The big, bad S word. . . Stress. It can be a killer. And in our culture, we hear a lot about it. Chances are that you already know the serious physiological, mental and emotional consequences of stress. So I won’t bore you with that. But you may not know helpful strategies for managing your stress; it is those strategies which I would like to focus on in this article.
First of all, it is important to understand that stress is environmental. It occurs when situations in which we find ourselves become too overwhelming for the resources that are available to us. It does not occur because you are broken or something is wrong with you. It happens because events in your life are taxing you, and at present, you don’t have the mental or emotional resources to pay the taxman; you’re feeling spent.
Learning to manage stress is about discovering new ways to build up our mental and emotional resources, so that when stressful incidents do occur, as they inevitably will, we will have some resources at our disposal.
So what environmental factors are stressing you out? Whatever they are, you probably don’t have control over them. Sorry, but If you did, you would most likely change whatever the problem is.
And it is in admitting that, that we find our first tip for handling stress:
Stress Management is not about changing environmental factors,
it is about changing how you behave when environmental factors become overwhelming.
This is the first step to de-stressing: admitting that there a lot of environmental factors in your life over which you have zero control – and that’s ok. Maybe your job, school, family or countless other factors are depleting you emotionally. You’re not alone in experiencing those kinds of stressors.
But the solution to stress is not always about changing environmental factors, we know that sometimes we can’t change those things right away. You can’t change your family, you can’t always change your job and school is just inherently stressful.
So obsessing about changing environmental factors is not helpful.
What is helpful is learning ways to replenish your emotional and psychological resources so that you can cope with these types of stressful situations better. Let’s face it, there are always going to be stressful situations. And that just means that we need to practice different strategies for handling what we know is coming down the line.
So giving up control of things we cannot change and instead focusing our mental and emotional energy on changing ourselves, and our reactions in stressful situations, is the key that unlocks the door of stress management.
So let’s look at some of the ways we can change in order to better cope with stressful situations.
CHALLENGE YOUR THINKING
Keep a check on your thoughts as they relate to your stressful situation. No one can stress you out as much as you can. In this area, we can be our own worst enemy.
Maybe you’re being too hard on yourself? Maybe you’re expecting too much of yourself? You might be focusing on the one thing you’re doing wrong instead of the 100 things you’re doing right.
Therapists call unhelpful or irrational ways of thinking cognitive distortions; and they always lead to feelings of stress.
Cognitive distortions occur when you’re not thinking straight about situations and most people can point these out in others when we spot them. But they’re much harder to spot in ourselves.
These include distortions like:
Magnification – “I failed my test, my entire life is ruined.”
Minimization – “I failed my test, but it’s not a big deal”
Catastrophizing – “I failed my test, I will never graduate college!”
Overgeneralization – “I failed my test. I always fail at everything.”
Jumping to Conclusions – “I failed my test. This must mean my professor hates me!”
Mind Reading – “I failed my test. My professor thinks I’m an idiot now.”
Fortune Telling – “I failed my test. I’m obviously going to fail the whole class.”
Emotional Reasoning – “I failed my test and feel dumb. I obviously am dumb.”
Ignoring the Positive – “I failed this test. Who cares if I got A’s on everything else.”
Should Statements – “I failed my test. I should pass everything and never do poorly!”
Managing mental stress begins by recognizing when we are in the middle of one of these types of cognitive distortions and challenging it with what we know to be true.
When we are able to challenge our own thinking, we can replace unhelpful and irrational thoughts with more helpful and positive ones. Ie. “I failed my test. That’s too bad but it’s not the end of the world. I’ll learn from this and try to be better prepared next time.”
When we change our thinking in many areas that are causing stress, our feelings always follow close behind.
This sounds obvious. You’re thinking, “I’m stressed! Of course if I could relax I would!” But I’m not necessarily talking about relaxation that comes naturally, unaided. Sometimes that happens, but usually only after a person has learned to be their own self-soothing resource. I’m talking about being intentional with your relaxation strategies.
There are innumerable strategies for centering yourself and finding relaxation, but I would like to share 3 with you that I find particularly helpful.
When we’re stressed we tend to take quick, shallow breaths. The lack of oxygen that our bodies get when we are breathing like this only adds to the feeling of being spent.
During a stressful time, take a few moments to find a quiet place and for 3-4 minutes practice deep, slow breathing.
You want each breath to be slow, so count in your head to 4 as you inhale. Hold your breath for 4-5 seconds and count as you exhale, four seconds.
Do this for a few moments every day, and especially when you begin to recognize your stress level elevating.
Trick your brain into believing that you are somewhere calm, relaxing and peaceful. If you use your imagination, your brain will trigger an emotional reaction to match your positive imagery.
The trick to using this technique successfully is to incorporate all 5 senses. Find a quiet place, without distraction and imagine your restful place, incorporating thoughts about what you are tasting, touching, hearing, seeing and smelling.
Do this for a few moments, with your eyes closed and you will find that your emotions are catching up to your positive imagery.
At times, we don’t even recognize how tense our bodies are. When we are feeling stressed our bodies are in an anxious state which is rooted in the fight or flight response. Our bodies are interpreting our stress as something threatening and whether we realize it or not, our muscles are tensing for a fight.
We have to be intentional about relaxing our muscles when we are in this state. We do this by finding a quiet and relaxing location and intentionally tensing each muscle that you can think of. Tense your fingers, your fists and move from your toes through your legs and through each muscle individually. Hold the tension one after the other, individually for 5 seconds and then release it. You will notice how different your muscles feel once relaxed.
Stress is a buzzword in our culture, and it’s because nearly everyone can so readily relate to it. But it is not something to be taken lightly. It’s a sad reality that the worst part about stress isn’t even the physiological and emotional consequences it can have on our own well-being; it’s the fact that we tend to release our stress on whoever happens to be in the closest proximity to us when we’re feeling overwhelmed; and that is always the people we love most: family, friends and loved ones.
That is why it is so important to find healthy ways to manage it. You can do that by relinquishing control over the things you cannot change, challenging your unhelpful or irrational thinking patterns and implementing some of the recommended relaxation techniques. I am sure that if you do these things, you will notice that your quality of life improves and you find the well-being God intends for you.