These days, who doesn’t? What are some of the things that get you stressed out? Everyone these days seems to be struggling with stress in their lives. Maybe it’s coping with unexpected life changes due to the economy, health challenges, or the loss of a loved one. Maybe it’s the daily menu of ordinary difficulties, such as workplace challenges, relationship issues, or just feeling like there’s never enough time!
Stress affects our physical and mental health. When we feel exhausted or out of control; when we are struggling to find solutions to problems, or ways to take better care of ourselves, our health and happiness are both affected. Symptoms can be physical, such as fatigue, muscle tension, high blood pressure, lowered immunity; or emotional and behavioral, such as anxiety, anger, overeating or drug or alcohol abuse. It has been estimated that at least 80% of health problems are lifestyle related, and how well we deal with stress (or not) plays a major role in our lifestyle choices.
What happens when we get stressed? You know you can feel it in your body. Your heart rate increases, your muscles tense, you find yourself going over and over the same worry or angry thoughts.
You’ve probably heard of the flight/flight/freeze response. When we feel threatened, our brain automatically sends messages to our body to be prepared to deal with the threat. This happens at a very primitive level in our brain. When a mountain lion jumps out at us, or a truck veers into our lane on the freeway, we don’t stop to think about whether or how to react; we just react. The good news is that this ability to react quickly has enabled us to survive; the bad news is that sometimes when we react before thinking in modern times, we create more problems for ourselves.
How does stress affect our health? It does so in two ways; the first, directly, by depressing our immune system. The body is putting out a lot of energy to get back in equilibrium, leaving less energy to fight illness, etc. Stress doesn’t cause the physical problems, but it makes us vulnerable to them. The second way stress affects our health is indirectly, when we choose unhealthy ways of coping with the stress.
So what can we do about all this? Clearly we can benefit from becoming better at handling stress. Since we can’t stop stress from happening, we need to learn to handle it in a way that causes us the least harm. What are some of the things that help? Here are a few suggestions to get started:
1. Exercise. Okay, we know you’ve heard this before, but really, its importance cannot be over-emphasized. The evidence is overwhelming that exercise improves our health, reduces our stress and tension, lowers blood pressure, and helps us put things in perspective. I know for myself that if I’m upset about something and I go for a run, I will come back feeling better every time.
2. Relaxation strategies. The point here is to re-set your system a little bit, especially if your stress comes from being over-loaded. There are many ways to do this; everything from taking three minutes to focus on your breath to taking a tropical vacation! The main thing is to clear your mind and relax your body. Reading a (non-work related) book or magazine, meditating, getting a massage (my favorite), gardening, fishing, and yoga are just some ideas. The possibilities are many.
3. Work with the stress. What is it that you worry about, that wakes you up at two in the morning? Are you unhappy in your work? Are you having too much conflict in your relationships with important people in your life? Are you a “natural born worrier”? Try making a list of the things that are causing you stress. See if there are any that you can change or improve, and get them “off your list”. If there is something you can do to change the situation, great. Taking action can definitely reduce your stress level.
4. For the things you can’t change, think about what strategies you can come up with to help you cope with them. Can you get help? If the problem is something you don’t have the ability to change or eliminate, then you’re left with finding the best possible way to handle it. Can you find a way to look at the situation differently, so that it isn’t so bothersome? One of my favorite sayings comes from Wayne Dyer, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”. Can you find a way to apply this to your situation?
We’ll never get rid of stress completely, but if we have some good tools in place for handling it, we’ll feel more in control, healthier and happier.
Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She can be reached at 530-541-6696 or online at www.CatherineAisner.com.