This section of our web site examines STRESS and its many aspects.
Although we all talk about stress, most of us probably do not have a clear understanding of what it is. Many people understand stress as something that happens to them--for example, a natural disaster, an injury, a job loss, or too much work. Others think that stress is what happens to our body and mind in response to an event (e.g., heart pounding, anxiety, fear, exhaustion, or nail biting). However, while stress does involve events and our physical response to them, they are not the most important factors. It is our thoughts about the difficult situations that confront us that are critical.
When something happens to us, we automatically evaluate the situation. If we decide that the demands of the situation outweigh our skills, then we might label the situation as “stressful” and react with a “stress response.” If we decide that our coping skills are greater than the demands of the situation, then we don’t see it as “stressful.” How we assess situations and respond to them can also be influenced by past experiences, especially traumatic experiences. It is therefore helpful to understand how trauma can affects us. There are strategies and exercises described later in this handbook that also are useful in overcoming the affects of trauma. For more information on trauma, visit www.trauma-informed.ca.
Stress can come from any situation or thought that makes us feel frustrated, angry, fearful, or anxious. Everyone sees situations differently and has different coping skills. For this reason, no two people will respond exactly the same way to a given situation. It is not the event, but rather a person’s perception and experience of an event, that defines whether or not it is stressful.
It is important to understand that some situations that we considered positive are stressful. For example, the birth of a child, being promoted at work, or moving to a new home may not be perceived as threatening, but may feel “stressful” because we don’t feel fully prepared to deal with them and the changes they might involve. Change, even when it is positive, can disrupt our feelings of confidence, safety, stability, balance, order, and control. But change can also provide opportunities to learn, grow, and develop new ways of coping that lead to new balance and deeper feelings of confidence, self-awareness, comfort, and connection.
Stress is a normal part of life. In small quantities, stress is good; it can motivate us and help us become more productive. However, too much stress, or a strong response to stress, can be harmful. If we always respond in a negative way to stressful situations, our health and happiness may suffer. But, by understanding ourselves and our reaction to stressful situations, we can learn to handle the effects more effectively. Managing stress is not about learning how to avoid or escape the pressures and turbulence of life; it is about learning how to calmly weather the storms of life. To learn stress management is to learn about the mind-body connection and the degree to which we can manage our health in a positive way.
The environment can bombard you with intense and competing demands to adjust. Examples of environmental stressors include weather, noise, crowding, pollution, traffic, unsafe and substandard housing, and crime.
We can experience many stressors at the same time arising from the demands of the various roles we play in life, (e.g., being a parent, spouse, caregiver, and employee at the same time). Examples of social stressors include deadlines, financial problems, job interviews, presentations, disagreements and conflict, demands for our time and attention, loss of a loved one, divorce, and co-parenting.
Situations and circumstances that affect our body can be stressful. Examples of physiological stressors include rapid growth during adolescence, menopause, illness, aging, giving birth, accidents, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, and sleep disturbances.
Our brain interprets and perceives situations as stressful, difficult, painful, or pleasant. Many situations in life can be stress provoking, but it is our thoughts that determine whether they are a problem for us.
It is important to learn how to recognize when our stress levels are “out of control” or affecting us negatively. The signs and symptoms of stress overload can be varied. Stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways, and everyone experiences stress differently.
Three common ways that people respond when they are overwhelmed by stress are:
- An angry or agitated response. We may feel heated, keyed-up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.
- A withdrawn or depressed response. We may shut down, space out, or show very little energy or emotion.
- A tense and frozen response. We may “freeze” under pressure and feel as if we can’t do anything. We may look paralyzed but under the surface feel extremely agitated.
- memory problems
- inability to concentrate or difficulty concentrating
- poor judgement
- seeing only the negative side of things
- anxious, racing, or repeating thoughts
- constant worrying
- trouble learning new information
- difficulty making decisions
- irritability or short temper
- overreaction to petty annoyances
- excessive defensiveness or suspiciousness
- agitation, inability to relax
- feeling overwhelmed
- sense of loneliness or isolation
- depression or general unhappiness
- sudden attacks of panic
- aches and pains, muscle tension
- headaches, jaw clenching or pain
- diarrhea or constipation
- nausea, dizziness, or butterflies in the stomach
- chest pain or rapid heartbeat
- loss of sex drive
- fatigue or constant tiredness
- difficulty breathing
- frequent colds
- shallow breathing and sweating
- tremors, trembling of lips, hands
- dry mouth, problems swallowing
- rashes, itching, hives
- eating more or less
- sleeping too much or too little
- gritting or grinding teeth
- isolation from others
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- using alcohol, tobacco, or drugs to relax
- nervous habits (nail biting, pacing)
- nervous habits, feet taping, fidgeting
- excessive gambling or impulse buying
- How do you know when you are stressed?
- Where do you feel stress in your body?
- What do you notice about your body, thoughts, and feelings when things are difficult?
