Monday, March 1, 2010

Managing Stress

Stress is nothing more than your response to a perceived threat. I emphasize the word "perceived" because stress is caused by our interpretation of events rather than the event itself. We know this because what is stressful to one person may not be stressful at all to another person. Stress can arise from something good (eustress) or something bad (distress) and sometimes the cause of our stress is unknown.

Holmes and Rahe developed a rating system for common stressors. Reviewing this list, you can see that even welcomed life events like a wedding or birth of a child can cause a significant amount of stress.

How do you know when you are under stress?

Everyone responds to stress differently, but there are some common symptoms human beings share. The signs of stress can be divided into four categories:
  • Physiological symptoms such as increased heart rate and respiration, perspiration, digestive sensations, and muscle tension
  • Cognitive signs (or changes in the way we think) such as catastrophizing, worrying, racing thoughts, preoccupations, difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness
  • Affective (emotional) changes such as nervousness, hoplessness, moodiness, irritability and even anger
  • Behavioral responses such as avoidance, neglect of self-care, increasing bad habits, and social withdrawal
Is stress bad?

Stress is not always bad. The stress response is adaptive or helpful in immediate, short-term, situations because its our body’s preparation for fight or flight. We perform better in these situations when under a little stress. Bodily functions essential to responding to danger, such as circulation of blood and oxygen to large muscles, hightened senses, and release of sugar for energy, are increased. Functions such as digestion and sexual response are diminished because they are not needed when responding to danger.

But what if there is no real danger or the threat is long-term or something we can't fight or flee from? Today's daily stressors don't typically involve life threatening situations requiring a full blown stress response, yet our bodies still respond in the same old way. The human stress response is adapted for the short-term so chronic or prolonged stress can be dangerous to our health. Chronic stress can lead to a weakened immune system, headaches, insomnia, digestive trouble and acne, memory and concentration problems, mood disturbances, high blood pressure and increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
Stress Relief

There is no one solution to handling stress. Everyone is different, so we each need to choose stress relievers that work best for us and practice them. Here are some suggestions:
Identify your triggers
Keep a log of stressful situations to help you identify patterns in your perception of stressful events, the circumstances surrounding them, your reactions to them, and the consequences of your reactions. It might look something like this:
Date Situation Thoughts Physical Feelings Actions Consequences

Learn to modify your thoughts and behavior
  • Think positively and focus on your good qualities and accomplishments
  • Be assertive and learn to express your feelings and set boundaries
  • Recognize and accept your limitations - ask for help
  • Set priorities and develop realistic goals
  • Manage your time wisely, plan ahead, and avoid procrastination
  • Resist comparing yourself to others and avoid unnecessary competition
  • Take care of yourself - diet, exercise, sleep and relaxation are important
Practice relaxation

Find ways to relax that work for you and make time for them. Some helpful relaxation techniques include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery, autogenics, biofeedback, meditation, massage, aromatherapy, yoga or other forms of exercise, and socializing. Some of these techniques you can learn on your own and you probably already do naturally. Some are best learned with the asstance of a therapist or self-help workbook. A few of my favorite self-help guides are listed in the Required Reading column on the right hand side of this blog.
When is it time to ask for help?
The following are some indicators it may be time for you to seek help to manage your stress:
  • you feel trapped, very distressed, or hopeless and don't know where to turn
  • you worry excessively and can't concentrate on things you need to do
  • stress is negatively impacting your health, your job, your relationships, or your general life functioning
If you are experiencing any of these things as a result of stress, it may be time to consult a professional. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy. If you have health insurance, you can find out who is in your network by visiting their website or calling the behavioral health number on the back of your card.
Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.