We have become accustomed to stress as part of modern-day living. In the not-to-distant past, when someone asked how we were, we might answer, “Fine, good.” We are more likely to answer “Busy”, “Sorry, I cannot chat now, I have to…”
Modern living is fast-paced. There is always something we have to do, calls to make, and somewhere we have to be. We work from our phones while trying to get through our day. What does this do to us?
It can cause us to feel stressed if we cannot manage all the competing demands that are placed on us daily.
How do I know if I am stressed?
Let’s do a quick stress check.
- Do you find it difficult to switch off and relax?
- Does your mind race?
- Do you worry a lot and find it difficult to stop?
- Do you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up early?
- Do you find that you are irritable over small things?
- Do you lose your temper and get angry?
- Do you have pains in your body that are not part of an ongoing condition, such as?
- Chest pain, chest tightness
- Muscle Pain
- Sweating when it is not warm
- Shaking or trembling?
All the above are classic symptoms of a build-up of stress in the body. If you have answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may experience excess stress.
Often, I hear people saying, but I do not feel stressed; nothing terrible in my life should make me stressed. There does not have to be. If there are too many demands in your day than you have resources to cope with, you might feel the effects of stress.
What are the demands of your day?
Make a quick list of things you must do in your day.
Make a quick list of the “self-talk” inside your head, telling you what you must do. For example, “I should do….”
Self-talk, in terms of the comments being made on the things you are attempting to do, for example, “I’m not doing this right”, or” I do not have time to do this.” “I will never get everything done.”
What are the resources you have available to cope?
- Did you sleep well last night?
- How do you feel physically and mentally?
- What breaks do you have scheduled into your day?
- Can you ask for help if you need it, and is there willing help available?
- Is your sleep talk gentle and helpful, or are you nagging yourself regarding everything you do?
Look at both lists. If your resources list looks perfect, with plenty of sleep, and you feel great, you should have the resources to cope with day-to-day life.
If your resources are a little on the light side, your sleep is affected, and you feel awful and tired. The resources available daily to help you cope are stretched, and you may well feel the effects of stress.
Your resources are not enough to help you through the day; something has to give.
Where do you hold your stress?
Unwelcome stress brings many problems, and far from the least is the potential damage stress can do to your body. According to Mayo Clinic, stress can affect your body. But how does that work?
Some areas of the body are more sensitive to the effects of stress and react. Those areas vary from person to person.
Here’s the trick: the areas of my body where I feel stress the worst may differ from where you feel stress.
That’s right—stress is bad for the body and hits different people in different places.
Some quick examples: Some people feel their stomachs knot up during an unpleasant situation. Other people grind their teeth.
Many people experience tension in the body’s muscles, and not everyone who is a “muscle stressor” experiences the harmful effects of stress in the same set of muscles.
Some people find their shoulders and neck knotted and cramped. For others, the arms and legs may ache.
All this pain is due to stress.
Why is this a problem? Because stress is ongoing.
The occasional row with a friend may provoke unpleasant feelings for a week or two, but things settle, and it’s done with.
We’re talking about situations you can’t avoid or escape.
Damage to the body from stress is cumulative. As long as we stay in an uncomfortable situation, the more extended stress “hides” in that part of our body that feels it most acutely.
We’re all familiar with feeling “wrung out” some days when work or other situations haven’t treated us well. But be assured: your stress centres, those places where stress hides, have brought that stress home with you.
Why does that matter? Those areas of our body that harbour the residual effects of stress wear out more quickly and develop disease faster than other areas of the body.
For example, a common disease that is often—not always, but—caused by stress is Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Who gets this?
If you said “the stomach stressors,” you’re right!
Joint pain and fatigue? The muscle stressors get that unlovely combo.
We’re all familiar with the general idea that stress can cause and aggravate stomach ulcers.
How can you tell if stress is hijacking one of your body’s critical systems? First, pay attention to your body.
Do you have any aches or pains that don’t go away that vary in severity? Yet, visits to the doctor reveal no significant problem. At that point, start looking for stress in your environment.
Finding the source of your stress and how to defuse it will be the topic of my next post.
After that, we’ll look at ways you can help your body deal with the effects of stress without turning to the medicine cabinet for every ache and pain.
Even in this modern age of quick fixes and better living through pharmaceuticals, most of us shrug off the aches and pains that come with living.
As we age, we attribute body pain to “getting older”. There’s truth to that, of course, but I want to discuss those pains that don’t go away.
They may come and go, but sometimes they make you want to scream—or cry (I do both).
Some aches and pains need medical attention. But let’s look at those pains attributed to stress.
The first thing we need to know about stress is that it sneaks up on us. Sure, a loud argument with the boss that rattles the windows is pretty stressful!
But overall, stress is cumulative—minor annoyances and small anxieties that go unresolved build up.
That shows the event causing the stress (the stressor) must be present often. But how do we identify it?
The first step is to be attentive to your body’s reactions.
If stress hasn’t eaten you alive just yet (and like a giant hungry boa constrictor, it sure can!), and you’re having a good—or a great day—take a moment and consider how you feel from the top of your head to the sole of your feet.
