Stress. It is inescapable and unavoidable. Small amounts of stress are beneficial to the body, urging us to adapt to our environment. However higher stress levels, if left unchecked, can lead to serious illnesses of the body such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes (Mayo Clinic staff, 2013b). Symptoms that stress may be taking a toll on you can include bodily symptoms such as headache, chest pain, stomach upset, and sleep problems. It can also affect your mood, showing up as anxiety, restlessness, sadness, and irritability (Mayo Clinic staff, 2013b). Stress is a part of life, but it is what you do with it that makes a difference to your health, both physical and mental.
There are many, many causes of stress. Some stress can be motivating, such as the stress that a writer might feel as a deadline approaches. Many writers (and many students) may declare that they actually produce better work under the pressure of the deadline. Most people deal with stress at their jobs, especially if they have difficult interpersonal relationships with their bosses or coworkers or are concerned about the stability of their job. Ask any parent and they will tell you that raising children is stressful. Caregiving is one of the most stressful situations we can experience, whether you are caring for an ill family member or an aging parent or grandparent. According to the American Psychological Association (2012), “On a scale of 1 to 10, caregivers’ mean level of stress was 6.5 compared with 5.2 among the general public. In fact, 55 percent of caregivers said they felt overwhelmed by the amount of care they must provide” (p. 18).
So we all experience stress, but none of us want to face a future of physical illness or mental illness. We can’t erase stress from our lives. The question then becomes how to manage that stress so that we can prevent illness and keep ourselves well, mentally and physically. For many people, when they think about relaxation or stress relief, they picture an exotic vacation with sandy beaches and the roar of the ocean nearby. Some people try to relieve their stress by self-medicating with alcohol or food or a shopping spree at their favorite store. The good news is that stress relief doesn’t have to be expensive, require an extended period of time away from home and responsibilities, or have other health repercussions.
The Mayo Clinic recommends a program called The Four A’s. The first A is Avoid: stay away from people that bother you, say no to demands on your time, take control of your surroundings, and ditch part of your to-do list. The second A is Alter: manage your time and communicate your needs with others around you, including requesting that others change their behavior around you. The third A is Accept: talk about your struggles with a friend or professional counselor, forgive those that may have wronged you, use positive self- talk, and learn from your mistakes. The final A is Adapt: change your standards or expectations (for example, do you really need to sweep every single day?), reframe the issue, adopt a mantra, and look at the big picture (Mayo Clinic staff, 2013a).
For many of us, the demands on our time are so extensive that we don’t have a large amount of time to get away from our source of stress. In these cases, we can use deep breathing exercises wherever we are. Simply sit up straight and place a hand on your stomach as a reminder to breathe from your diaphragm. Breathe deeply in through your nose, concentrating on making your stomach (and your hand) rise. Exhale through your mouth, emptying as much of the air as you can while contracting your stomach muscles. Continue to practice through several breaths. Deep breathing in this way increases the amount of oxygen coursing through your body and this helps you to release tension and anxiety. Deep breathing can also be used along with progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, visualization meditation, and yoga or tai chi. If possible, it’s best to be coached by a professional through these more advanced meditation practices a few times at first.
In addition to deep breathing and other forms of meditation, there are other ways to incorporate healthy stress relief into your life. One way is to get your body moving. For some people that may be just a short walk around the block. For others, an hour long aerobics class may be just the ticket. If mobility is an issue for you, there are several chair workouts that can be found online (for example, through YouTube) that offer modified exercise options. Another form of healthy stress relief is using your mind. For creative people, painting, drawing, or even coloring books for adults may offer some relief. For those that are more interested in numbers and problem-solving, Sudoku or other types of puzzles may work for them. The key to managing your stress levels is to find what works for you, taking into account what interests you and how much time you have free.
When you get on an airplane to travel, one of the safety procedures that the flight attendant will mention is what to do in case of emergency. In the case of loss of air pressure in the cabin, oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling in front of you. Here’s the important part: always put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs. Stress relief is your oxygen mask. Making time for managing your stress will help you be a better employee, parent, student, caregiver, or whatever your role might be. As always, if your stress becomes overwhelming and you start to experience depression or anxiety symptoms, consulting a professional is the important next step.
Martin, S. (2012). Our health at risk. Monitor on Psychology, 43(3), 18. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/03/stress.aspx
Mayo Clinic staff. (2013). Need stress relief? Try the 4 A’s. Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044476
Mayo Clinic staff. (2013). Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987