How to Manage Stress

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Stress is a common problem for everyone. But what is stress? In the 1950s, physiologist Hans Selye described stress as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it.” Others have expanded this definition to explain that the body adapts to demands, whether pleasant or unpleasant. For example, sitting in the sun on a warm spring day may cause you to relax. Your blood pressure and pulse will go down. Being caught in a cold, driving rain will cause your body to speed up. Your BP and pulse will go up. In short, you are stressed.


How Does Your Body Respond to Stress?

Your body is used to functioning at a certain level. When there is a need to change this level, your body must adjust to meet the demand. Your body reacts by preparing itself to take some action: Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises, your neck and shoulder muscles tense, your breathing becomes more rapid, your digestion slows, your mouth becomes dry, and you may begin sweating. These are signals of “stress.”

Why does this happen? To take an action, your muscles need to be supplied with oxygen and energy. Your rate of breathing increases in an effort to inhale as much oxygen as possible and to get rid of as much carbon dioxide as possible. Your heart rate increases to deliver the oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. Furthermore, physiological processes that are not immediately necessary, such as the digestion of food and the body’s natural immune responses, are slowed down.

Strangely enough, these things happen even when you do not need more oxygen, such as when you are afraid or anxious. How long will these responses last? In general, these responses are present only until the stressful event passes. Then your body returns to its normal level of functioning.

Sometimes, though, your body does not return to its former comfortable level. If the stress is present for any length of time, your body begins adapting to this stress. This adaptation can contribute to other problems, such as hypertension, shortness of breath, or muscle and joint pain.

Common Types of Stressors

Regardless of the type of stressor, the changes in the body are the same. Stressors, however, are not completely independent of one another. In fact, one stressor can often lead to other types of stressors or even magnify the effects of existing stressors. Several stressors can also occur simultaneously.

Let us look now at some of the more common sources and types of stress.

a. Physical stressors

The physical stressors can range from something as pleasant as picking up your grandchild for the first time, to grocery shopping, to the physical symptoms of your chronic illness. The one thing these three stressors have in common is that they all increase your body’s demand for energy. If your body is not prepared to deal with this demand, the results may range from sore muscles to fatigue to a worsening of some disease symptoms.

b. Mental and emotional stressors

The mental and emotional stressors can range from pleasant to uncomfortable. The joys you experience from seeing a child get married or meeting new friends induce the same stress response in the body as feeling frustrated or worried because of your illness. While it seems strange that this is true, the difference comes in the way the stress is perceived by your brain.

c. Environmental stressors

The environmental stressors can also be both good and bad. These stressors may be as varied as a sunny day, uneven sidewalks that make it difficult to walk, loud noises, bad weather, a snoring spouse, or secondhand smoke.

Isn’t “Good Stress” a Contradiction?

As we mentioned earlier, some types of stress can be good, such as a job promotion, a wedding, a vacation, a new friendship, or a new baby. These stressors make you feel good, but still cause the physiological changes in your body that were discussed above. Another example of a “good stressor” is exercise.

When you exercise, or do any type of physical activity, there is a demand placed on the body. The heart has to work harder to deliver blood to the muscles; the lungs are working harder, and you breathe more rapidly to keep up with your muscles’ demand for oxygen.

Meanwhile, your muscles are working hard to keep up with the signals from your brain, which are telling them to keep moving.

As you maintain an exercise program for several weeks, you will begin to notice a change: What once seemed virtually impossible is now relatively simple. Your body has adapted to this stress. In addition, there is less strain on your heart, lungs, and other muscles to do this extra work. They’ve become more efficient, and you have become more fit.

Recognizing When You Feel Stressed

Everyone has a certain need for stress. It helps your life run more efficiently. As long as you do not go past the “breaking point,” stress is helpful. On some days you can tolerate more stress than on others. But sometimes, if you are not aware of the different types of stress, you can go beyond this breaking point and feel like your life is completely out of control. Often it is difficult to recognize when you are under too much stress. Some warning signs include;

- Biting your nails, pulling your hair, tapping your foot, or other repetitive habits;
- Grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw;
- Tension in your head, neck, or shoulders;
- Feelings of anxiousness, nervousness, helplessness, or irritability; and
- Frequent accidents or forgetting things you usually don’t forget.

Sometimes, you can catch yourself when you are behaving or feeling these ways. If you do, take a few minutes to think about what it is that is making you feel tense. Take a few deep breaths and try to relax.

USE PROBLEM SOLVING

There are some situations that you recognize as stressful, such as being stuck in traffic, going on a trip, or preparing a meal. First, look as objectively as possible at what it is about the particular situation that is stressful. Is it that you hate to be late? Are trips stressful because of the uncertainty involved with your destination? Does meal preparation involve too many steps and demand too much energy?

Once you have decided on the problem, begin looking for possible ways to reduce the stress. Can you leave earlier? Can you let someone else drive? Can you call someone at your destination site and ask about wheelchair access, local mass transit, and so on? Can you prepare food in the morning? Can you take a short nap in the early afternoon?

After you have identified some possible solutions, select one to try the next time you are in this situation. Don’t forget to evaluate the results.

MANAGING THE STRESS

While you can successfully manage some types of stress by modifying the situation, other types of stress seem to sneak up on you when you don’t expect them. The approach to dealing with this type of stress also involves problem solving.

If you know that certain situations will be stressful, develop ways to deal with them before they happen. Try to rehearse, in your mind, what you will do when the situation arises so that you will be ready. Inherent in this approach is the ability to listen to and recognize your body’s signals that the tension and stress are building. The better you become at listening and understanding your body signals, the better you’ll become at managing your stress and stressful situations.

Certain chemicals you may consume can also increase stress. These chemicals include nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine. Although some people tend to smoke a cigarette, drink a glass of wine, eat chocolate, or drink a cup of coffee to soothe their tension, this, in fact, actually increases the body’s stress response. Eliminating or cutting down on these stressors can leave you feeling calmer.

There are also techniques where you use your mind to deal with stress. They include self-talk, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and visualization. Some additional ways to deal with stress include getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating well. Sometimes stress is so overwhelming that these tools are not enough. This is the time good self-managers use consultants such as counselors, social workers, psychologists, or psychiatrists.

In summary, stress, like every other symptom, has many causes and therefore can be managed in many different ways. It is up to you to examine the problem and try those solutions that meet your needs and lifestyle. []

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