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Managing stress

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Managing stress

More than half of Americans reported fatigue, irritability, sleeplessness, and headaches due to stress, according to the APA 2008 Stress in America survey.

Stress relief can take many forms. Resilience strategies can help you cope with the physical and emotional signs of stress. Other attempts at managing stress, such as smoking, substance abuse, and overeating, may make you feel better for a short time, but they pose big risks to your health. Developing positive coping strategies, on the other hand, leads to greater resilience and well-being over the long term

Coping with stress

When you are experiencing a high level of stress, you can change the situation or change your response to it. To change the situation, you can use problem-solving skills to avoid, reduce, or change the stressful situation. To change your response, you can accept the stressful situation or adapt to it. You can also establish habits that put you and your health first and help you bounce back from stress when it gets overwhelming.

To change the stressful situation, you can:

  • Set boundaries, learn to say no, and look for ways to trim back your to-do list and calendar.
  • Spend time with people whose company you enjoy and, as much as you can, limit the time and energy you spend on people who stress you out.
  • Change your environment: do errands online, change your commute, take a break from the news, take a walk to get away from the workplace at break time, set up some time to be alone.
  • Express your feelings assertively and respectfully and be prepared to negotiate and compromise with others in order to improve a situation.

Not all situations can be changed. To change your own response to stress, you can:

  • Try to reframe the situation. Focus on any positive aspects you can find. For example, rather than fuming about your boss, try focusing on the advantages of having a job and the things you like about it.
  • Take the long view. Ask yourself what’s going to matter to you tomorrow, in a month, or a year from now.
  • Avoid the trap of perfectionism. Learn to be satisfied with “good enough,” in yourself and others.
  • Recognize what is beyond your control, and focus your energy on things you can do something about.
  • Learn to forgive. You can free yourself of negative energy if you let go of anger and resentments.

Healthy habits that will help you bounce back from stress quickly:

  • Talk things over with others. Sharing your feelings with people who are in your corner can help you process and move on.
  • Make time for yourself. Set aside time every day to be alone, to relax, and to enjoy your favorite activities.
  • Keep a sense of humor. Learn to laugh at yourself, and look for the funny and absurd in a stressful situation.
  • Eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and avoid substances that can mask your stress, such as alcohol and drugs.

What to watch for

It’s easy to slip into ways of reducing stress that may seem to give you relief for a little while, but that can cause more damage in the long run.

Unhealthy habits you should replace with a healthier way of managing stress:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking too much
  • Overeating or not eating enough
  • Zoning out for hours in front of the TV or computer
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities
  • Using pills or drugs to relax, outside of the advice from a doctor
  • Sleeping too much
  • Filling up every minute of the day to avoid facing problems
  • Procrastinating
  • Taking your stress out on others with anger or violence

Sometimes stressful events happen in quick succession or stress builds up and becomes overwhelming. Stress has physical as well as emotional effects.

If you are experiencing any of the following, it may be time to seek help from a healthcare provider:

  • You feel trapped, overwhelmed, or helpless
  • You are experiencing physical complaints from stress, like unusual fatigue, headaches, sleeplessness, or inability to eat
  • You are drinking or using drugs to relax and cope
  • You feel worried all the time and can’t concentrate

The relaxation response

Stress is a natural response to changes and challenges. One stress management technique is to develop a relaxation response.

The stress response floods your body with chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that prepare you for “fight or flight.” Your breathing and heart rate increase and you get a surge of energy.

The relaxation response brings your system back into balance: deepening your breathing, reducing stress hormones, slowing down your heart rate and blood pressure, and relaxing your muscles.

Anyone can exercise their relaxation response so that it eventually becomes natural. There are many ways to practice the relaxation response, including deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, visualization, yoga, and tai chi.

Stress at every age

Just as stressful events can happen at any time of life, resilience can also be developed at any time of life, from young children to the elderly.

We hope that our children will have happy, carefree years. However, events beyond our control can be stressful for children. The American Psychological Association has a guide for parents and teachers on building resilience in children.

Loss of a spouse
One of the most stressful times in life can come when a spouse dies after a long and happy marriage. An article in Psychology Today describes research that has shown that while it is important to watch for signs of serious depression after the loss of a mate, many widows and widowers are comforted by their memories and may be helped by opportunities to smile and laugh over these memories.

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