- What might others tell you they notice about you when you are stressed?
- How do you behave when you are feeling stressed out?
- How do you react negatively or proactively to stress?
- How do you currently cope with stress?
- Do you…
- regret being angry or short-tempered with others?
- feel as if your emotions are getting the best of you?
- use alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to cope with stress (prescription, over-the-counter, or street drugs)?
- have sleep problems (either sleep too much or don’t get enough restful sleep)?
- feel as if things are overwhelming or out of control?
- laugh or smile less than you used to?
- yell, cry, or withdraw a lot?
- feel sad, disappointed, or worried?
- eat too much or too little when you are stressed?
- feel that you are not in control of your life?
- have trouble letting go of things that are bothering you?
- blame yourself or think that nothing goes right?
Here are 25 strategies that can help you manage stress:
Accept the moment as it is: Accepting the moment as it is prevents you from launching into the litany of "shoulds" that can cause stress and helps you problem solve. You see what is actually happening instead of what you would like to see happen or what you are worried could happen.
Plan ahead to remain calm: To plan ahead and remain calm, use deep breathing as you picture yourself managing a typically stressful situation in a relaxed manner.
Be in charge of your body's stress reactions: Learn to recognize and release tension in your body. Practice yoga, meditation and breathing techniques to calm your body and mind. Listen to relaxation CDs, guided relaxation, guided imagery, or make your own recording. Refer to the section in this handbook entitled “Relieving Stress.”
Eat healthful foods: Plan to keep track of what you eat for three days. Read the Canada Food Guide for healthful nutrition. Compare this to your food intake and decide what changes you want to make.
Learn stress-reduction techniques: Learn more about mindful relaxation, breathing techniques, use of imagery, and body exercises (e.g., body scans, progressive muscle relaxation, shoulder-and-neck relaxation). Refer to the section in this handbook entitled “Relieving Stress.”
Dance, run, skip, walk!: Regular exercise releases endorphins, our "feel-good" hormones. Then, stretch your body to eliminate pent-up tension.
Try music: Listening to music can soothe and relax you. Singing can really lift your mood! The shower and car are good options for people who think their singing will cause stress for others.
Cultivate a hobby: Whether it be gardening, stamp-collecting, reading, cooking, or any physical activity, hobbies add value to our lives and take us away from stresses.
Use humour: Lighten up a stressful situation. Watch a funny movie, read a funny book, or laugh with your friends.
Spend time in nature: Research says that even gazing out the window at a garden plot or looking at a photo of a natural setting can reduce stress. If you can walk in nature, so much the better. But you don't need to go to a forest; even strolling along a tree-lined street or through a park will do.
Talk to yourself: Instruct yourself not to get hot and bothered about the situation. Tell yourself to calm down, relax, let go. Challenge negative thoughts.
Speak up for yourself: Allowing frustration and anger to linger is very stressful for your body. Think about enrolling in assertiveness training if speaking up is hard for you.
Try aroma therapy: A few whiffs of scents like lavender, rose, and green apple can help tame tension and produce a feeling of calmness.
Have a hot cup of herbal tea: Chamomile or mint tea can be especially calming.
Let go of the idea of a perfect life: Not everything is going to work out perfectly, no matter how hard you want it to.
Find time to play: Many adults have forgotten how to play. Play is defined as active engagement in something you enjoy. It's not just for kids.
Make time for friends: Organize time to spend with old friends and allow time to make new friends.
Talk to a therapist, counsellor, or spiritual advisor: Talking therapy can help restore a feeling of control when situations are overwhelming.
Get in touch with your creative side: There are many ways to banish the blues through artistic expression-for example, painting, drawing, making a collage, taking photos, or shaping clay. The important thing is to externalize thoughts and feelings that are causing you stress.
Write your thoughts and feelings in a daily journal: The benefits of journaling include lowering levels of stress hormones, decreasing the numbers of sick days taken, boosting the immune function, and increasing the ability to handle adversity and adjust to change.
Change your environment: Lower the lights, turn on calming music, and open the curtains to let the sunshine in.
Take a mini-break: Close your eyes and take three deep breaths while imagining yourself in a peaceful place--for example, in a garden or a field of wild flowers, or on a beach.
Expect change: When you accept that change is inevitable, it helps you be more flexible (and less stressed) when it does happen.
Take a sedative bath: Taking a bath in water that is close to skin temperature is called a "sedative bath," or "neutral bath," and is documented to relieve tension. For muscle soreness or tightness, experts recommend a higher water temperature, but not too hot. You should be able to easily enter the water.
Smile!: Research says that there is a powerful link between facial expression and emotion.
(Note: “Strategies for Managing Stress” was adapted from Pearson, 2008.)
Sponsored by the Government of Manitoba, Department of Healthy Living.
© 2009-2011 Klinic Community Health Centre • Winnipeg Manitoba Canada