The dictionary defines stress as “the importance attached to a thing,” or “the physical pressure, pull, or other force exerted on one thing by another; strain.” From a medical standpoint, it’s defined as “a physical or psychological stimulus that can produce mental tension or physiological reactions that may lead to illness.”
Without a doubt, the negative impacts of stress interfere with our physical and emotional well-being. There is something to be said for the ‘mind-body connection’ that many practitioners emphasize; when we feel stressed mentally, our bodies physically become affected as well.
In Dr. Steve Bressert’s article, “The Impact of Stress,” he discusses several ways in which stress manifests. Physically, stress can unfold in overt symptoms, including: shortness of breath; sweaty palms; fatigue; sleep disturbance; digestive upsets; grinding of the teeth; dizziness; increased heart rate and high blood pressure.
Emotionally, stress can induce frustration; irritation; jumpiness; apathy; and generally feeling overwhelmed or overworked.
Stress also takes a toll on our cognitive and behavioral capacity. Under stress, our minds are prone to racing thoughts, mental slowness, confusion, difficulty with comprehension, and an overall negative attitude. Behaviorally, stress can thwart our desire for social interaction with friends and family while encouraging a sense of loneliness. It limits our time to pursue hobbies and relaxation activities, and decreases our sex drive.
Long-term consequences include an overall suppression of the immune system, making individuals with high stress levels more prone to physical ailments. It’s speculated that stress plays a role in skin disorders, cancer, gastrointestinal issues, depression and other emotional disorders, and even the common cold.
Various physiological and psychological conditions may occur when people cannot cope with stress. These include: sleepwalking; generalized anxiety disorder; phobias; obsessive-compulsive disorder; elevated blood pressure; hypochondria and multiple personality disorder.
Learning effective stress management techniques can help control what feels uncontrollable. These techniques will foster healthy coping mechanisms for life’s obstacles and will increase positivity in your mental health.
The Four A’s: Avoid, Alter, Adapt and Accept
HelpGuide.org, a nonprofit resource with expert advice on resolving health challenges, offers specific stress management techniques known as the “Four A’s”: avoiding the stressor, altering the stressor, adapting to the stressor, and accepting the stressor.
Avoiding the Stressor
Don’t hesitate to say no. When trying to avoid unnecessary stress, don’t hesitate to say no to additional responsibilities. Taking on more than you can handle will only increase your stressful state.
Limit exposure. Limiting contact with individuals who induce stress may also be constructive. If someone is emotionally draining, you may want to avoid excessive communication with that person.
Be mindful of your environment. Take control of your environment. If traffic renders high levels of stress, take a less-travelled route; if the watching the news results in anxiety, turn the television off.
Avoid ‘hot-button’ issues. If talking religion or politics creates tension, avoid those discussions altogether. If you’re with someone who always brings up heated topics, suggest a change in subject matter.
Cut down on the list. If you notice that your ‘to-do list’ appears overwhelming, it probably is. Trim away unnecessary tasks and responsibilities and only focus on what you need to accomplish.
Alter the Stressor
Express yourself. If you can’t avoid a situation entirely, try to express your feelings verbally, instead of keeping them bottled up inside. Resentment will only continue to grow if feelings are not voiced.
Be ready to compromise. If you ask someone to alter their behavior, be willing to do the same until a middle ground is reached.
Be assertive. Try to confront your problems right away; try your best to anticipate stressful conflicts and prevent them. If someone is trying to get together and you have to meet a deadline, don’t be shy to decline the invitation.
Manage your time. If you plan ahead, you won’t have to worry about feeling overloaded with work, and you can complete the project without having to worry about last minute details.
Adapt to the Stressor
Reframe conflicts. Try to view the problem in a more positive light; find the ‘good within the bad.’
See the big picture. Examine the stressful situation and weigh how important it really is. Will this problem still matter in a month? How about a year? If it’s not worth the distress and the problem won’t be relevant in the long run, move forward.
Adjust standards. Try to avoid perfectionism. If you set reasonable standards for yourself and other individuals, you won’t feel as stressed and disappointed.
Hone in on the positive. When the stress is bringing you down, try to take a moment to reflect on all the positivity in your life. What is going right for you right now? What do you really appreciate? These strategies will help keep your mind in perspective.
Accept the Stressor
Let the uncontrollable be. Unfortunately, you have to accept what you cannot change; try not to attempt to control the uncontrollable. Since you can’t control the actions or behavior of others, try to focus on what you can control, such as choosing your own reactions to stressful circumstances.
Look for growth opportunities. Focus on the upside of the stressor, and embrace the notion that ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’ How can you grow from this experience; what have you learned?
Share feelings with others. It may help to vent to a close friend, family member, or even a therapist. Even if you can’t alter the situation, it can be cathartic to express your feelings.
Forgive. Accept that people make mistakes, but try to let go of any anger or resentment you may feel. When you free yourself of negative energy, the easier it will be to move forward.
Negative vs. Positive Coping Outlets
When faced with a great amount of stress, many individuals unfortunately turn to unhealthy, detrimental coping mechanisms to numb their pain. How can you cope effectively? What are some positive strategies that may help lessen the stress?
HelpGuide.org discusses simple, healthy ways to alleviate stress. These can include going out for a scenic walk; watching a lighthearted movie; taking a relaxing bath; playing with a pet; writing in a journal; working in a garden; getting a massage; and talking to a close friend. Expressing your stress through creative endeavors (music, writing and art) can be productive as well.
Adopting an overall healthy lifestyle is another great way to lift your mental spirits. Well-nourished bodies are more able to cope effectively. Getting enough sleep and reducing the temporary highs of caffeine and sugar are all beneficial ways to diminish your body’s stress.
The American Psychological Association discusses how exercise is an important coping method for stress in one of Psych Central’s previous articles, “Exercise Helps Keeps Stress at Bay.”
“Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress. It forces the body’s physiological systems – all of which are involved in the stress response – to communicate much more closely than usual,” the APA notes. “The cardiovascular system communicates with the renal system, which communicates with the muscular system. And all of these are controlled by the central and sympathetic nervous systems, which also must communicate with each other. This workout of the body’s communication system may be the true value of exercise; the more sedentary we get, the less efficient our bodies in responding to stress.”
When faced with immense stress, the body experiences negative physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioral reactions, but it’s how you deal with life’s curveballs that makes the difference.
American Psychological Association. “Exercise Helps Keep Stress at Bay.” Psych Central.
Bessert, Steve, PH.D. “The Impact of Stress.” Psych Central.
HelpGuide.org. “Stress Management: How to Reduce, Prevent, and Cope with Stress.”