Life seems to be going faster and faster. There’s more to do, and we may feel as if there is less time in which to do it. Stress is a part of life and taking steps to cope with stress will put you on the path to better health and greater happiness.
What causes stress?
To learn how to cope with stress, you have to understand what causes it. While we often blame technology for our stress, it’s not the only source. Our bodies are pre-wired for it too. During the hunter phase of the evolutionary process, humans were in “run, kill, or be killed” scenarios. Life was a daily challenge of simply surviving.
As a result, we often fall into “default mode.” It takes us to the land of stress, fear (often the root of our stress), and less optimism than we might inherently possess.
In addition, there’s technology. While it makes our lives easier, the outcome is a sense of urgency that we impose on ourselves, which then becomes our cultural reality. The result? Stress, stress, and more stress.
It’s important to recognize your stress symptoms and find ways to manage it because it affects how we feel physically and mentally. The impact is overwhelming, causing increased heart attacks, hypertension, and other disorders according to The American Institute of Stress.
The Institute points out that the relationship between stress and our health is so well known that when a police officer has a heart attack or other coronary issue on and off the job in New York and Los Angeles, it’s a considered a work-related injury.
We all have different reactions. Some people thrive on stress, while others suffer.
Before we get to the stress management exercises, let’s understand what causes stress. Recognizing the signs will help you manage it better.
What are the symptoms of stress?
Stress comes in many forms, causing emotional and body tension. It even changes the size of your brain!
So why does this happen? First, stress increases your adrenaline and cortisol which in turn increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar. It also lowers functions that are non-essential in an acute situation like your immune system, gastrointestinal and GI system, reproductive system, and growth processes.
Now for the surprising part! Science shows it causes damage to nerve cells and even changes the size of some parts of the brain!
It decreases the size of the hippocampus, which impacts short and long-term memory. On the flip side, stress increases the amygdala, which plays a role in the type and intensity of our emotional reactions. As a result, you may feel like you can’t concentrate as long, you’re anxious or fearful, or you may suffer from impaired decision making.
Here’s a stress symptom checklist. How many do you feel?
There are many potential reasons why you don’t feel well when you’re stressed. Your body and emotions both respond. Behavior which does not serve you well (and even creates more stress in the long run) may follow.
If you suffer from a medical condition, it’s important to identify if stress is a trigger. You don’t want to complicate the situation because research shows 50% of individuals with medical conditions also suffer from anxiety or depression. You want to manage what you can.
How do you cope with stress?
If you’re not feeling the health effects, start by evaluating how you feel. This will tell you how well you cope with stress.
What number best describes you?
If you answered 5, 8, or 10, you probably need a break from the stress circuit. The 12 Journeys is a way to recharge your soul in two minutes. You can view it at the beginning of the day or any point you need a calming tone.
Over the next month, begin to take notice of how often your stress level hits 5 or higher. Then keep a tally so you can make an honest self-assessment at the end of 30 days of the percentage of the time you fall in an “I Need Help !” (INHI) Status. For example, a consistently high level of stress or one which raises a significant concern for you. The INHI = the number of days at a stress level of 5 or higher divided by the number of days in the month multiplied by 100%.
If you know you are regularly sitting at 5 or higher most of the time, or stress overwhelms you, please seek care from a healthcare/mental health professional. They can evaluate your situation and rule out any medical or other conditions which may be causing or contributing to your symptoms.
If you are in crisis, an additional resource may be the toll-free, 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
Do not expect perfection. If you forget or miss a few days, pick up where you left off. Change is often about taking baby steps and anticipating periodic slippage. It is not an all-or-none phenomenon. Some action over time is going to get you there sooner than writing things off because you did not follow the process 100% of the time.
Identify your stress triggers
To manage stress in life, you need to identify your stress triggers. It’ll improve your health because studies show a link between stress and many of the leading causes of death in the United States including heart disease and some cancers.
Remember those threats to life and limb which early man encountered while hunting to survive?
Think about your “lions and tigers.”
What puts (or keeps) you in a state of feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, irritability, or fear? Do you know the cause of muscle tension, a racing heart, sweaty palms, GI distress, headache, low back pain, or problems sleeping? What triggers that craving for chocolate, fast food, “just one more” cookie, a cigarette, or an extra glass of wine you don’t really need?
Work is often a top answer, according to The American Institute of Stress. But, it’s not the only trigger. Here are a few others. How many of these have you experienced?
death of a loved one
loss of job
birth of a child
building a house
successfully achieving a major goal
having many options
being your own boss
For a more thorough stress assessment, take the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. It puts a value on life events you recently experienced. It evaluates things like changing homes, work challenges, and family issues. Each one has a score associated with it.
Once you know your score, your stress checkup is complete. Now, it’s time to deal with stress so you can overcome it and avoid a stress-related breakdown.
Plus, small steps you can take to change your life each month.
How to manage stress in life
Once you recognize stress, it’s time to find healthy ways to deal with stress.
First, how consistently aware are you that your stress is about to make an appearance? How often do you recognize the early signs which may be a red flag before you find yourself in the midst of a stress behavior or a state of overwhelm?
If you can begin to recognize a few of these alerts, which may sometimes be silent or subtle, you will be in a better position to respond rather than react. Eventually, you’ll head things off at the pass completely, depending upon the source of stress.
