Stress is necessary for optimal performance and success, but too much stress can cause burn-out, anxiety, depression and a host of poor health outcomes. We face stressors each day – and what is interesting is that the same stressor will affect different people in different ways. This depends on various factors including what situations do we find stressful, how much stress does a certain situation cause us, and how much stress have we already taken on?
In this article I will define what stress is, how it affects us, and then share some tips on How to Cope with Stress.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “stress” as:
- a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.
- something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety
- physical force or pressure
We can stress test an object by applying pressure or weight on it – to find it’s breaking point. Similarly, in medicine, we conduct “stress tests” on people by putting them on a treadmill and watching the heart tracing as they exercise to determine cardiovascular health and fitness.
For the purpose of this article, I will discuss psychological stress – the worry we all face due to deadlines, financial constraints, competing interests, work related conflicts, relationships, safety concerns, etc. As mentioned earlier, not all people find the same situations stressful. Some would find a roller coaster ride exhilarating, and others would have fear and find it stressful. Some people would rather die than be asked to speak in public – yet if you give others a microphone you will have a hard time wrestling it away from them! Similarly, some people are stressed when facing deadlines or time challenges, and others do not find the same situations stress producing – rather it pushes them to achieve greater results.
We all have our own emotional “boats” that carry our stressors. Some have huge aircraft carriers that can cope with an enormous load – and others have a tippy little rowing shell that can become swamped easily. The secret is to know your boat, and what stressors sink it – and how to tell when your boat is full.
The other key is to understand that our psychological health has a tremendous effect on our physical health. This is called mind-body medicine, and while I do not have time to go into this in detail at this time, I think we all know how wonderful we fell when something good happens. For example: falling in love, the birth of a child, success at work or on the sports field, walking in nature, doing a good deed for others; these types of experiences make us happy – but have also been shown to speed healing. The placebo response is when we believe that something makes us feel better – and it does. This is why a placebo arm is included in every medication study.
The opposite is a nocebo response which is when we have a detrimental effect due to negative beliefs or fears. A classic example would include physical pain produced by sticking a needle into a voodoo doll. Physicians and others need to be aware of medical hexing that can occur when a patient may be given a poor prognosis or expectation as this may have an adverse effect on the patient’s outcome.
Let’s turn our attention now to how we can cope with the stressors that each of us face. I will outline some specific and proven strategies, but would like to preface these with some general comments on stress avoidance.
Firstly, seek clarity in discussions that may seem stressful to avoid misunderstanding. Sometimes we feel stressed as we are not sure what the other’s position is. Try to deal with situations as they arise and with the person responsible rather than letting them fester, or going over someone’s head and creating a larger conflict. Secondly, do not take situations personally or see them as a personal attack, but rather seek to understand where the other person is coming from and why they made the comment that you interpret as hurtful. Seek first to understand – then to be understood. If there are multiple situations that are colliding upon you – compartmentalize them … try to deal with one issue at a time and the task will be less daunting. For time stressors, set realistic goals, and budget appropriate time to accomplish the task at hand. Finally – whenever possible, delegate. Also decline taking on more responsibilities if your plate is full – or if your boat is about to sink … learn how to say, “No.” Or a polite no thank-you.
Here are a few strategies to help cope with stress.
- Eat healthy food – eating nutritious, fresh, local, real (unprocessed), mostly plant-based food makes you feel energetic and healthy and reduces exposure to environmental toxins, saturated fats and unhealthy ingredients. This has been shown to not only improve health, but improve moods and energy. Also, make sure to take the time to prepare and eat regularly – ideally breaking bread with friends. Skipping meals can make you sluggish and grumpy, but overeating, or eating for the wrong reasons can make you feel physically and emotionally bankrupt. Avoid eating “comfort foods” when feeling stressed – it is never helpful in the long run. Value and respect yourself – and make it a priority to look after yourself.
- Exercise regularly – the full benefits of exercise are beyond the scope of this article – but suffice to say, that regular walking, running, cycling, swimming, hiking and organized sports nurture us physically and emotionally. There are few activities that have more beneficial effect than regular exercise – the type and time can be of your choosing.
- Rest. This includes refreshing and restorative sleep. Aim for 7-8 hours a night. Poor sleep causes daytime fatigue, and loss of patience and judgment. Many industrial and motor vehicle accidents occur due to lack of sleep.
Beyond sleeping, it is important to build breaks into our days, weeks, and years. Stress can also be controlled by practicing prayer, meditation, relaxation breathing, and gratitude.
Mini-breaks in each day can start with a few deep breaths and positive affirmations upon waking up. Plant the seeds of a productive, happy, and enjoyable day from the moment you rise.
The breathing sequence 4-7-8 can be very helpful in this regard. Breathe in through your nose to the count of 4, then hold for the count of 7, then slowly exhale through the mouth for the count of 8. According to ancient yogic practice, this works better when you touch your tongue against the alveolar ridge – the place of contact when you say “La”. When you breathe in, allow your belly to rise, and when you exhale, allow your belly to fall – like being punched in the gut makes you exhale. This moves the diaphragm appropriately like a bellows to inflate and deflate your lungs – while firing nerves of your parasympathetic nervous system creating a relaxation response. Generally, four breaths are enough – then enjoy the peaceful feeling. This can be done first thing in the morning, last thing at night before falling asleep, before starting to meditate, or anytime in the day when you need a short stress break.
Another useful strategy is to build a sacred hour into each day. This does not have to be the same time each day, but ideally in the morning, set aside an hour to plan, reflect, pray, read and prepare for your day.
The tradition of a Sabbath is found in many faith groups for good reason. Setting aside a day a week to recharge your batteries, rest from work, spend time with family and friends, worshiping and relaxing is an excellent way to cope with stress. Making the effort to do activities in the great outdoors is especially helpful. Being in nature is what we were made for and where we thrive best. Sunshine makes us happy as well as giving us the essential Vitamin D with its many health benefits – physical and psychological.
It is also important to plan holidays – if we are having a busy and stressful day, it is helpful to smile and say – “I can cope with this because in two weeks, I’m going camping with my family” or whatever the holiday may be. It is useful to do Tarzan holidays – just as Tarzan would not let go of one vine before he had the next one in his hand – as we swing through the jungle of life, start planning your next holiday before you finish the one you are on!
Finally, to cope with stress, cultivate an “attitude of gratitude”. Be grateful for all the gifts and blessings that you have rather than focusing on what is giving you grief. Be joyful – spend time with people that make you laugh and activities that excite you. Stress can be reduced and life becomes particularly invigorating if you are able to do things that bring joy to others.
In closing – to cope with stress – nurture yourself in the many ways we discussed. Love and respect and care for yourself. If you are not in a state of optimal health – you will not be at your best for your family, friends, colleagues and others. Remember the oxygen mask instructions prior to every flight: put your own mask on first, and then help a child or others…