We often talk about stress, but we’re not always clear about what it is. Stress comes from both good and bad experiences. If we didn’t feel any stress, we wouldn’t be human! Stress may feel overwhelming at times, but there are many strategies that can help you take control.
What is Stress?
Stress is our psychological, physiological and behavioural response to change, and stressors are the ever-present situations that bring about change.
The significance, meaning and interpretation that an individual assigns to a stressor affects how the individual will respond. Unanticipated, undesirable & uncontrollable changes increase our stress response.
When faced with a situation, you automatically and immediately evaluate the situation. You decide if it is threatening, how you need to deal with the situation and what skills you can use. If you decide that the demands of the situation outweigh the skills you have, then your body responds with the “stress response.”
In the past, the demands of meeting basic needs used up the stress response energy and returned the body to normal functioning. In today’s society, we trigger our stress response more often and have fewer outlets for the extra energy produced. There are very few battles to fight and almost no places to run. Our bodies need time to replenish their resources and when this does not occur, our bodies begin to break down.*
To start addressing the negative effects of stress, try the following suggestions:
- Recognize your symptoms of stress
- Look at your lifestyle and see what can be changed in your work or family situation, or your schedule
- Use relaxation techniques, i.e., yoga, meditation, deep breathing, or massage
- Exercise – Physical activity is one of the most effective stress remedies around!
- Time management – Do essential tasks and prioritize the others. Consider those who may be affected by your decisions, such as family and friends. Use a check list so you will receive satisfaction as you check off each job as it is done.
- Watch your diet – Alcohol, caffeine, sugar, fats and tobacco all put a strain on your body’s ability to cope with stress. A diet with a balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and foods high in protein but low in fat will help create optimum health. Contact your local branch of the Heart and Stroke Foundation for further information about healthy eating.
- Get enough rest and sleep
- Talk with others – friends, professional counsellors, support groups or relatives about what is bothering you**
Take Control of Stress
Stress is a fact of life. No matter how much we might long for a stress-free existence, the fact is, stress is actually necessary. It’s how we respond to stress that can negatively affect our lives.
Stress is defined as any change that we have to adapt to. This includes difficult life events (bereavement, illness) and positive ones. Getting a new job or going on vacation are certainly perceived to be happy occurrences, but they, too, are changes, also known as stress, that require some adaptation.
Learning to effectively cope with stress can ease our bodies and our minds. Meditation and other relaxation methods, exercise, visualization are all helpful techniques for reducing the negative impact of stress.
Stress can be beneficial – in moderation. That’s because short episodes of stress trigger chemicals that improve memory, increase energy levels and enhance alertness and productivity. But chronic stress has debilitating effects on our overall health. Physically, it can contribute to migraines, ulcers, muscle tension and fatigue. Canadian researchers found that chronic stress more than doubled the risk of heart attacks.
Persistent stress also affects us emotionally and intellectually, and can cause:
- Decreased concentration and memory
- Loss of sense of humour
The link between stress and mental illness has yet to be fully understood, but it is known that stress can negatively affect an episode of mental illness.
First, it’s important to recognize the source(s) of your stress. Events such as the death of a loved one, starting a new job or moving house are certainly stressful.
However, much of our stress comes from within us. How we interpret things – a conversation, a performance review, even a look – determines whether something becomes a stressor. Negative self-talk, where we focus on self-criticism and pessimistic over-analysis, can turn an innocent remark into a major source of stress.
Understanding where your stress originates can help you decide on a course of action. External stressors, like bereavement or career changes, can be managed over time and with the support of family and friends. Internal stressors, caused by our own negative interpretation, require changes in attitude and behaviour.
The goal of managing stress is to cue the “relaxation response”. This is the physiological and psychological calming process our body goes through when we perceive that the danger, or stressful event, has passed.
Here are some tips for triggering the relaxation response:
- Learn relaxation techniques – Practicing meditation or breathing awareness every day can relieve chronic stress and realign your outlook in a more positive way. Good breathing habits alone can improve both your psychological and physical well-being.
- Set realistic goals – Learning to say no is essential for some people. Assess your schedule and identify tasks or activities that you can or should let go. Don’t automatically volunteer to do something until you’ve considered whether it is feasible and healthy for you to do so.
- Exercise – You don’t have to train for a marathon, but regular, moderate exercise helps ease tension, improves sleep and self-esteem. Making exercise a habit is key.
- Enjoy yourself – Taking the time for a favourite hobby is a great way of connecting with and nurturing your creative self.
- Visualization – Athletes achieve results by picturing themselves crossing the finish line first. Use the same technique to practice “seeing” yourself succeed in whatever situation is uppermost in your mind.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle – A good diet is often the first thing to go when we’re feeling stressed. Making a meal instead of buying one ready-made may seem like a challenge, but it will be probably cheaper and certainly better for you and the simple action of doing something good for yourself can soothe stressful feelings.
- Talk about it – Sharing your troubles with a friend may help you to put things in perspective and to feel that you’re not alone. You may also learn some other ways to manage stress effectively
Do you need more help?
Contact CMHA Peel Dufferin to learn more about support and resources in your area.
14-7700 Hurontario Street
Brampton ON L6Y 4M3
* Excerpt from the “Stress Sense” series of resource books ** Partial list from “Coping with Stress” booklet on the CMHA National website