Let’s start with some stress relief techniques. Consciously practice these at a specific time of day, so you become adept at noticing both physical and emotional signs. Doing these stress reduction exercises at the same time each day also helps you reflect on it. Soon you’ll become accustomed to picking up on the cues. They will help you when you find yourself in stressful moments like traffic jams, a seemingly endless To-Do list, an unexpected deadline, continually pinging e-mails or experience the stress of chronic pain or the uncertainty of a life or career transition.
If you’d like more comprehensive exercises, pick up a copy of “Be Less Stressed.” It contains a year’s worth of tools; you can do monthly, to manage your stress levels all the time!
For most people, their stress levels did not reach distressing levels overnight. They will not magically vanish quickly either. That’s why the “Be Less Stressed” book intentionally moves at a pace which is manageable and doesn’t lead to more stress.
Stress relief exercise #1 – Don’t stress about stress
First, recognize that stress can pop up when you least expect it. That may cause more distress because you think you “should” be feeling a particular way in a given situation. That’s the first key to managing stress. Do NOT become stressed about being stressed!
Observe and do not judge yourself or others. Adding an extra layer of energy and emotion on your stress cake is only going to make it topple over from the weight of all that stress icing.
Healthy stress exercise #2 – Reality check
Consider asking someone with whom you feel comfortable and whose judgment you trust to do a “reality check.” This helps you see things differently than you can through a self-examination. For example, are you really going to be able to make someone else change a habit built over a lifetime which drives you crazy if they do not have any interest in doing so and do not even view it as a problem?
Then, select one stress trigger over which you have a reasonable amount of control and would like to address going forward. Secondly, find a trigger over which you have little or no control which you would like to learn to let go and put in perspective.
Finally, recommit to your decision to make strides to be less stressed. Keep this quote from Syndey J. Harris in mind:
“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.”
Exercise #3 – Respond rather than react
At this point, you should have identified a stressor which you have a reasonable amount of control and want to address. Plus, one which you have little or no control over which you would like to learn to let go of and put into perspective.
Take 30 minutes to identify and make a list of feelings which arise and the parts of your body which react when you think of each of these.
Exercise #4 – Observe
Take 5 minutes before you get out of the bed in the morning and before you go to sleep at night to observe how you feel. Do this over the next four weeks.
Week #1 – For example, observe how your body feels the first week. Are your muscles tight? Are your shoulders up at your ears? Does your low back feel tight, achy, or painful? Does your head feel like it’s in a vise? Is your stomach in knots? These are a few of the ways stress physically manifests in some people.*
(*These signs may also signal an underlying medical condition. Remember this and seek advice from a healthcare professional to ensure you are not ignoring serious symptoms or delaying the diagnosis of a medical condition.)
Where does stress show up in your body?
Just notice. Don’t judge.
Week #2 – Now that you’re in touch with how you’re holding your body during the day and while you sleep, spend 1 minute doing a “body scan.” Then, use the other 4 minutes consciously relaxing any parts of your body that are tight, tense, or tender.
Just notice and go with the flow. Don’t judge.
Week #3 – Third, observe your feelings. Do you feel tired, exhausted, overwhelmed, anxious, irritated, frustrated, relaxed, happy, grateful, excited?
Just notice. Don’t judge.
Week #4 – Finally, practice taking slow, deep breaths. Expand your belly on the inhale and allow it to collapse naturally on the exhale. Inhale the positive feelings you find helpful and release the ones that are not serving you well.
Being mindful of your breath can be done anywhere and anytime, at home or even in the office. You only need a few minutes. Learn how to find time to be more mindful.
Just notice. Don’t judge.
Healthy ways to be less stressed
Change is often about taking baby steps and anticipating periodic slippage. Regular action over time is going to get you there sooner. Plus, it will be more sustainable than trying to sprint to the finish only to find out you’re actually in a marathon and not a 5K run.
That’s why I created 12-months worth of exercises to cope with stress. The “Be Less Stressed” guidebook takes a comprehensive look at the issue and identifies ways you can manage it.
If you have reached a point where one-on-one support focused on you and customized to your special situations sounds like your next best step, please contact us to discuss how integrative coaching may be just what you need and to learn more about its benefits.
If you are an employer and would like to provide this program to your employees, please contact us to explore a customized solution to meet your needs.
What’s your most eye-opening stress trigger?
As a physician, healthcare executive at a Fortune 100 company, and integrative health practitioner, Z. Colette Edwards, MD, MBA knows the unique value of a holistic, whole-person approach to health and well-being. She also understands the challenges health inequities can present. Known as “The Insight Doctor,” she offers guidance and powerful tools that prepare your body, mind, and spirit for menopause, stress, and inflammatory bowel disease. Lastly, Dr. Edwards coaches individuals in the development of self-advocacy and health system navigation skills.
(Personal Insight MD, LLC, PeopleTweaker, and Insight MD does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are feeling extreme anger with thoughts and actions harmful to yourself or others such as physical/verbal abuse or acts of violence, find yourself self-medicating with alcohol, illicit drugs, etc., expressing your anger in such a way that threaten relationships or your job, etc. seek professional help immediately and call 911 if necessary if you find yourself in an out-of-control situation or have the urge to hurt yourself or others.)