Coping Strategies for Stress
By Kathy Batesel
Kill Stress Before It Kills You!
Most people think of stress as what happens when they feel pressured or when bad things happen to them, but even joyous occasions can cause stress. Planning a wedding, for instance, is stressful!
According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than half of all adult Americans feel concerned about the level of stress in their lives, and three-quarters of those surveyed reported having high to moderate stress within the month prior.
Fatigue, addictions, and insomnia are noticeable physical results of feeling stressed, but the effects go deeper: Stress is estimated to be a factor in about 40% of work absenteeism, four times higher than non-fatal illnesses and injuries, and it makes us more susceptible to illnesses, too! Stress is believed to play an important role in allowing inflammation in the body, which means besides depression, stress may play a major role in fibromyalgia, arthritis, and even obesity.
It's more important than ever to understand what causes us to feel stress and how to get rid of it.
Do you experience physical symptoms of stress?
Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety
In most articles on this topic, you'll find a typical list of symptoms of stress:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle pain or tension
- Decreased sex drive
- Upset stomach
- Easily irritated / angry
- Excessive worrying
- Depression, sadness, and feelings of hopelessness
- Difficulty concentrating or staying motivated and focused
- Smoking, drinking, or other compulsive behaviors
- Withdrawing from others
- Abandoning responsibilities
What you won't find as often is what happens when these things take hold in your life!
Why These Things Matter
- Relationships suffer
- Our work performance suffers
- We have a harder time experiencing pleasure
- We get sick faster, for longer, and more often than we used to
In short, stress reduces our quality of life in a gradual, insidious way. We may not realize how much effect it's having on us, because we don't think of stress when we think of how bad we feel. We're too focused on more immediate causes, like what we ate for lunch.
Evaluate Your Stress Level
Use the table below to determine how stress if affecting your life today. Afterward, we'll look at the kinds of stresses that may be creating these effects, and examine effective ways to rid yourself of these problems so you can have more pleasure in your life, be more productive, and have better relationships with your family and friends.
Even if you know of a direct cause that is making you have one of these symptoms, count it in. Stress is likely to be an indirect contributor. Count up the total number of signs that you've noticed in the last few months.
Signs of Stress
Frequent illness (colds, flu, sinus, etc.)
Feeling anxious or negative regularly
Restless or easily bored
Feelings of hopelessness or depression
Changes in eating habits
Unexplained aches and pains
Less sensitive to others
Sarcastic or cynical outlook
Unable to relax
Making mistakes more often
Indulging in addictive substances
Unusual heart beat or palpitations
Higher degree of forgetfulness
Feeling dissatisfied with home or job
Compulsive behaviors like cleaning
Confusion or muddy thoughts
Poor time management
Withdrawing from other people
Your Stress Results
If you have experienced more than three or four of these things over the last several months, stress has been taking its toll on your life.
Sometimes it's easy to think, "Well, I have this illness that's causing me to have these symptoms." The truth is that your symptoms will decrease at least somewhat if you can reduce the stress in your life.
Take a look at whether your symptoms fall mostly into a single category, or whether it's affecting several areas of your life. This will help you understand how to develop a personal strategy that will be most helpful.
Causes of Stress
Believe it or not, we all need some stress in our lives. Having too little stress can create the same effects as having too much. When we have an optimal amount of stressors, we function at our best. We rise to meet challenges that come our way. We feel good about our performance. We are mentally engaged and interested in what's happening around us.
Plus, some stress is called "eustress." The "eu" prefix refers to something desirable or good, much like the word euphoria or euphimism. The opposite of eustress is distress, the kind of stress we experience when we're worried about losing our jobs or an argument we've had with someone we love.
Another way to measure stress involves looking at the kinds of events that typically create stress. How many of these have you experienced in the last year?
Chronic "small events"
Marriage in immediate family
Death of a family member
Poor work environment
Child's graduation from high school
Loss of a family member in another way
Too much or too little workload
Death or loss of a good friend
Child's problems at school
Regularly caught in rush hour traffic
Adding a family member / childbirth
Chronic health issues (allergies, diabetes, etc.)
Serious illness in family member
Being diagnosed with a serious illness
In Your Experience
How many of the stressful events above have you experienced in the last 12 months?
Coping with Stress
In the next few sections, I'll break out techniques you can use to address the specific ways stress is affecting your life based on the table you saw above. If you had most of your symptoms in the "emotional" category, start there. If you found that stress has more of an effect on the way you feel physically, ignore the emotional tips for now and get straight to the physical coping.
Reduce Physical Stress
Tight muscles, frequent headaches, and a burning stomach are no way to go through your day!
Here are some tips to use whenever you're feeling less than your best:
- Take a brisk walk, climb stairs, or do sit-ups for five or ten minutes.
- Develop an exercise program you can do a few times a week.
- Take a yoga class.
