Stress is something that we have become accustomed to, as part of modern day living. In the not to distant past, when someone asked how we were, we might answer “Fine, good.” Now we are more likely to answer “Busy”, “Sorry, I cannot chat now, I have to …”
Modern living is incredibly fast paced. There is always something we have to do, somewhere we have to be, calls to make. We work from our phones, while we are trying to get through our day. What does this do to us?
It can cause us to feel stressed, if we are not able to manage all the competing demands that are placed on us on a daily basis.
How do I know if I am stressed?
Lets 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 sleeping – either falling asleep, staying asleep, or wake up early?
- Do you find that you are irritable over small things?
- Do you loose your temper easily 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 particularly warm
- Shaking or trembling?
All of 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 be experiencing excess stress.
Quite often I hear people saying, but I do not feel stressed, there is nothing bad in my life that should make me stressed. There does not have to be. Quite simply,
if there are too many demands in your day than you have resources to cope with, you might eventually feel the effects of stress.
What are the demands in your day?
Make a quick list of things that you have to do in your day.
Make a quick list of the “self talk” inside your head telling you what you have also to do. For example “I should be doing…”
Self talk, in terms of the comments being made on the things that you are attempting to do, for example “I’m not doing this right”, ” 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 in to your day?
- Can you ask for help if you need it, and is there willing help available?
- If your sleep talk gentle and helpful, or are you nagging yourself regarding everything that you are doing?
Take a look at both lists. If your resources list looks really good, with plenty of sleep, and you feel physically great, you should have the resources to cope with day to day life.
If however, your resources are a little on the light side, your sleep is affected, you feel awful and tired, then the resources you have available every day to help you cope are a bit stretched and you may well feel the effects of stress.
Your resources are not enough to help you to get through the day, something has to give.
Where do you hold your stress?
Unwelcome stress brings with it a whole host of problems and far from the least of these is the potential damage stress can do to your body. But how does that work exactly?
It’s sadly simple.
Some areas of the body are more sensitive to the effects of stress, and react accordingly, and those areas vary from person to person.
Here’s the trick: the areas of my body where I feel stress the worst may be totally different from where you feel stress.
That’s right—not only is stress bad for the body, but it 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 (including yours truly) experience tension in the muscles of the body, and not everyone who is a “muscle stressor” experiences the bad 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, due to stress.
Why is this a problem? Because stress tends to be 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 the situations that you just can’t easily avoid or escape.
Damage to the body from stress is cumulative, so as long as we stay in the uncomfortable situation, the longer stress “hides” in that part of your 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 centers, those places where stress hides, have brought that stress home with you.
Why does that matter? Those areas of our body that harbor the residual effects of stress wear out more quickly and tend to develop disease faster than other areas of the body.
For example, a quite common disease that is often—not always, but often—caused by stress is Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Who gets this?
If you said, “the stomach stressors,” you’re absolutely right!
Joint pain and fatigue? The muscle stressors get that unlovely combo.
I think we’re all familiar with the general idea that stress can both 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, pains, that just 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 some ways you can help your body deal with the effects of stress without having to turn to the medicine cabinet for every ache and pain.
For more reading, please see The Physical Effects of Stress
Even in this modern age of quick fixes and better living through pharmaceuticals, most of us just shrug off the aches and pains that come with living.
Particularly as we age, we attribute body pain to just “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 really make you want to scream—or cry (I do both).
Some aches and pains do need medical attention promptly. 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 obviously stressful!
But overall, stress is cumulative. Minor annoyances and small anxieties that go unresolved build up.
That indicates the event causing the stress (the stressor) must be present fairly 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 big 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 normal 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 simply listen to your body.
Is your scalp saying, “wow, too tight up here!” Are your teeth grinding together? How about those hands? Are you having an 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 indicates that your muscles are likely bunched up and not relaxed.
But I bet on a good day, you can do it no problem.
How’s that stomach? Is it flip-flopping? Are your legs tight in the calves and thighs?
The general idea here is to slowly and gently 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—in 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. Any dread going on? How about worry?
In a non-stressed situation, you’re more “present” in the moment instead of devoting energy toward dealing with a stressful situation or person.
Sometimes we’ve been in a state of emotional and physical discomfort for so long we may have “forgotten how” to relax.
I assure you, that ability is still there, inside you.
Image source: BuddhaDoodles: Molly Hahn/Mollycules
Identify the stress in your own life
When we refer to the term “stress,” we typically mean it in a negative way.
Stress is an emotion involving frustration and anxiety that evolves from being put under pressure.
The pressure can come from any source, although that source might not be so easy to identify.
Stress can easily 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, feeling like we have no control in our lives.
There are some positive forms of stress, however. For many people some mild pressure can lead to better performance.
Athletes find 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 huge difference between good stress 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 adequately resolve that challenge.
So stress can be in part 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 that we’re not up to tasks, if we think we can’t accomplish what’s demanded of us?
