Stress is everywhere and certain common stressors cannot easily be controlled. However, the act of managing stress is a learned skill that is completely within reach. Below, I identify common stressors and offer guidance for successful stress management.
Certain emotions including anger, fear, worry, anxiety, nervous tension, guilt, shame, and humiliation trigger a strong stress response. Additionally, the mental and physical strain of overwork can contribute to the stress cascade. Keeping late hours and shift work lead to insufficient sleep, a very common stressor in our culture. And life events such as death of a loved one, divorce, separation, fusion of/step-families, retirement, loss of job, moving/change in residence, financial loss, school, work can send anyone into a stress frenzy.
Research studies have identified that successful people, not only manage, but persevere through stressful experiences using the following stress relief models:
- Network and social connectedness
Surround yourself with a support network of family, friends and, if needed, health care professionals. Regularly make an effort to spend face-to-face time with each person in your support network to really maintain and nurture those relationships. Human nature and culture have evolved through trust and cooperation and social isolation can often make stressors appear insurmountable. Social proximity through relationship building can harness the trust and resilience needed to face stress.
Practical step for building social networks:
Use video technology to maintain face to face relationships even when you or your loved ones are out of or on the other side of town. Skype, Google videochat and hangouts, or Facetime are great resources for this.
Feeling overwhelmed and out of control are indicators of a declining ability to to manage stress. Self control can be viewed as a muscle that can be both strengthened and fatigued with use. Individuals who are most disciplined make it a point to avoid temptations such as unhealthy relationships, foods, and behaviors in order to conserve their will power. When will power is depleted, people feel overwhelmed by even most negligible stressors and have trouble with making decisions. The implication is that we all have a finite amount of self-control and should try to exercise it with awareness and intention to strengthen it. By exercising will power frequently and with intention, self control can be strengthened and the stress of decision making minimized.
Practical steps for harnessing self-control:
Build these self control skills into the scaffolding of your life by practicing prayer, meditation, yoga, pilates, tai chi, and any other activity that requires awareness and mindfulness. This could mean watching your posture, speaking in complete sentences and avoiding use of slang, or eliminating refined sugar from your diet.
Consistent daily schedules and predictable routines help to develop a sense of harmony, establish security and build trust that the current stress is transient and will pass, that tomorrow will be fine. Daily routine has been shown to be soothing to the stress-ridden over-stimulated nervous system. Even, clutter and a chaotic physical environment can lead to mental and emotional overstimulation. Once the mind is overwhelmed, it is difficult to perform well and impossible to feel comfortable and relaxed.
Practical steps for achieving a predictable daily routine:
Go to sleep, get up, shower and leave the house at the same time each day. Aim for 9.5 hours of sleep per night. Eat breakfast every morning. Spend some time organizing your work space every day and allot time to even organize your appearance. Make time for down time in your daily schedule.
- Outlets for frustration
Build outlets for processing frustration into the social scaffolding of your life. For children this may mean utilizing creative outlets such as drawing, play, and puppets to recreate and process the frustrating event. For adults this may mean journaling, meditation, prayer and/or professional counseling. Without a forum for voicing or processing frustration, one runs the risk of relying on unhealthy stress-associated behaviors like overeating, eating unhealthful foods, skipping meals, chronic caffeine use, alcohol and smoking that deplete one's ability to manage stress.
Practical steps for creating outlets for frustration:
Physically remove yourself from a stressful situation. Go for a walk or take a bath. Sit with your thoughts and think about why the situation provoked a stress response. What is unusual or peculiar about this situation that provoked a stress response? Come back to the stressful situation 24 hours later, if possible, and see if it still feels overwhelming.
- Reframing your outlook
Stressful situations can be turned around by reframing your outlook. Reframing is a technique of processing information with a fresh set of eyes and an open mind. Mindset is what often limits our ability to see things clearly. To change your mind is to change your perception of stress. Mindfulness is leaving your mind open, free to drift, to notice new things and take advantage of new opportunities. Thinking is often mistaken for mindfulness, but thinking is a very different and can often be a stressful process, as there is a possibility of not getting the right answer.
Practical steps to reframe your outlook:
Start paying attention to the new things in your environment. Spend at least an hour each day on . an activity that let's your mind drift such as walking out in nature or meditation.
I hope this article will help you to understand that common stressors in your life are not unique. These stressors are universal and affect every personality, every household and every relationship. We all have stress in our lives! However the tools of managing stress are not universally present. Social isolation, negative mindset, unintended behaviors, inflexibility and lack of routine and will power limit one's ability to manage stress effectively. I trust that the stress management tools I've laid out in this article will help you. I look forward to hearing from you!
Baumeister, RF and Tierney, J. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
Langer, E. Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Opportunity.
Aron, Elaine. The Highly Sensitive Person.