What’s normal for you might not be customary for someone else, but this process allows us to get an idea of what you’re like unstressed.
Take a few moments alone. Stand upright, arms down and loose, and listen to your body.
Is your scalp saying, “wow, too tight up here!” Are your teeth grinding together? How about those hands? Do you have the urge to clench them into fists? Are your shoulders bunched up?
You should be able to raise your arms out until they’re parallel to the ground. Unless you’ve had surgery or other such intervention, the inability to do so shows that your muscles are likely bunched up and not relaxed.
But I bet you can do it with no problem on a good day.
How’s that stomach? Is it flip-flopping? Are your legs tight in the calves and thighs?
The general idea here is to take an inventory of your body state when you are unstressed. Your mental state should not be ignored, either.
Are you imagining being somewhere else? Finding a clock to watch? Or are you happy—or at least free from distress—at the moment?
Attentive listening—active mindfulness of your body’s reactions is the first step toward getting a handle on stress.
Also, pay attention to your mental processes. Is any dread going on? How about worry?
In a non-stressed situation, you’re more “present” in the moment instead of devoting energy to dealing with a stressful situation or person.
Sometimes we’ve been uncomfortable for so long that we may have “forgotten how” to relax.
I assure you that ability is still there inside you.
Identify the stress in your life.
When we refer to the term “stress,” we mean it negatively.
Stress is an emotion involving frustration and anxiety that develops from being put under pressure.
The pressure can come from any source, although that source might be challenging to identify.
Stress can lead to anxiety, which involves a feeling of unease, dread, nervousness, and even fear.
Stress and anxiety conspire to rob us of much of life’s pleasures and can leave us feeling helpless like we have no control over our lives.
There are some positive forms of stress, however. For many people, some mild pressure can lead to better performance.
Athletes find the pressure to be invigorating, but so do many people, from students to actors to anyone who looks at the demands of a situation as a challenge that’s within their capability to meet.
See, that’s a vast difference between good and bad stress: the perception that we have the ability, the tools to meet a demand or challenge, or the perception that we either lack the tools, time, or ability to resolve that challenge adequately.
So stress can be partly due to our beliefs about ourselves and our capabilities.
An unrealistic, negative self-concept can transform any challenge into a hand-wringing, gut-clenching stress-fest.
How do we modify our self-concept if we constantly think we’re not up to tasks or if we feel we can’t accomplish what’s demanded of us?
That alone is a blog entry of its own. Still, a simple and often enlightening method is to break the task, job, or requirement down into small steps and then write down what we’re going to do to get each small step done.
Finishing each component of the job or task boosts confidence and gives us a handle on getting a stressful task done.
What about interpersonal stress? That, too, has a positive aspect and a negative aspect. The challenge of dealing with difficult people can lead us to discover new reserves of patience and tolerance.
Challenging, demanding people can also wear us down and frazzle our every last nerve! So many kinds of stress flow from our relationships with others, and our relationship with them often shapes the stress itself.
Stress can come from our work situation, with colleagues, supervisors, and employees—all acting as potential sources of stress.
Then, in our personal lives, the huge number of relationships we have—as parents, children, siblings, friends, spouses, and significant others—all add to the pile of stress too!
Steps to reduce interpersonal stress
Stress is more than just a problem in the workplace. Far from it! Stress is found on the home front, too.
I wish I could say that stress could be prevented and that love, plus a healthy dose of rationality, would keep us 100% stress-free forever, but I can’t.
We exist in a complex web of relationships with others.
We may have parents, children, a spouse or significant other (s), friends, siblings, and acquaintances… the list goes on and on.
We inhabit roles in each of these relationships—to our parents, we are their children; to our children, we are parents; and so forth.
Each role has certain expectations, and the challenge of meeting those expectations can be oh-so stressful!
Conflict can arise within any of our relationships.
We can reduce interpersonal stress, but I want to discuss a few in this post.
First, you must define the sticking point between you and the other person. What is causing the friction?
Try your best to avoid defensiveness when you define problem points. Remember, you’re part of the relationship. You may contribute to the difficulty.
Remain open to hearing the other person out as you both work to define the issue itself.
The second step is maintaining clear lines of communication. You must ensure you’re contacting the people in your life by communicating with them, so they understand “where you are” at a particular time.
You must be honest in your communication. If it’s a matter of saying, “Dad, I can’t go to dinner with you because I have a huge test to study for,” say that!
Please don’t go to dinner and be unhappy to be there; doing such things breeds resentment and increases the pressure on us, hence, more stress.
Don’t just talk at someone; talk with them.
In this example, get together for dinner on a different evening.
When answering a request in the negative, try to offer a positive solution if you can.
Third, stick to your guns. Don’t be motivated to give in when someone uses guilt to get you to do something.
“Guilting” is a dirty play and shouldn’t even be acknowledged. Stick to the facts of your situation and redirect the other person back to the facts.
Fourth (and this is big): When possible, try to minimize the emotions in the interaction when working to solve a problem, even if the issue itself concerns feelings!
While we can’t do this for another person, we can control our emotions. To do so, you must know how your feelings affect particular people.
