Notions about stress and stress management are sprinkled fairly liberally throughout our American headlines these days. On one hand, this allows the experiences to be talked about more openly and hopefully allows more expedient resolution. On the other hand, however, it is possible to miss some of the basic truths and simpler solutions.
Stress can cover lots of areas and is talked about very broadly. There may be short-term or acute stress situations, like running late for a meeting or being overcommitted with too many responsibilities, and there can be long-term or more serious situations, such dealing with relationship problems or a chronic illness.
Stress is also quite different for each person. What is stressful for one person may or may not be stressful for another. Some people get very stressed out and worried about making a public speech. Others look forward to them. Some people like the idea of having visitors. Others worry tremendously about others being in their home. Each person is in charge of subjectively deciding for themselves whether something is stressful for them.
What’s Wrong with Stress?
The problem with stress, no matter how each person defines it, is that it interferes with your ability to live a normal life. It can even be dangerous if maintained at high levels for extended periods. Having a few days of feeling tired, unable to concentrate or feeling irritable is not abnormal, but this sort of reaction becoming the norm is worrisome. Stress can cause people to feel overwhelmed or pushed to the limit of their capacity to cope. This sometimes leads to some of the less healthy coping tools, such as using substances, thinking about suicide or engaging in interpersonal violence.
Not only is stress problematic from an emotional standpoint, it can also affect physical health. Chronic, long-term or poorly managed stress can contribute to a variety of medical problems, including fatigue, gastrointestinal upset, skin conditions, and even heart disease.
The American Psychological Association did a survey several years back entitled “Stress in America” and found that one-third of people in the U.S. report experiencing extreme levels of stress. About one-fifth reported that they were experiencing high levels of stress 15 or more days per month. Given these rather alarming figures and all of the accompanying difficulties which can arise, it is key to know how to recognize high stress levels and handle it in healthy ways.
Is Stress Always Bad?
Stress is normal. Some level of stress is helpful for living, such as helping us to meet a work deadline or pushing us to clean up the house before guests arrive. Low to moderate levels of stress can be beneficial for you if it’s managed in healthy ways and if it’s not for extensive periods of time. Stress can help you to run from danger or complete a project by a deadline. Stress can also add a bit of excitement and energy to life, such as when we are riding a roller coaster or getting ready for an exciting night out. Short-term, acute or episodic stress can be exciting and even helpful in small doses. Mismanaged stress or stress which is not being coped with in healthy ways can have many negative side effects.
Paying attention to minor symptoms of stress, such as headaches or sleep difficulty, can be early warning signals letting you know that something is out of balance. Use it as a wake-up call to find ways of better managing stress.
What Are the Best Ways to Relieve Stress?
Each person’s stressful situation is naturally unique, and so each person must create his or her plan and life goals to manage his or her stress effectively. Knowing your own patterns and what sorts of things stress you out can be helpful for potential prevention. We all have different lives with different situations and different personal reactions to stress. No one can tell you what works best for you in terms of stress-relieving methods, we can just tell you that it is important to find your own methods. Like comfortable clothing, you need to have a goodness of fit. The bottom line is: if it restores you in truly positive ways, then it works.
There are no universally effective stress reduction techniques; however, there are some key steps for assisting in general approaches to stress. Research supports attending to some basics of stress management and tweaking them to fit your individual lifestyle. Because being able to control stress is a learned behavior, we can also learn ways to change behaviors which, in turn, can allow us to more effectively manage the stress as well.
As a way of remembering basic elements for relieving stress, I have put together an acronym to help remind us of five key areas: REALL. Each of the letters stands for specific ideas, of course, but the overall concept of getting real also hopefully conjures up the reminder to get back to the basics. Stress management doesn’t generally require anything fancy or complex but rather more authentic, down to earth self-care. Let’s review each letter of REALL in turn:
R is for Rest
When there is lots going on in someone’s life, it is often difficult to rest or sleep — whether due to higher demand of activities which interfere with sleep, ongoing anxiety affecting abilities to calm down or a combination of both. It is critical to take breaks, especially during times of higher distress when adrenalin is likely heightened and is causing more impact on the body. Someone may be overwhelmed when they are stressed and feel that they can’t rest because there is simply too much to do; however, we humans need to work more effectively with time rather than struggling against it. Taking short, scheduled breaks also helps in preventing burnout or overload.
Taking breaks and resting is important, but getting regular intervals of sleep is an important way to rest as well. Muscles can relax any time we sit still — the brain, however, is hard at work whenever we are awake. It is not uncommon for those struggling with stress to be sleeping less well; however, poor sleep then unfortunately can lead to more negative interference. With too little sleep, the body does accumulate a “sleep debt” which must be eventually paid off. Under times of stress, getting good sleep is especially critical as the body and brain’s way to recharge its battery. Sleep accomplishes much that we don’t necessarily see, such as repairing tissues and organs, growing more neurons, improving immune function, fighting infection and regulating appetite. Keeping up with – or getting back to – regular sleep-wake routines during stressful times in particular is critical.
