April is Stress Awareness Month. When I first read that in a local newspaper, my response was “Really? As if we’re not all very well-aware that we are stressed — sometimes to the max. Do we really need a month to focus on it? Then I read what it’s actually about: April as Stress Awareness Month was initiated by the Health Resource Network in 1992 to encourage health organizations to develop and distribute educational materials and hold public events about stress.
Okay. That makes sense. But as I looked at internet articles on stress, most of them stress (pun) things one can do about stress. Look and you’ll find such titles as “6 tips for Banishing Stress”; “10 things to do to Reduce your Stress”; “Meditate your Stress Away.” Not that such pointers are bad things. But such articles are incomplete.
The Stress Convergence
Here’s the thing: How stressed we feel is a convergence of how much stress we have/allow into our lives and the strength of the coping skills we have to deal with it. Some people whose lives look super stressed aren’t all that bothered. Why? Because they have plenty of internal and external supports to deal with most of the stressors that come their way. Other people aren’t stressed because they carefully calibrate how much “stress” they will allow into their lives. And some people are stressed by events you may think are no big deal. That’s because those folks haven’t learned ways to manage even minimal stress.
Keeping stress at a manageable level is important, which is why the good people at the Health Resource Network started Stress Awareness Month. People who can’t manage stress effectively often try to numb themselves with alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine, or with drugs both prescription or illegal. Chronically being unable to manage negative stress can result in a sleep disorder, autoimmune issues or even heart disease. Even though most of us know stress isn’t good for us, not everyone knows what to do about feeling over-stressed.
Are you feeling so stressed out that it is difficult to enjoy life? If your answer is “yes” it’s not enough to meditate or think happy thoughts or get more exercise, as many sites suggest. The solution to feeling better is to work on managing stress in much the same way as you manage a budget.
Just as with a budget, there are two sides to your ledger. With money, you can balance the budget in two ways: Decrease your spending or increase your income — usually some combination. The way to live life in balance around stress is to be both conscious about how much negative stress you let in and to balance that with strengthening your coping skills.
Reduce the Negative
We can’t always eliminate the negative stressors in our lives but we can often take some action to reduce them. Let’s take a look at some of the most common negative stressors and what you might be able to do about them.
Job stress: Do you hate your job? According to a Gallup Poll a couple of years ago, 70% of Americans say they do. Usually it’s because of bosses who don’t know how to support their workers. If you rank yourself among the job haters, think about why and what you can do about it. Maybe you need to go back to school or take trainings so you can move up or out.
This may be a long term project but knowing you are making your way out of a bad situation will feel better than sitting in it.
School stress: According to an NPR poll, almost 40% of parents say their high schooler is under a great deal of stress from school. It doesn’t get better in college. In one survey 45.1 percent of the college students who responded said they experienced “more than average” levels of stress and felt overwhelmed by all they had to do.
If this resonates with you, take a step back and take a fresh look at your choice of courses and the schedule you’ve created for yourself. Maybe you can slow down. Maybe your stress is telling you that you need to change or modify your major. Or maybe you aren’t taking care of yourself so you can handle the inevitable pressure of academics.
Deadlines: Do you get stressed out by deadlines? If so, it’s probably long past time for you to look at how you set yourself up. Maybe you take on more than you can reasonably do in the time allowed. Maybe you leave things to the last minute. Maybe, just maybe, you set the bar too high and then feel stressed by not being able to meet it.
Are there toxic people in your life? Do you usually end up feeling terrible when you spend time with a certain relative or neighbor or co-worker? You will feel much better if you find ways to minimize contact.
Increase the positive:
On the other side of the stress management ledger is the need to increase your ability to handle stress. Practice, improve, and add to your repertoire of coping skills. There are numerous articles on the internet with tips so I won’t repeat them here. I’ll only remind you of a few things:
Pay attention to the basics: Eat right. Get 7 – 9 hours of sleep a night. Exercise. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind.
Keep it in perspective: Life is stressful. It has been throughout history. In many parts of the world, including in the U.S., people are currently stressed by war, famine, lack of good water, hunger, disease and poverty. If you have a roof over your head and something to eat every day, you are already more stress-free than much of the world. This is not to minimize your feelings. But sometimes remembering that may help.
Make friends: Having a support system is one of the most important protective factors we can have when stress comes our way. If you don’t have at least 3 people in your life you can turn to in times of need, get busy. Join an organization. Get involved in a project. Just be friendly to the people you meet regularly. Friendship usually does naturally evolve.
The Andrews Sisters were a close harmony singing group of the 1930s and 40s, a time when much of the world was under the stress of economic collapse and war. I think the song “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” (written by: Harold Arlen (music), Johnny Mercer (lyrics)) was popular because it reminded people that they did have some power to make their lives less stressful:
“You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between”