Are you stressed out? If you are like most people, your answer to this question probably “yes. Sadly, there are many who are challenged with stress and don’t know how to adequately handle it. But, this doesn’t have to be. We can learn to manage stress, especially if we understand the causes and effective strategies for coping with it.
What is stress? Basically, it is a state of emotional or mental strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. These circumstances can be on the positive side - such as a wedding or a job promotion - or they can be more negative - such as job loss, divorce, financial strain, etc. The former is known as “eustress” while the latter type of stress is known as “distress.” In the United States, the top ten causes of (dis)tress include the following: job pressure, money, health relationships, poor nutrition, media overload and even sleep deprivation.1
Stress can be acute or chronic. Acute stress occurs when you have symptoms that develop due to a specific event or circumstance. It is short term and temporary in nature. Examples of acute stress may be a traffic jam, any type of exam, or an argument with a loved ones. Chronic stress, on the other hand, involves stress that lasts a long time and includes things such as having to deal with traffic jams every day, constant fighting with a spouse or friend, battling a long term illness, or even societal problems. As you probably already know, this type of stress is the one which causes the most problems in our lives. When chronic stress is not managed properly, this can increase the risk for various health issues such as depression, heart disease, stroke, COPD, Type-2 diabetes, and other illnesses.
So, how can we manage our stress? One simple way to answer this is to consider three different areas for change in our lives. These include changing our behavior, changing our lifestyle, and changing our thinking. Let’s take a brief look at each of these areas:
Change Our Behavior
There are several simple behaviors that we can engage in to reduce our stress which include the following:
- Learn how to better manage time. Many people either underestimate the time that they have to fulfill a task and may to try to cram in too many responsibilities or activities within a short time. Others may not use their time wisely and find themselves wasting precious minutes that can be utilized in more productive ways. These types of behaviors can lead to stress, in the long run. Learning how to allot adequate time for an activity. how to pace ourselves with various activities. and how to use our time efficiently, can greatly reduce our stress over time.
- Related to time management is learning how prioritize what’s important and making adequate plans for the day. When we determine what is important and work on those things first before moving on to less important activities this can help us not feeling as stressed. Also, it may be helpful to plan our days by making a schedule and trying to stick to that schedule as best as we can.
- Learn how to relax in a healthy way. It’s important to take a break from our work or home duties and responsibilities. And if we can engage in activities that will re-create our minds and bodies that can be even more helpful for managing stress. For example, instead of spending our relaxation time just watching TV, maybe we can do things like reading an inspirational book, or engaging in a hobby, or even spending time in nature. These activities not only gives us an opportunity to rest but they can contribute to restoring us both mentally and emotionally. In turn, we can build residence to better handle our stressors.
- Other behavior changes we can make include giving and receiving social support and setting aside time each day for spiritual activities (such as prayer, reading the Bible, etc.),
Change Our Lifestyle Habits
There is increasing evidence that there are certain lifestyle habits - how we take care of our bodies - that can help us cope with stress. This includes things such as getting quality (and the proper quantity) of sleep, having a nutritious diet (mainly eating more wholesome and plant-based foods), drinking adequate water, exercising, getting out into nature, and abstaining from harmful substances such as alcohol, coffee, recreational drugs.
An example of how a particular lifestyle habit can help us manage stress more effectively is when we consider the area of sleep. We have all heard about how beneficial it is for adults to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep. But not only is the quantity of sleep important but also the quality of sleep, which can be affected by factors such as the time we go to bed. For example, getting to bed by 10 pm is essential for us to benefit from the peak production of melatonin (which is highest between the hours of 10 pm and 2 am). Melatonin, a hormone primarily released by the pineal gland at night, helps us get a good night’s rest, which strengthens us to face the stressors of each day. Also, melatonin increases GABA ( _) and higher levels of GABA has a calming effect on the brain and body, which can reduce the effects of stress. In addition, melatonin is a great buffer for cortisol, a stress hormone. Specifically, when melatonin levels are high, cortisol levels are low, which helps us to better manage stress.
Change Our Thinking
Psychologists have discovered that how we think plays a significant role in our mental health. What we say to ourselves when we are faced with challenging situations, events or people in our lives can enhance or reduce our stress response. Specifically, our thinking has a direct impact on our emotions and our actions. If we can learn to change our unhealthy thinking, this can have a very significant impact on how we handle stress. For example, in dealing with a stressful situation, we can tell ourselves things such as, “This is horrible and I don’t think I can handle it,” or “If this doesn’t change, my life will be terrible.” This type of thinking will cause us to experience distress and even hopelessness. On the other hand, if we say to ourselves something like, “This is not easy to deal with but I’ll approach it in the best way that I can,” or “This too will pass,” our stress response will be greatly reduced. Learning how to pay attention to our thoughts and then making intentional efforts to practice replacing our unhealthy thinking can be a great way to help us cope effectively with stress.
Learning how to make positive changes in these three areas - behaviors, lifestyle habits, and thinking - can go a long way in helping you better manage stress. Why not give them a try today!
1. Statistic Brain Research Institute. American Institute of Stress, May 16, 2017
Photo by: Jeshoots