Learn to Deal With Stress
Take a closer look at stress and learn how to relax
ILLUSTRATION BY brittany inglese
These days, it seems that being stressed is the new normal. Whether feeling an economic pinch, worrying about work deadlines, dealing with illness or family issues, or struggling to keep up with an out-of-control to-do list, many people in modern times appear to find serenity and relaxation hard to come by. There are even those among us who stress about stress, meaning we worry about the fact that we’re stressed because we know that stress is not good for our health.
Sounds like it’s time to step back, take a deep breath, and consider the words of the late Hans Selye, an endocrinologist and pioneer in the field of stress research who said, “It’s not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it.”
We typically feel stressed when we need to adapt or adjust to something. A change in the weather can be a stressor, as can a new job, a divorce, or a new baby, says Karen Lee Gillock, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lebanon. “It all requires change,” she says.
Although stress tends to get a bad rap regardless of the situation in which it occurs, stress can be helpful sometimes. The pressure of a big school or professional exam, for example, can motivate a student to study and focus keenly on test day.
But repeatedly being under stress does take a toll on the body, mind and spirit. If we perceive that a situation is threatening or harmful, our brain sounds the alarm and the fight-or-flight response kicks in — a throwback, experts say, to prehistoric times when we regularly had to contend with dangers such as being eaten by large and powerful predators. The fight-or-flight response releases so-called “stress hormones” and other physiological changes ensue to instantly gear up the body to stand and defend itself or to hightail it to safety.
Today, the fight-or-flight response might be triggered merely because we’re scrambling to piece together a presentation for a meeting that will begin in an hour, but the body’s response will be the same as if we spied a saber tooth tiger licking its lips and heading our way. Too much time in fight-or-flight mode, with its cascade of effects — including increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure and quickened breathing — taxes us. It makes us feel moody, irritable, overwhelmed and distracted, and increases our susceptibility to illness and psychological trouble such as anxiety disorders and depression. Compounding matters, many of us attempt to cope with stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drinking, overeating or watching too much television.
Since we can’t always control or avoid the stressors in our life, the best strategy to alleviate stress is to focus on our reaction to it. “Stress is not something that’s done to a person. It’s not something that’s applied to a person,” says Carl G. Hindy, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Nashua. “We create our own stress” through our reaction to circumstances, he says. Hindy points to a roller coaster ride as an example. Why does a roller coaster terrify some people, but delight others? It’s all in what you make it. “Some define it as enjoyable,” Hindy says.
Stress has a way of perpetuating itself, so extricating yourself from stressful thinking patterns can be difficult. “When you’re in a state of alert, your focus tends to become more narrow,” Hindy says. When stressed, we’re likely to quickly seize on a conclusion and dismiss information that might disconfirm our original reaction. “So stress can sort of feed on itself because you’re gathering more data to support what you’re feeling,” he says.
To break away from stressful thinking regarding a particular circumstance, stop and question your reaction. “[Try to] analyze the situation and look at the automatic thoughts that are leading to your state of alarm,” Hindy says. Become more aware of the situations in which you feel stressed and ask yourself why they bother you. Remember, “it’s not the environment that’s stressing you. It’s how you’re construing it. It’s your thoughts,” Hindy says.
Indeed, “a lot of stress occurs because we don’t readily accept what’s going on,” Gillock says. “Acceptance is incredibly difficult” and requires a constant effort, she says, but we should consider how much energy we expend in fighting, resisting, thinking or worrying about a stressor. Rather than trying to control the uncontrollable, try to control your reaction, Gillock says. It can also be helpful to share your feelings with other people and recognize that your stress often only hurts yourself, she says.
In addition, on a regular basis, release stress by engaging in a healthful, or at least not harmful, activity — something that you find relaxing, whether it be going on a roller coaster ride, golfing or running for six miles. “What you find de-stressing is probably something that captures your attention,” and in so doing quiets your mind and blocks out stressful concerns and thoughts, Hindy says.
Just be ready for a challenge. “I think these days it is more difficult for people to quiet their mind,” Hindy says. “We live in the 24/7 world of Internet and cable news and constant stimulation and it’s so much harder to switch it off.” Many of us might need to become more aware of how we structure our lifestyle, he says, “so we don’t just slip into endless stimulation with the computer and the television. I mean, these things are always running.”