That alone is a blog entry of its own, but a simple and often enlightening method is to break the task, job, or requirement down into small steps, 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.
Difficult, demanding people can also wear us down and frazzle our every last nerve! There are so many kinds of stress that flow from our relationships with others, and the type of relationship we have with them often shapes the stress itself.
Stress can come from our work situation, with colleagues, supervisors, our employees—all act as potential sources of stress.
Then, in our personal lives, the huge number of relationships we have—as parents, children, siblings, friends, spouses, significant others—they all get to add to the pile of stress too!
some more helpful information can be found on HelpGuide
Steps to reduce interpersonal stress
Stress isn’t 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 completely 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 child, 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 at any time, within any of our relationships.
There are quite a few ways we can reduce interpersonal stress, but I want to talk about just a few in this post.
First, you must define what the sticking point is between you and the other person. Exactly 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 contributing 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 make sure that you’re making contact with the people in your life by communicating with them so they understand “where you are” at a particular point in 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!
Don’t go to dinner and be patently 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, you might suggest that you get together for dinner on a different evening.
When having to answer 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 attempts to use guilt to get you to do something.
“Guilting” is dirty play and shouldn’t even be acknowledged. Stick to the facts of your situation, and redirect the other person back to the facts of the matter.
Fourth, (and this is a big one): When possible, try to minimize the emotions in the interaction when working to solve a problem, even if the problem itself concerns feelings!
While we can’t do this for another person, we can control our own emotions. To do so, you must be aware of how your own emotions come into play with particular people in your life.
Each person in your life occupies a different place in your heart and your feelings. You respond to everyone differently, and there are different sets of “rules” (more like hazy guidelines) that come into play in each relationship.
But note how your emotions get into the mix, and do your very best to clarify what triggers your emotions 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 other sorts of vast life altering changes.
There are occasions when it is appropriate to end a relationship, change jobs, change towns, in short: make a big 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 big changes come to us all, 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 significantly reduce your stress, worry and anxiety without abandoning your life even while maintaining engagement.
“Engagement” is the concept of being an active participant in life, having commitments, enjoying relationships; everything from hobbies to careers, interpersonal relationships.
Engagement is the whole works that’s external to you that you interact with. Attempting to escape anxiety and stress by isolating yourself from the world is a bit like giving up wearing shoes because you’ve a pair that doesn’t fit.
Certainly there are bad relationships that can’t be fixed, and the healthy thing to do is to get out. I’ve had friendships and romances that were emotionally draining and far more damaging to me than beneficial.
Although I ended those relationships that were actively doing we harm, I sure didn’t give up on my other relationships. If anything, those became all the stronger because I was far more myself, far more present than I was when I’d been living distracted and distressed.
An active, involved life can be a healthy life as long as we remember to take care of ourselves. We must look after ourselves first.
Giving ourselves some time alone, time to meditate, and time to think 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.
10 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 the things that are bad and do not have time to do the things we love.
Start sorting out your mood by paying attention to the following. You have to start somewhere and this is small enough to get you going.
- Do not go over and over past hurts or arguments in your head. Why not? As 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. It is your thought processes that are making you feel bad, the original event has gone.
- Sort out your to-do list. Remember it is a to-do list – it is meant to be ongoing and not all completed today. How many of the things are urgent – most of the things that stress us out on the todo list, are not life and death situations. Very few things in life need your attention right now.
- Give yourself plenty of small breaks throughout the day – including when you are working. Did you know that our brain works well for a good 60 to 90 minutes and then has a natural downtime. Do not push through this down time, let your brain have a short break and it will thank you for it.
- Keep a check on the caffeine. Too much will over stimulate 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 that goes on inside our head. Make sure yours is helpful and not critical. Most of the time we do not pay attention to our self talk. Spend the next few hours policing your own self talk and find out if it is helpful or hurtful to you.
- Get enough sleep. Everything is easier to cope with when we have had sufficient rest.
Get started with these few simple things. You might be surprised at the difference!
It’s relatively simple to start working in a way that doesn’t cause you unnecessary stress. Stop and think about how much you cram into your day, or how often you feel overwhelmed by the fact that you don’t seem to have enough hours in your day.
Quite often, we underestimate the amount of time it takes to do each “todo” we have in 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 “todo’s.” There are more demands 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 start to 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 allocate 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. Don’t push through this natural lull with coffee. Take a 15 minute recovery break. You’ll find you will become more productive.
- Don’t overload yourself with work.
If you are asked to take on a new project, don’t say yes immediately, 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 in the coming days or weeks (if the project is large.) If there is no time in your diary, there is no available time in your working day at present to do this.
- Don’t bring work home with you.
In order to be effective in your working day, you also need a break from work. You are paid during working hours. Your job description will be centered around what can be achieved in a normal working day. If you are not able to complete a task during your working hours, it will still be there when you return to work.
- Have a few “miscellaneous” slots in your working diary.
These are for things that often crop up, out of the blue in any given week. These will be much easier to cope with if there is time allocated for this.