Are you stressing out?
Karen Collins, M.S.W., L.I.S.W.
Licensed Independent Social Worker
Let's face it: Stress confronts each of us every day. Some people thrive on stress and seem to have learned a trick to managing even the most stressful of situations. So, how can we learn to handle stress more efficiently? We need to understand stress and our body's reaction to it to reduce the negative impact.
Stress is the wear and tear our bodies experience as we adjust to change. A stress response is a very natural reaction to a perceived threat. An example of a stressor would be a confrontation with a co-worker, being stuck in traffic or running late for an important meeting. Consider the stressors in your daily routine, then think about your reaction to them. Were your reactions reasonable, or could you have reacted in a way that would have caused less of a stress response? For example, you are stuck in traffic and you have had a very long day at work. A first response reaction may be to get annoyed and angry at the situation. But we can learn to have a more effective reaction. We can accept that we have no control over the traffic moving slowly and that we are in a position to limit our stress response to the situation. By doing this, we create an opportunity to use the time in our car to decompress from our day, organize our evening or simply listen to a favorite CD. By simply changing our response to a stressor, we can limit the negative effects of that stressor on our mind and body.
Our bodies react based on how stressful we perceive a situation to be. In other words, if we perceive a situation to be very stressful, our bodies will react physically. When we feel threatened, our pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain, responds to the perceived threat by speeding up the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This is like an alarm system that alerts our body to release stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline into our bloodstream. These hormones increase our strength and agility and focus our concentration. Doesn't sound so bad, does it? But over time, being exposed to chronic stress can take a toll on our bodies.
Stress is associated with increased heart rate, blood pressure and blood lipid levels. These are risk factors for heart attacks and strokes. Chronic stress can weaken our immune system and make us more susceptible to catching colds and infections. Stress hormones affect our nervous system by making us feel helpless and anxious. The digestive system is also affected by stress. Have you ever had a queasy stomach when feeling ongoing stress? Stress hormones cause a release of stomach acids that promote emptying of the stomach which can cause that upset stomach feeling.
What should we do to reduce our reactions to stressors? We can give ourselves a vacation every day. We all need a piece of the day that is relaxing. It is much easier to tolerate a stressful situation if we know there will be a time in our day devoted to rejuvenation. Our bodies require down time, and it is OK to not have every minute of the day filled with work or duties. Identify what is relaxing to you and incorporate it into your day. Some possibilities include listening to music, reading, exercise, a hot bath, deep breathing, cooking a special meal or dessert, connecting with a close friend or anything that allows you downtime. There is no right or wrong activity as long as you perceive it to be rejuvenating and relaxing. Some people find that vigorous exercise reduces stress, while others need to be involved in something still. It is a matter of finding your best vice and using it to be mentally and physically healthy.
We have the ability to learn to control our reactions to stress. Stress is something we can cope with rather than something that should overpower us. Stress will always be a part of life and we all can benefit from learning to manage it.