronic state of imbalance. That place of “not knowing” can create great discomfort. If I knew I was losing my job in six months, I could then develop a plan to rework my world. But if I’m strung along, uncertain about my prospects, the stress is often more chronic.

Possible Physical and Psychological Symptoms

When the body and mind are in a constant state of tension, there are accompanying physical and mental symptoms.

Some of the possible physical responses include headaches, upset stomach/ indigestion, disturbed sleep, sweaty palms, restlessness, changes in heart rate, lowered immune response resulting in more colds and stress related hypertension.

Common psychological reactions include difficulty with concentration, short term-memory lapses, worry/ rumination as an attempt to problem solve, and negative thoughts. Increased irritability and shame-based thinking might also be present.

Reworking Our World: A Call for Action and an Opportunity to Increase Resilience

Most of us know that change is inevitable. Certain spiritual traditions have emphasized this state of affairs for centuries. Change can be seen as positive or negative. We may be happy to get married. On the other hand, we may feel broadsided by a relationship collapse or layoff. In all these instances, we are called upon to retool and adjust to different circumstances.

How do you manage stress in your life? Take a personal inventory. Once you’ve developed that list, you can compare it with the suggestions below.

General Strategies

  1. Monitor sleep cycle. Poor sleep can greatly influence mood coping responses.
  2. Limit use of alcohol and other drugs that can increase vulnerability to mood changes and anxiety.
  3. It’s tempting to seek comfort and escape in junk food. Sugar, fat and salt can release more stress hormones and increase the desire for more carbohydrates and fat.
  4. Develop a schedule that prioritizes your tasks. Concentrate your energy on the most important ones first. Be realistic and allow yourself a little time between events or activities.
  5. Develop a good support system and use it often.
  6. Stick with the hobbies and activities that allow a break in worrying.
  7. Do something that brings satisfaction. Consider something that isn’t illegal or dangerous “just for the heck of it” every day that might leave you energized and refreshed.
  8. Work with procrastination. The idea of an unpleasant task is often worse than the task itself.
  9. When you are upset, take the time to write down your thoughts and feelings. Review this if you can with a trusted friend or therapist.

Additional Body/Mind Techniques

Some of these measures help to reduce and change the physiological state that maintains the high “ready alert” levels. They stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, restore balance in the mind/body and return it to a more relaxed state. Strategies include yoga, meditation, progressive relaxation techniques, and simple deep breathing. (See Dr. Kate’s blog, Twelve Good Breaths).

Altering our brain chemistry and mind-set through physical exercise such as walking playing volleyball, dancing, running, and bicycling can also be an option.

Working with Thoughts and Alternative Perspectives

Certain outlooks generate more tension. Other perspectives reduce it. For example, we can magnify a smaller issue into something that signals dire emergency. We might predict the worst possible outcome e.g. I’ll never get another job. In our effort to manage our environment, we may jump to that negative conclusion, or get into “what ifs’” that may or may not happen. When we have a setback, do we see ourselves as forever doomed to failure? Or do we see it as a call to action, an opportunity to make use of a “terrible gift”?

Perspectives and self-talk that might help

  1. Take things one step at a time. One day at a time.
  2. I’m going to be OK. I’ve done this many times before.
  3. I don’t have to be perfectly calm to do things well.
  4. I can still be safe and OK, even if I can’t control the outcome.
  5. See if you can appreciate or see how change is organic and inevitable and that everything changes each moment.
  6. Change can signal a call to action.
  7. Take frequent relaxation breaks.
  8. Remember, there’s no such thing as failure. It’s all feedback.

Mindfulness Practice/Meditation Training to Reduce Stress and Improve Your Quality of Life:

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

You can learn to be with more comfortable with yourself. Meditation, or the practice of cultivating attentive awareness of breath and/or other points of mind focus while watching your thoughts without judgment, can reduce and your state of hyper-alertness and return your system to a healthier balance.

And remember, it’s OK to seek professional help that can include psychotherapy, with an emphasis on stress reduction strategies when things are overwhelming.

Please contact Dr. Kate through her website, or call (303-443-5811) with any additional questions or to find out more about her practice.