The month of April is upon us, and so is stress awareness month. Stress is a biological response to a perceived threat (Harrington, 2013). It can be both mental and physical and affect youth and adults alike. Our stress responses, such as fight or flight, are processes designed to help us survive through stress. Chemicals and hormones surge through the body that help you respond to a particular problem. However, too much stress, and spending too much time in a state of stress response, can negatively affect your health.
When the body is in constant fight or flight mode, it opens the door to many health problems down the road as the immune system can be compromised. For example, students feeling the pressure from final exams often feel the impacts of stress, which may manifest as actually becoming physically ill. Health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and insomnia can be brought on by great stress as well. Often accompanying stress is a lack of sleep that can further weaken the immune system. Perhaps an uptake in vitamins and supplements can aid the immune system, but that may not fully negate the effect of stress on your body.
Not all stress is negative. Notice the differences between eustress and distress. Eustress is a positive form of stress. This is the type of stress that could be felt by a person at their wedding when walking down the aisle, a musician when they perform in front of hundreds of people, or even a prepared student as they take their final exams. These situations are all examples of positive stress, which can feel very much like an adrenaline rush. Distress is negative. This is like having to meet a deadline when you have accomplished nothing, going through a grueling divorce, or experiencing the loss of a loved one. Being in a depressive state is also very distressing. These are just some examples of distress or negative stress.
Many individuals do not handle stress in the most beneficial ways. Most of us desire the eustress or good stress as opposed to the negative. If only there was a personalized stress manual for how to handle life. Thankfully, there are many people who have taken the time to figure out what works for them and have shared their beneficial practices with others.
As far as stress management, here are a few tips….
- Self-monitor. Keep a stress log and record stress levels three times a day for several weeks. This will help identify your primary stressors.
- Use abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing. Abdominal breathing helps reduce and diffuse physiological arousal associated with the fight or flight response.
- Challenge negative thinking or negative self-talk. Are these thoughts you’re thinking true and is there any evidence to prove these thoughts? If not, then why the stress and worry?
- Be flexible with coping strategies. Keep these tools in mind and learn how and when to use them. The tools that work for you and how well they work may fluctuate. Do not be afraid to try new strategies!
- Learn to be a realistic optimist. Optimism has advantages over pessimism when coping with stress and physical well-being.
- Manage hostility and anger. Use anger management strategies like taking responsibility, using humor, examining intentions, practicing deep abdominal breathing, taking a time out, challenging anger-building cognitions, and practicing empathy and forgiveness.
- Get treatment for clinical depression. Depression can affect physical health. It increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and cardiac death. Engage in exercise, get social, and challenge the negative thinking.
- Deal with work stress and burnout. Work stress and burnout can contribute to a cardiovascular risk. Your health is important, if your work schedule is flexible, prevent burnout and shift your schedule to a manageable rate.
- Strengthen time management skills. Prioritize, be assertive when saying “No” to pilling on tasks. The goal is to work efficiently not harder.
- Take time for recreation. Play, humor, art, music, relaxation, exercise, time in nature, and social interaction. Activities that negate stress and cultivate positive feelings. Find what you enjoy most in life doing and do it.
Here at PATH, in addition to the list above, we encourage self-care as one cannot pour from an empty cup. Self-care plus co-regulation strategies, such as deep breathing, are how we ground ourselves when distress wants to win. Our students and mentees enjoy a good deep breath together as it is very calming and relaxing in our often chaotic environments. Deep breathing increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, calming down the mental part of stress. I believe our students enjoy this exercise more than the mentors. Now that you have these tips and tricks, I hope that makes navigating stress a little less stressful!
Rick Harrington, (2013) Stress, Health, and Well-Being: Thriving in the 21st Century, Cengage Learning.