Stress is a part of everyday life. There are many instances when stress can be helpful. A fire alarm is intended to cause the stress that alerts you to avoid danger. The stress created by a deadline can motivate you to finish a project. But many times, stress has the opposite effect. It can harm our emotional and physical health, and limit our ability to function at home, at work, and within our relationships.
When you experience stress, your body and your mind must attend to it in order to return you to balance. Your body reacts to stress by releasing hormones that help you cope with the situation. That in turn takes energy away from the other functions of your brain, like concentrating, or taking action.
There are two different sources of stress: external triggers, like losing a job or struggling to complete a difficult task, and internal triggers, like expecting too much of ourselves.
But the good news is that since we are responsible for bringing about much of our own stress, we can also do much to reduce it.
Are you experiencing stress?
Here are a few common stress indicators:
- Feelings of anger
- Tight muscles
- Changes in eating habits
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Inability to focus
As you can see, stress and depression share many common symptoms. So many of the same life changes and self-care steps you can take to ease symptoms of depression will also help alleviate stress.
Reducing and managing stress
There are many steps you can take to lessen the impact of stress on your life, including the following:
- Exercise regularly. Physical activity can help you burn off the energy generated by stress
- Limit (or eliminate) the use of stimulants like caffeine, which can elevate the stress response in your body.
- Pace yourself throughout the day, taking a break from work or other structured activities. During breaks, spend time walking outdoors, listening to music or sitting quietly, to clear and calm your mind.
- Realize that we all have limits. Learn to work within your limits and set realistic expectations for yourself and others.
- Practice good sleep habits to ensure good quality sleep.
- Recognize the role your own thoughts are playing in causing you distress. Challenge beliefs you may hold about yourself and your situation that may no longer be accurate. For example, do you continuously fall short of what you think you “should” accomplish? When our minds continuously feed us messages about what we “should” achieve, “ought” to be, or “mustn’t” do, we are setting ourselves up to fall short of goals that may be unrealistic, and to experience stress along the way. Practicing positive self-talk can help you offset these counterproductive thoughts.
- Learn techniques for “reframing” situations to see the positive aspects as well as those that may cause stress.
- Find humor in your life. Laughter is a great tension reducer.
- Seek the support of friends and family if you need to “vent” about situations that are bringing on stressful feelings.
In addition to adopting the lifestyle changes suggested above, you might want to try one or more of the following techniques for relaxing the mind and body, and reducing the physical and psychological tension associated with stress.
- Place one hand on your abdomen right beneath your rib cage.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose into the bottom of your lungs. Your chest should move only slightly, while your stomach rises, pushing your hand up.
- As you exhale, just let yourself go and imagine your entire body going loose and limp. It should take you twice as long to exhale as it did to inhale.
- Practice three times per day for 2-3 minutes.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- “Pay a mental visit” to your muscles, stopping at each area of the body from head to toe to pay attention to areas of tension.
- As you stop at each area, tense then relax each muscle, trying to release unnecessary tension.
- Imagine tension flowing out of your body, down your shoulders and arms and out through your fingertips into the air, down your thighs and legs, and out through the soles of your feet into the ground.
- Take a mental “vacation.” Imagine yourself in a pleasant, relaxing place such as on the beach or in the woods.
This technique, adopted from Buddhist practices, is gaining acceptance in western medicine as a simple and effective way to keep your mind focused on the present moment, observing your own thoughts and experiences as they occur, without judgment. By keeping your focus “in the moment”, it is possible to acknowledge the source of your stress, without dwelling on it or attaching too much meaning to it.
Practicing mindfulness lets you reserve judgment on the accuracy of your thoughts and feelings and just observe them for what they are – products of your mind. Here are the basic steps to follow when practicing mindfulness:
- Focus on your breathing or some other sensation, or on an object in your surroundings.
- While focusing, allow other thoughts and feelings to flow over you.
- Acknowledge and name each feeling, but then let it fade away.
- Allow the next thought or feeling to enter your mind. Again, acknowledge it, and then let it go.
- When learning mindfulness, individuals are encouraged to practice 30 minutes a day to become comfortable with the technique.