By Donn Beaubien is a recently retired mental health therapist. She was a former social worker and retail buyer. Currently, Donn serves on three non-profit boards and is secretary of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Brainerd Chapter. Donn is actively involved in Crow Wing Energized and is a National Diabetes Prevention Program lifestyle change coach.
Stress is a natural part of life. Stress can result from both negative changes as well as changes that are seen as positive.
Regardless, stress disrupts the status quo of life. Research indicates there are four basic sources of stress: 1) the environment that demands ongoing adjustments to conditions such as weather, pollens, noise, traffic; 2) social stressors – deadlines, job interviews, work demands, job promotions, interpersonal relationships – marriage, children, divorce, financial issues, illness, death; 3) physiological – poor nutrition, poor quality of sleep, aging, injuries, lack of exercise; and 4) our own thoughts – misinterpreting another person’s body language, perfectionism, pessimism – all can be very anxiety provoking.
Our reactions to these changes can lead to stressful symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, stomach upset, anxiety and depression. Typically, people tend to seek an escape from these stressors through various means, such as a defense mechanism, avoidance, withdrawal from the situation, rituals, alcohol and drugs, or constructive physical activity. The way we manage stress contributes to how we feel about our quality of life.
Although we each respond differently in our perception to change, there are some ways in which we all can prevent stress. Pace yourself – don’t rush; it will get done. Take time in making decisions. Acknowledge what you can control and choose what changes you can take on, and then learn to say “NO.” Try to anticipate changes and use problem solving techniques. Take time to appreciate your successes. Maintain a regular exercise program.
Because stress is a natural part of life there are times when it simply cannot be avoided. Fortunately, we can change or manage the way we respond to stress. However, we first must become aware of our body’s reaction to the stressor, e.g., muscle tension, irritability, and headache. The body inevitably becomes tense when we are stressed; and once the stress is removed, the tension also goes away. Therefore, catch the stress as early as possible. First, consciously stop yourself once you realize you are stressed. Breathe deeply and relax; go for a walk or bike ride – change your environment, if possible; hydrate yourself.
As part of a long-term strategy to manage stress and improve self-care, consider implementing these well recognized strategies:
- Satisfactory quality and quantity of sleep (7 to 8 hours/day); 6 hours or less triples your risk of a car accident. To obtain more health benefits from sleep, avoid caffeine after 3pm.
- Maintain proper nutrition. Spread your calories out through the day. Focus on eating whole grains, a variety of vegetables and fruits, and lean protein. Stay hydrated with the goal of drinking enough water to equal ½ your weight in ounces. (e.g. an individual who weighs 160 lbs. should drink 80 ounces or 10 glasses of water each day ).
- Exercise regularly. Exercise reduces feelings of tension. It helps your body to release endorphins that will increase your feelings of wellbeing. Set a distance or time goal that is achievable and proceed from there. Walk with a friend or use an activity tracker to help with motivation and accountability.
- Maintain healthy relationships. Healthy relationships can be a buffer against stress. Although it is easy to text or email, embrace the opportunity for face-to-face or phone conversations where your true feelings can be better expressed and properly understood.
- Find hobbies or recreational activities that you enjoy. Hobbies and activities help to re-direct stress. They should be fun and also offer the opportunity for growth. Hobbies that use the hands, such as gardening or needle work, can be great stress relievers.
- Pamper yourself. Pamper yourself on regular basis, if possible – massage, manicure/pedicure. Looking good on the outside has a positive impact on your internal/mental state.
- Keep your mind sharp. Consider stress a challenge rather than a threat. Keep your mind sharp by doing puzzles or brain teasers that are fun, yet help you take on a challenge.
- Process your emotions. It is ideal to address your concerns as they arise. A good way to process your feelings is journaling. When you write down your feelings, and potential solutions, you can reduce stress and even experience some health benefits.
- Maintain a spiritual connection or meditate. Studies show that people who incorporate religion or spirituality in their lives generally have a healthier lifestyle. Spiritual practice is very personal, but should nurture the soul. Meditation can help you focus on one thing at a time and create a distance between your emotions and your thoughts. Regular meditation can help you feel more focused and calm, able to make better choices, and less prone to reactive responses.
- Have the right attitude. Think positively – the glass half-full rather than half-empty. Schedule time for yourself. Read or listen to a joke every day. Humor can help put things in a different light. Having an optimistic outlook can not only decrease your stress level, but possibly bring you more success in life!