Today’s post comes to us from Dr. Alex Diaz who is a psychologist and licensed clinical social worker as well as one of RtoR’s Family-Endorsed Providers. His post highlights the toll stress takes on our well-being and how we can learn to handle stress more effectively. Thank you, Dr.Diaz, for sharing with us on rtor.org. –Veronique Hoebeke, Associate Editor
What is stress?
Stress is a feeling that we all experience on a regular basis. Whether it is at work, raising a family, or even when going to the supermarket, it feels as if it invades us no matter what we do. If I said that stress is good, some of you may be skeptical given that we associate stress with feeling uncomfortable. Stress is good because we all need it to function as human beings. Our bodies need to secrete the stress hormone, called cortisol, so we can get up and do our everyday tasks. Any activity that we do requires an automatic physiological mechanism to allow us to react. Doing homework, food shopping, catching the train to work, and putting children to sleep would be impossible to execute unless our bodies provides us with an energy to do it. However, it’s a completely different experience when we perceive any one of those tasks as excessively negative or potentially threatening.
Worrying about childcare, being late to an important work meeting, or realizing the alarm did not go off this morning immediately leads to an elevated increase in cortisol. The more we ruminate on the negative consequences, the higher our cortisol levels get. Our bodies perceive these tasks not as regular acts, but rather as potential threats given the negative perception we place upon them. As in any life threatening situation, the body automatically engages into a high level of hormonal response to defend itself from harm. Our heart begins to race, hands feel sweaty, thoughts are racing, memory recalling is difficult, sleeping is poor or mood is irritable.
When we live in chronic high stress, our overall health will suffer: Excessive sugar is produced by the liver increasing risk for type 2 diabetes. The heart needs to work harder elevating the risk for hypertension and blood vessel problems. Headaches, insomnia, and overeating are also symptoms of high stress. Our immune system becomes compromised which is why we tend to get sick when we are stressed out.
Now that we know that feeling stress is not a sign of personal weakness or something that may be wrong with any of us, we need to implement consistent changes that will help us better cope with potential stressful situations. These changes start by becoming more self-aware of situations where we tend to become stressed. In anticipation of such situations, we must disengage from our typical thinking or emotional responses and instead re-evaluate and modify our approach. As we begin to manage our stress, people around us will be less likely to react in stress. As a result, there will be less stress to manage overall.
6 Smart Strategies for Stress Management
If we find ourselves being frustrated and pessimistic, take a pause and re-evaluate what is triggering such a stress response. Going with the emotions of the moment and being carried away into a negative spiral will only increase our stress levels. Hence, take a brief pause and breathe taking simple, but conscientious breaths. My favorite trick is to start counting backwards starting from 100 by skipping in 5s. Example: 100-95-90-85-80, etc. I don’t have to reach to zero, but I stop when I get to a number where I’ve regained a sense of calm.
2. Use positive re-framing
Re-framing negative thoughts into positive ones is a very powerful tool. We often find ourselves being immersed in negativity as we picture a pessimistic future outlook. Sometimes, we become so ingrained in this negative spiral that it consumes our energy and we find ourselves spreading it out to people around us. The final outcome is definitely not productive. Hence, if we find ourselves heading into a place of negativity, we can put a strong stop to it and re-frame it. Most of the time, what we have negatively envisioned may not even happen. Taking a pro-active action NOW can surely alleviate potential future negative scenarios. On the other hand, if there is nothing that can be done now, then worrying will only increase our stress levels. Remember, use positive re-framing when faced with a stressful situation or a negative mindset.
3. Find time to turn electronics off
Our pace of life is often quite busy. In a society where we have become so electronically dependent, we are increasingly using our computers, tablets, and phones to such an extent that is rapidly becoming an addiction. We seem to have difficulty putting these electronics away. We tend to believe that unless we respond to every text or email right away, then we might be socially cut-off. As tempting as it is to remain on top of every text and email, it’s surely stressful attempting to do so. We must learn the difference between urgency and importance when faced with an overwhelming amount of electronic communication. Many of the messages or emails we receive might be important to our life but not all the messages are urgent, meaning they require immediate attention. The other ones can wait. Keeping up with work and the people in our lives often demands a lot of time from us. If reducing stress is our goal, then differentiating which text or emails are urgent versus important will certainly alleviate some of our stress.
4. Get a good night’s sleep
Along the lines of our “electronic” life, it’d certainly help if we could turn our computer or TV off at least half an hour before going to bed. The blue light from either object triggers the brain into thinking that it’s still daylight. As a consequence, the melatonin hormones, which helps us to rest, drop and our sleeping difficulties increase. At the same time, stress hormones remain elevated throughout the night. This combination of elevated cortisol and drop in melatonin makes our bodies feel tired. To compensate for this tired feeling, we tend to jump start our day by drinking coffee, which increases our stress hormones even more. Therefore, we should lower our stress hormones by shutting down our electronics before bed. Our bodies and minds will be very grateful in the morning.
5. Meditate for 10 minutes a day
Research has shown that meditation has multiple benefits. It allows our bodies to disengage from our stress, produces calmness, builds our immune system, and promotes healthy hormonal balance. We would all be better off if we took 10 minutes before going to sleep to close our eyes and pay attention to our breath. Bring our awareness to the inhale and exhale of each of our breaths. As we pay attention to it, we will most likely notice all sorts of thoughts popping up. Rather than being taken by these thoughts, just notice them and bring attention BACK to the breath.
6. Make time to socialize
Last, but not least, do maintain an active social life. Engage in face-to-face interactions with friends. Play a sport, join a book club, or take a walk with a friend. Any activity that promotes eye-to-eye interactions directly engages the right side of our brain which leads to emotion regulation. The more we interact with others, the better our ability to manage our emotions.
The Takeaway: Stress is unavoidable, but there are actions we can take that can certainly help us to mitigate its uncomfortable effects. The mentioned strategies can certainly help us manage stress triggers and better control over our emotions. Like any new habit, it takes commitment, but once we get used to following a stress reducing routine, we will feel more energized and ready to tackle any of life’s challenges.
Alex Diaz, PhD
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