- Get a massage.
- Visit a chiropractor.
- Learn these neck and shoulder relaxation techniques you can do anywhere.
- Learn deep breathing techniques like the one shown in the 5-minute video shown here.
- Learn self-hypnosis or use a CD to achieve the same effect. (Take a look at the book and CD shown at right to get started.)
All of these techniques can help to reduce the physical effects of stress. Some of them can be used quickly for an immediate effect, while a couple of them require some advance planning. For ongoing benefits, a regular exercise routine has the most lasting and noticeable impact.
In Your Experience
How often do you experience symptoms of mental stress?
How would you rate your diet?
If you notice stress affecting the way you think and feel, you're not alone! The "fixes" for mental stress may be harder to achieve, but never fear - it *is* possible!
One of the most important aspects to managing mental stress has nothing to do with the way you think, but everything to do with the way you eat! Managing your meals will start reducing stress within a matter of a few days.
- Replace caffeine with a healthier alternative.
- Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and other non-necessary drugs whenever possible.
- Reduce the white foods in your diet: sugary and starchy foods like breads, rice, potatoes, and desserts can cloud thinking and force our bodies to divert energy from the brain to the metabolism.
- Eat plenty of colorful foods - green and orange vegetables, fruits, and nuts.
Also, work to teach yourself some new thought processes that prevent stress from conquering your mindset:
- When faced with a problem, look for the opportunity it presents.
- Develop assertiveness skills.
- Remember that you cannot control other people, and they cannot control what you think.
- Choose not to participate.
- Say no when you feel dread at being asked to do something.
- Remember that your current situation is temporary.
- Ask for help, whether you need to talk or need to delegate a task.
- Find ways to turn negative thoughts into neutral or positive ones.
- Train yourself not to take on too much at once.
As they say in 12-step programs, "Life by the inch is a cinch. Life by the yard is hard." If you don't master your mind right away, don't give up! It's not easy to change the negative self-talk that's been a part of your life since you were young. Keep practicing, because the more you work on this, the more control you'll have in your life. I've got a couple items that can make this a bit easier for you:
Because our emotional state is almost entirely the result of our thought processes, my recommendations for coping with emotional stress are nearly identical to the suggestions I've made for mental stress. I encourage anyone experiencing emotional stress to use those suggestions in addition to these:
- Avoid watching the news on television or reading about it over the Internet.
- Surround yourself with upbeat people.
- Do something you've always enjoyed but haven't gotten around to lately - a hobby, spend time at a place you want to visit again, visit a longtime pal you haven't talked to in ages, or simply color in a coloring book.
Time Management Can Reduce Pressure
Behavioral Signs of Stress
When stress has become such a permanent fixture in your life that it's showing up in the way you act, it can produce entirely new stress triggers! You've probably heard of "kick the dog" syndrome - I'm mad at my boss for treating me badly, but since I can't tell him off, I come home and take out my stress on my husband. He doesn't want to argue with me, and instead, gets irritated with the dog and kicks her away when she wants attention. Behavioral stress has a tendency to spread beyond ourselves and affect other people, who also have a lot of stress in their lives, and so on. There's a domino effect when our behavior reflects how stressed out we are. Now I'm mad that he kicked the dog, and we get into an argument. It's the hundredth time, and he retaliates by announcing he wants a divorce. UGH!
I'm exaggerating and oversimplifying to make a point. In reality, behavioral stress does produce responses from others that create new problems and give us more to worry about. Maybe not quite as quickly as I've described, but its effects wear on relationships with the people we are supposed to love and support even as we're miserable because of it.
To cope with behavioral stress, try these tips:
- Ask family members to honor a 15-minute "decompression time" for you when you get home from work. This will help you mentally transition to a new environment before having to listen to others' stresses.
- Learn not to shoot the messenger! When you hear bad news, focus on what happened and avoid making critical statements or assigning blame.
- Keep a journal that you can use during your decompression time or at the end of your day to write out what's stressing you, and ideas you have for dealing with it.
- Develop time management skills.
- Get organized.
- Be willing to step away from arguments temporarily and discuss them when you're not feeling stressed - which may be a day or two later if your stress is unusually high.
- Schedule time for yourself away from all stress - a bubble bath, a night out with friends, or a camping trip can be just the ticket for getting yourself to a more tolerant mindset.
- Practice the tips identified for physical stress relief when you feel your stress creating signs of irritation. Feel your stomach tensing up at what someone said? Go ahead and take that short, brisk walk!
Create Your Own Stress Plan
You are the only person who is with you from the day you're born until the day you die, so treat yourself well! Learning to manage stress is a unique experience. No two people experience stress in exactly the same way, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
By honing in on the areas where you most need relief, you can begin developing a plan that's just right for you.
As you develop your stress-reduction skills, you'll find more happiness in your relationships, more success at work, and an improvement in your quality of life.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.