E is for Eating
We naturally all need to eat, every day, multiple times per day. It is interesting to note, however, that individuals under stress often do not attend to this basic need as effectively as would be ideal. Keeping up regular meals, even if appetite if affected, is critical. The moderate approach which holds true as a key for day-to-day living is even more critical during times of stress. Our bodies need nutrients in order to perform daily functions and stay healthy; under stress, our bodies really need the energy and nutrients even more.
The usual pleasure in eating may be temporarily diminished or even artificially increased (which some people refer to as stress eating), but attending to regular, mindful eating will have far-reaching benefit. No single food can provide all the nutrients that the body needs, so it’s important to have varied and well-balanced meals. Rejecting the dieting mentality is especially important under stress, as obsessing about “good” and “bad” foods or being preoccupied about being a certain weight will not be helpful. Aim to focus more on food for nourishment & enjoyment, not for coping with stress or feelings.
A is for Air
This may sound obvious, but attention to proper breathing is especially critical during times of stress. Attending to better breathing and air intake patterns can absolutely assist in diminishing the impact of stress. Those who study yoga or meditation may be well-versed in the concept of attending to breathing patterns, but one doesn’t have to do anything fancy or use any special tools. Inhaling good air is about mindfully attending to breathing in and out, slowly and surely on a regular basis.
Breathing well is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. By practicing calming breaths, you are activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This is highly effective in helping to regulate and calm heart rates, the whole nervous system, and the mind. Breathing well not only helps during the day but also is the key to sleeping well and waking up feeling rested.
As poet, author and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
L is for Letting Go
We can’t change the fact that highly stressful events have happened or are happening, but we can change how we interpret and respond to events. We know that change and difficulties are a part of life. There can absolutely be value in processing and validating distress. Some people find it very helpful to engage in writing, talking or meditating about their thoughts and feelings related to stressful events in their life. Worrying excessively or obsessing about things keeps us stuck, however.
There may be strong, intense emotional reactions which emerge during stressful times, and this is very normal. It is also normal that such intense feelings will typically lessen over time. It’s important to avoid blowing the event out of proportion by considering the stressful situation in a broader context and keeping a long-term perspective.
Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help to focus on circumstances that can change. Part of letting go can involve looking beyond the present and looking forward to future circumstances which may be a little better, even if we aren’t sure how or when this might unfold. It is true that certain goals may no longer be possible due to certain adverse situations or after some particular stressors, but we can make new goals.
Finding ways to turn away from the negative thoughts and feelings related to stress can be helpful, such as through positive distractions of taking a hike in the woods, watching a funny movie or meeting a friend for dinner. Letting go is part of the journey of handling stress. It may be easier said than done, but keeping an optimistic orientation towards this is key.
L is for Leaning In
I am not suggesting dwelling on the stress. Instead, leaning in refers to the process of taking decisive action to move forward. This is naturally a broad concept which means different things for each individual, but the basic idea is that being active instead of passive helps people more effectively manage stress. Taking decisive actions has been shown to be much more helpful in the long run than detaching from problems, ignoring stresses or simply wishing they would just go away. In some circumstances, this may mean thinking about possible solutions to the current problems and deciding on realistic goals to achieve.
Rather than focusing on seemingly unachievable tasks, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move toward an important goal for me?” Some people find it helpful to track their progress by making a record of any accomplishment that moves them toward their goals. Action can be even a small accomplishment in the midst of stress, such as doing a load of laundry, paying a bill or taking one baby step toward a massive cleanup project. Actions can be physical (engaging in regular physical activity and drinking plenty of water) or cognitive (actively thinking about how to take on a more optimistic outlook or making to-do lists).
It’s often helpful to visualize what you want, rather than worry about what you fear. Sometimes the leaning in might mean getting back to doing something regularly — like showering regularly or walking the dog again; other times, taking action can involve doing something different to shake up the routines and change the scenery. Driving a new route to work or trying a new recipe can be a way to engage the brain differently and create a change. Leaning in and leaning on loved ones also can be helpful, as having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family is often so helpful during times of stress. Engaging actively in activities that you enjoy, that you find relaxing and that contribute to well-being are immeasurably important.
Part of getting REALL about managing stress is about tapping into our resilience. Resilience is officially defined as a phenomenon whereby individuals show positive adaptation in spite of significant life adversities, trauma or significant stress. Another way to think about it is that resilience is like our “bounce back” muscle. We all have these muscles, but some people have had more time and experience in building them up.
Being resilient does not mean a person does not experience difficulty or distress; instead, it involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that anyone can learn and develop. People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle with adversity, loss or stress — such as people reporting that, over time, they have better relationships, greater sense of internal strength, improved self-worth, and heightened appreciation for life. Keeping your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience is part of staying REALL about positive stress management.
Deep breathing photo available from Shutterstock