Each person in your life occupies a different place in your heart and feelings. You respond to everyone differently, and there are different “rules” (more like hazy guidelines) that come into play in each relationship.
But note how your emotions get into the mix and do your best to clarify what triggers your feelings to jump into each situation where you feel stressed.
How not to get overwhelmed
Sometimes when we discuss an anxiety-free life, people get the idea we’re talking about quitting a stressful job, ending an anxiety-provoking relationship, or making profound life-altering changes.
Sometimes, it is appropriate to end a relationship, change jobs, change towns, and make a significant change. We hear the phrase, “simplify your life,” and too often, the implication is that “make it simple” means “have as little involvement in the world as possible.”
While significant changes come to us, we’re not talking about giving up your home, partner, or job. We’re talking about fine-tuning those circumstances that already exist.
You can reduce stress, worry, and anxiety without abandoning your life while maintaining engagement.
“Engagement” is the concept of being an active participant in life, having commitments, and enjoying relationships — everything from hobbies to careers and interpersonal relationships.
Engagement is the entire work that’s external to you that you interact with. Attempting to escape anxiety and stress by isolating yourself from the world is like giving up wearing shoes because you have a pair that doesn’t fit.
Indeed, poor relationships that can’t be fixed, and the healthy thing to do is to get out. I’ve had friendships and romances that were draining and far more damaging to me than beneficial.
Although I ended those toxic relationships, I sure didn’t give up on my other relationships. If anything, those became all the stronger because I was myself, far more present than I was when I’d been living distracted and distressed.
An active, involved life can be healthy if we remember to care for ourselves. We must look after ourselves first.
Giving ourselves the time alone, meditating, and thinking about the things, events, and people around us are all healthy parts of a balanced approach to living that doesn’t see you making yourself a pariah.
Ten things to try right now
Managing how we feel is about looking at all aspects of our life. Cutting down on things that make us feel worse and increasing the things that make us feel good.
The strange thing is most of us love to keep talking and thinking about bad things and do not have time to do the things we love.
Start sorting out your mood by paying attention to the following. Start somewhere; this is small enough to get you going.
- Do not go over and over past hurts or arguments in your head. Why not? Each time you do this, you get the same sort of feelings that you did when it first happened. There is no point feeling all the bad stuff again when you might be sitting at home in front of the TV. Your thought processes make you feel bad; the actual event has gone.
- Sort out your to-do list. Remember, it is a to-do list–it is ongoing and not all completed today. How many of the things are urgent–most of the things that stress us out on the to-do list are not life-and-death situations? Very few things in life need your attention right now.
- Give yourself plenty of minor breaks throughout the day, including when working. Did you know that our brain works well for 60 to 90 minutes and then has a natural downtime? Do not push through this downtime; let your brain have a brief break, and it will thank you.
- Keep a check on the caffeine. Too much will overstimulate you and make you feel nervous. This is especially important if you have stress or anxiety. You do not want to be stimulating your already overstimulated nervous system.
- Cut back on sugar if you can. Sugar interferes with our blood sugar levels. Having blood sugar peaking and dipping can cause adrenaline and cortisol to be released, which does not help if you are already anxious.
- Watch how you talk to yourself. We all have a running commentary on our lives inside our heads. Make sure yours is helpful and not critical. Most of the time, we must pay more attention to our self-talk. Spend the next few hours policing your self-talk and find out if it is helpful or hurtful.
- Get enough sleep. Everything is easier to cope with when we have had sufficient rest.
Get started with these few simple things. It might surprise you at the difference!
It’s simple to work in a way that doesn’t cause unnecessary stress. Stop and think about how much you cram into your day or how often you feel overwhelmed because you don’t seem to have enough hours.
Often, we underestimate the time to do each “to-do” we have on our lists, or we may not allocate any time in our day to do it–we cram it in when there is a free minute. This leads to stress.
What should be a “break time” is being used to complete “to-do’s.” More demands are being placed on us than we have time to do. If we stop and think about what we need to do each day and allocate time for it, it will restore some balance.
- Make an “email slot” in your agenda.
Most people I speak to have many emails to wade through during their working day but do not allocate time to this. Make a realistic appraisal of how long you spend reading emails and give a slot each day to it. This will reduce your stress!
- Take regular breaks in your day.
Our brain works well for about 60 to 90 minutes and then needs a break. Refrain from pushing through this natural lull with coffee. Take a 15-minute recovery break. You’ll find you will become more productive.
- Refrain from overloading yourself with work.
If asked to take on a new project, wait to say yes; say that you will have to check to see when you can do it. Have a realistic look if there is space in your day and the coming days or weeks (if the project is significant.) If there is no time in your diary, there is no available time in your working day to do this.
- Keep work from bringing home with you.
It would help if you also had a break from work to be effective in your day. You are paid during working hours. Your job description will be centred around what can be achieved on a typical working day. If you cannot complete a task during your working hours, it will still be there when you return.
- Have a few “miscellaneous” slots in your working diary.
These things often crop up out of the blue in any week. These will be much easier to cope with if time is allocated for this.