By Caroline Chase
When I was asked to write an article on stress, it gave me an opportunity to deliberately examine the role of stress in my own life and in the lives of clients I see in my career as a psychotherapist.
According to the American Psychological Association, "Stress is often described as a feeling of being overwhelmed, worried or run-down." As much as we would like to avoid it, stress goes hand in hand with life. However, it is possible, and indeed vitally necessary, to learn how to manage it. For the degree to which we effectively manage and cope with stress will determine our degree of health – in body, mind, and spirit.
A recent APA-commissioned study on stress in America found that 48% of Americans said they regularly experience physical and psychological symptoms of stress. If left unmanaged, high stress can become a chronic condition that can lead to serious problems such as obesity, insomnia, high blood pressure, chronic plain, and a weakened immune system. Moreover, research shows that stress plays a role in the development of major illnesses like heart disease, depression, and anxiety disorders.
Interestingly, a new scientific analysis confirmed what I have observed during my 37 years of counseling: there is more stress in people's lives now than there was 25 years ago. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that, from 1983 to 2009, 6,300 people who participated in the study experienced a marked increase in stress, 18 percent for women and 28 percent for men. According to David Spiegel, a psychiatrist and Director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University School of Medicine in Stanford, California, the "results made sense when you compare the early 1980s to today's economic pressures; and it's harder to turn off information and to buffer ourselves from the world."
So, if stress is an inevitable part of life, and if it is becoming more prevalent, does that mean we must succumb to its ravages? Absolutely not! However, if we are to effectively manage it, we must be willing to make a commitment to change certain habits that are harmful to us if left unchecked.
The following lifestyle routines can help us to counter the negative effects of stress:
• Exercise and physical activity produce endorphins — chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and also improve the ability to sleep which, in turn, reduces stress.
• Meditation is nothing more than putting your mind at ease by controlling the focus of your attention. Meditating is a skill that can be learned by anyone, no matter his/her religious or spiritual point of view.
• Prayer and spirituality are not the same for all people. For some, it may be a belief in God; for others, it may be a higher power or higher purpose, or the belief in such values as the human spirit, human community, or nature. Regardless of one's religion, prayer can bring peace and comfort during stressful times.
• Eating a balanced, nutritional diet: A healthy diet can counter the impact of stress by shoring up the immune system and lowering blood pressure.
• Aside from the physical benefits of yoga and relaxation exercises, yoga can also produce a sense of calm which will help boost the immune system.
• Getting adequate sleep: Stress interferes with sleep. Try to get the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Cut back on caffeine and stimulating activity. Eliminate the use of computers and television before bed. Even better, take the TV out of the bedroom entirely.
• Spend time with people (and animals!) that you enjoy: Relationships can either be a source of stress or a stress reliever. Reach out to people who are close to you, whether they are family or friends. They may be able to offer you emotional support and perhaps a different perspective on the stressor.
• If you feel stressed, write down the cause, your thoughts, and mood. When you know what's bothering you, you can develop a plan for coping. That may mean more realistic expectations of yourself and others, and perhaps asking for help in your job or your home. Determine your priorities and eliminate nonessential tasks. Make sure you have some time each day that is your own and nobody else's.
• A mental health professional can teach you how to identify situations or behaviors that act as stressors and can help you develop an action plan for change.
Though we live in a materialistic age, with constant change swirling around us, at times seeming chaotic, we do have choices about our perception of what's happening around us and to us. That is the beauty of the human brain — we have choices. We can choose how to behave, respond, or think in the face of stressful situations.
The words of Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer may help: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Elegant in its simplicity and wisdom, its message is profound in relation to stress.
While we can't always control the stress that comes into our lives, we can control how we respond to it. Stress is a fact of life, buy it does not have to be a way of life.
Caroline Chase, M.S., LHMC, is a licensed Mental Health Counselor who lives in Massachusetts. She is currently working as the Behavioral Health Specialist for the Community Health Team at Grace Cottage Family Health in Townshend.