By Phil Wyzik, CEO, Monadnock Family Services
Ever heard the phrase, “Know your numbers?” It’s about a health promotion project designed to get people to know some important indicators of physical health risks like Body-Mass Index, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. When it comes to the stress we all experience, however, there’s no lab test or simple way to objectively measure this mental health aspect of our well being. Still, the slogan is still valuable to remember if you want to try to avoid the long term effect of stress that might put you at risk for physical and mental illnesses.
Stress is a physical, physiological, and emotional reaction to life events that most often we evaluate as negative or threatening. Whether real or imagined, this total-system response is hard wired into our being thanks to a tiny part of the brain called the amygdala. This cluster of neurons is thought to be the center of our “fight or flight” reaction to bad things we perceive in the world around us. To be sure, this is really helpful since, if we find ourselves in a burning building let’s say, our body signals us to either rush for the fire extinguisher or the nearest exit, depending upon how we evaluate this threat in a micro second of time.
But, for most of us, the negatives we perceive every day are things like financial worries, the loss of jobs or relationships, work or health problems, parenting, or other daily pressures like traffic jams, deadlines and schedules. The stress they cause can show itself by memory problems, difficulty concentrating, moodiness, irritability, sadness, constant worrying, nervous habits like pacing or finger nail biting, drastic changes in sleeping and eating habits, intestinal problems and isolation from others. Symptoms like these mean the amygdala is stuck in high gear, according to some theories, but there’s more than one thing we can do about it.
And learn them we should since the consequences of prolonged stress or even periodic high levels of stress can be significant. Indeed, unmanaged stress can lead to or exacerbate medical problems like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, gastro intestinal disorders, infertility and sleep disorders. Some in the field of stress research use the term “colossal” to describe the connection between stress and physical disease.
Focus on Four
For both researchers on stress and educators on stress management, the work of addressing our reactions to life’s threats focuses on four key aspects. These stress-busters offer helpful ideas that are worth noting; let’s frame them as questions:
1. Can anything be done to reduce a person’s stress?
Maybe we just can’t “have it all.” Perhaps we’re trying to accomplish just too much during the day, the week, or the month and the pace and burden of everything we Viagra think we need to accomplish isn’t work the unhealthy toll it takes on our emotional health. Perhaps relief lies in cutting back, saying ‘no’ more often and prioritizing our time and energy in different ways.
2. Can we change our thinking about the threats we perceive?
Psychologists use the term ‘reframing’ to mean the adoption of a different point of view regarding some issue or problem. With stress, this mental trick can work wonders. Irritated at a co worker or a spouse? Catch yourself and try to find some strength or attribute in that person that gives you a different reaction. The key notion here is that with awareness of our stress response, we gain more control and options for reacting in new ways.
3. Can anything be done to lessen the negative feelings that come to us in a stressful situation and increase more positive feelings?
Mental health experts now have more reasons than ever to extol the virtue of a positive mental attitude when it comes to keeping stress at bay. If we make it a habit to see the ‘glass half full,’ our vulnerability to the bad consequences of stress is lesser. Even something a simple as a smile is a step in the right direction.
4. Can we learn new coping strategies so that the tools in our stress-busting toolbox are as useful as they can be?
If I wanted to fix my old car, I’d likely need more than a hammer and screwdriver. So too with stress; the more options I have at my disposal, the more capable I am at addressing the various types of stress that life throws my way. Healthy ways of coping with stress are a diverse as the real and perceived problems that threaten us. Whether it’s exercise, meditation, hobbies, prayer, distractions, massage, deep breadth training, music, social gatherings and connections, nutrition or even professional help, no one way works the best for everyone.
Know your (Coping) Numbers
That’s where knowing what works for you is the key to your own victory over stress. Take some time and think about the many ways you cope with stress today. What’ the number one way to battle stress that works the best for you? What’s your second best strategy? How about your third? What’s after that on your list?
The more you know these coping numbers, and the more methods on your list, the better prepared you might be to keep life happier and healthier.
Being conscious about your repertoire of healthy responses is the first step to creating a rich reservoir for coping. To do this, you’ll have to think about those events in life that cause you symptoms of stress in the first place. That knowledge is the starting point to building a stress-less lifestyle.