What Is Stress?
Stress is the "wear and tear" our bodies experience as we adjust to our continually changing environment. It has physical and emotional effects on us and can create positive or negative feelings. As a positive influence, stress can help compel us to action; it can result in a new awareness and an exciting new perspective. As a negative influence, it can result in feelings of distrust, rejection, anger, and depression, which in turn lead to health problems such as headaches, upset stomach, rashes, insomnia, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. With the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, a job promotion, or a new relationship, we experience stress as we readjust our lives. In so adjusting to different circumstances, stress will help us or hinder us depending on how we react to it.
How Can I Eliminate Stress from My Life?
Positive stress adds anticipation and excitement to life, and we all thrive under a certain amount of stress. Deadlines, competitions, confrontations, and even our frustrations and sorrows add depth and enrichment to our lives. Our goal is not to eliminate stress but to learn how to manage it and how to use it to help us. Insufficient stress acts as a depressant and may leave us feeling bored or dejected; on the other hand, excessive stress may leave us feeling "tied up in knots." What we need to do is find the optimal level of stress that will individually motivate but not overwhelm each of us.
How Can I Tell What Is Optimal Stress for Me?
There is no single level of stress that is optimal for all people. We are all individuals with unique requirements. As such, what is distressing to one may be a joy to another. And even when we agree that a particular event is distressing, we are likely to differ in our psychological and physiological responses to it.
The person who loves to arbitrate disputes and move from job site to job site would be stressed in a job that is stable and routine, whereas the person who thrives on stable conditions would very likely be stressed on a job where duties were highly varied. Also, our personal stress requirements and the amount we can tolerate before we become distressed changes with our lifestyles and ages.
It has been found that most illness is related to unrelieved stress. If you are experiencing stress symptoms, you have gone beyond your optimal stress level; you need to reduce the stress in your life and/or improve your ability to manage it.
How Can I Manage Stress Better?
Identifying unrelieved stress and being aware of its effect on our lives is not sufficient for reducing its harmful effects. Just as there are many sources of stress, there are many possibilities for its management. However, all require effort toward change: changing the source of stress and/or changing your reaction to it. How do you proceed?
- Become aware of your stressors and your emotional and physical reactions.
Notice your distress. Don't ignore it. Don't gloss over problems.
Determine what events distress you. What are you telling yourself about the meaning of these events?
Determine how your body responds to the stress. Do you become nervous or physically upset? If so, in what specific ways?
- Recognize what you can change.
Can you change your stressors by avoiding or eliminating them completely?
Can you reduce their intensity (manage them over a period of time instead of on a daily or weekly basis)?
Can you shorten your exposure to stress (take a break, leave the physical premises)?
Can you devote the time and energy necessary to making a change (goal setting, time management techniques, and delayed gratification strategies may be helpful here).
- Reduce the intensity of your emotional reactions to stress.
The stress reaction is triggered by your perception of danger...physical danger and/or emotional danger. Are you viewing your stressors in exaggerated terms and/or taking a difficult situation and making it a disaster?
Are you expecting to please everyone?
Are you overreacting and viewing things as absolutely critical and urgent? Do you feel that you must prevail in every situation?
Work at adopting more moderate views; try to see the stress as something you can cope with rather than something that overpowers you.
Try to temper excess emotions. Put the situation in perspective. Do not labor on the negative aspects and the "What if's.".
- Learn to moderate your physical reactions to stress.
Slow, deep breathing will bring your heart rate and respiration back to normal.
Relaxation techniques can reduce muscle tension. Electronic biofeedback can help you gain voluntary control over such things as muscle tension, heart rate, and blood pressure.
Medications, when prescribed by a physician, can help in the short term in moderating your physical reactions. However, they alone are not the answer. Learning to moderate these reactions on your own is a preferable long-term solution.
- Build your physical reserves.
Exercise for cardiovascular fitness three to four times a week (moderate, prolonged rhythmic exercise is best, such as walking, swimming, cycling, or jogging).
Eat well-balanced, nutritious meals,
Maintain ideal weight.
Avoid nicotine, excess caffeine, and other stimulants.
Mix leisure with work. Take breaks and get away when you can.
Get enough sleep. Be as consistent with your sleep schedule as possible.
- Maintain your emotional reserves.
Develop some mutually supportive friendships/relationships.
Pursue realistic goals which are meaningful to you, rather than goals others have for you that you do not share.
Expect some frustrations, failures, and sorrows.
Always be kind and gentle with yourself - be a friend to yourself.
Remember that change can be hard work, but the benefits can be great. If you could use some professional help with, or input about your particular stressors and responses, call us.
Dr. David S. Litton
Dr. John T. Stallworth
Text � Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois