A bit of stress is good.
Not just good, it’s necessary. We can’t live long without some amount of stress in our lives.
As kings of our lives, they are our little kingdoms to conquer. We don’t see them as stresses, but rather as challenges.
We call them eustress, or the good stress. They help us grow. Studies show that short-term stress can boost the immune system.
However, when stress becomes chronic and lingers for months, but we can’t find ways to get over it, it turns bad. It then becomes distress. It suppresses the immune system and ultimately shows up as illnesses.
Distress, as psychologists find, is more usual in those who think situations are outside their control. Such people are likely to say, “I can’t do anything about my problem.”
Signs of Stress
Stress can affect how you feel emotionally, mentally and physically, as well as how you behave. Some common signs of bad stress are:
- Anger, irritability, hostility
- Fatigue, lethargy, mental slowdown
- Lack of interest, drive, or energy
- Sleep disorders – insomnia, daytime sleepiness, broken sleep
- Headache, body aches, muscle tension
- Tummy upset, eating disorders, weight gain or loss
Science of Stress
Stress is body’s preparation to a danger that needs an immediate change in our behavior and physiology. In 1926, Hans Selye, called the Father of Stress, coined the term “stress” while he was still a second year medical student at the University of Prague. Later, in 1974, he defined stress as “non-specific response of the body to any demand.”
Stress is our “fight or flight” response system — so that either we fight or we escape. It lights up when we perceive something as a threat to our survival.
The threat is called a stressor. Now, a stressor can be real or imagined. But our stress system acts the same way: it jolts our nervous and hormonal systems into action to get us ready for that danger.
In brain, the main parts playing role in setting up a stress response are amygdala, hypothalamus, pituitary, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, with the help from the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. And the prime-time hormones that feature in this fray are CRF, ACTH, adrenaline, vasopressin and cortisol.
Before stress happens, and after stress ends, the body is in homeostasis (a steady internal state).
Stress is our body’s natural reaction that we cannot sidestep. As Selye said:
Stress is not something to be avoided. Indeed, it cannot be avoided.
Stress in itself is not a disease. And not all stress has negative effect.
But prolonged stress can harm and invite a host of diseases. Research shows that almost every system in our body can be affected by chronic stress. Chronic stress has been linked to diabetes mellitus, asthmatic attacks, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, stomach ulcers, depression, social withdrawal, and even suicide.
American Psychiatric Association recognizes two stress disorders: Acute Stress Disorder and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Acute stress can cause numbing, detachment, memory loss, emotional freezing. PTSD can cause anxiety, avoidance, sleeplessness, re-experience of the trauma (as rape, war, abuse, torture).
Stress at Work
Stress is everywhere, most of all at work. And even though it happens at work, you carry it around to all places.
Haven’t you seen someone scream at their partner in the heat of an argument, only to apologize later, saying they were stressed out about work?
Worldwide, at least 30 percent people feel their work is “very or extremely stressful.” An unforeseen number of Americans are stressed out at work, ranging between 83 to 91 percent, as a 2013 survey reports. The Center for Disease Control found that 66 percent of American workers lie awake at night troubled by stress.
At least 35 percent of British workers feel “unreasonable levels of stress,” according to a 2012 study.
In Japan, there is an official term called karōshi, which translates as ‘death due to overwork’. A large number of Japanese workers are dying at their work-tables due to years of accumulated stress.
In India, about 500,000 become ill per year due to job-related stress.
How To Reduce Stress
In modern life, there aren’t as many physical dangers as are perceived ones. We no more face fierce predators as tigers or dire threats as famines.
But we still react to non-life-threatening situations with stress. As soon as our mind gauges any situation as physically hazardous, our bodies jump into stress mode. To protect ourselves from being always under stress, we need coping strategies that work.
By the way, before going on to the 10 overlooked stress-busting strategies, here are some common ways to beat your stress: listening to music, reading a book, watching a movie, pampering yourself, going out for shopping, taking a holiday, getting good sleep, talking it out with others, starting relaxation programs, and taking professional help about your problems.
10 Easy, Effective Strategies To Beat Stress
Here below are 10 of the best stress-busting strategies that are suggested by scientific experts. They are so effective that if you follow even a few of these, you will find your stress come down right away.
And if you practice these as a part of your lifestyle, you’ll find your days and nights getting calmer and happier.
Get up, move away from the situation and take a short, brisk walk for 15 to 20 minutes. When remove yourself from the perceived threat, your mind relaxes. And when you walk, you spend your energies to feed your brain.
A 2017 study found walking sends pressure waves through our arteries that increases blood supply to the brain. A 2016 study found just 12 minutes of walking resulted in an increase in joviality, vigor, attentiveness and self-confidence versus the same time spent sitting.
Walking, and any aerobic exercise, refreshes our minds by regeneration of new brain cells in the hippocampus, the seat of memory and learning of new skills. Japanese researchers have shown that a walk in a forest can reduce rumination, boost your mood, and improve the memory.
Take a few deep breaths when a stressful situation appears. Give yourself a few seconds before reacting. In those seconds, consider what you should do from a rational standpoint, instead of what you want to do.
Then do what you should do. Viktor Frankl, the psychologist who survived holocaust, called it the “space” between “the stimulus and response.” So, the next time you get into such a situation, try to pause, and allow a little space.
Deep breathing itself has a calming effect. It stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve. Which reverses your stress response by relaxing your body and quietening your mind. American Institute of Stress claims ‘focused breathing’ is the best relaxation response to stress. They call it a “Super Stress Buster.”
Empathize with people who you think are causing you stress. Remember, everyone is fighting their own battles. When you see them with compassion, you no longer believe they are stressing you out. Rather, you find they are doing their best to relieve their own stress.
Empathy takes the stress out of a confrontation. Empathy produces oxytocin, “the love hormone.” Psychologist Arthur Ciaramicoli in his book The Stress Solution argues that empathic listening may be the key to reducing stress in our lives. He says, “Empathy means seeing human beings as always changing and evolving; so you don’t want to judge and shut the person down.”
Remember, change begins with you. Change your paradigms. Your paradigms are the “lenses” through which you see the world. Start the change in you by treating others with more empathy.
Indulge in a healthy behavior that you enjoy. Simply doing something you love doing can reduce the stress of your day to day life.
Take a walk in the park with your loved one. Go to a show at the planetarium to feel the awe of seeing the creation of universe. Thank a person you haven’t thanked in years. Help someone get a little more out of their life. Meet a person a few levels below you to tell them how much their work means to the company.
Want to make funny faces at the mirror? Do it. Want to dance like no one’s watching you? Then perform for yourself.
Do a thing that’s pure fun. Do it for no other reason than you will enjoy it. Stop stopping yourself from having fun.
5. Be Mindful
Learn to focus on the present moment of your life. Most of our waking moment, our minds are wandering in a state of mindlessness. This wandering takes us to our past or future, and often results in unhelpful thought patterns as regretting or worrying.
Mindfulness brings us to the here-and-now experience, relieving us of stress arising from past or present life events. Mindfulness helps in not stressing about a stress that has either happened in the past, or has not yet happened.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a program developed by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, has been shown to reduce anxiety levels by 58% and stress by 40%. According to Kabat-Zinn, the basis of MBSR is mindfulness, which is “moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness.”
Keep down your heavy bag of stress, and take a rest. If it seems hard, promise yourself it’s only for a little while. Tell yourself you can pick it up whenever.
Know the story of the psychologist who showed a half-full glass of water and asked, “How heavy is this?” And explained it doesn’t matter how much the glass weighs; what matters is how long you hold it. “If I hold it for an hour, my arm will ache. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. The weight of the glass stays same, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”
So, stop holding your “total stress load” for a while. Permit yourself to ease your mind of the burden by taking a break, a rest. Remember to put down your glass.
Resentments are storehouses of stress. Chronic anger keeps you in a fight or flight mode.
Studies show that forgiveness can reduce stress. It’s not always easy. But remember, you’re forgiving for your own sake – for reducing your own stress, not for the other person’s. When you forgive, you consciously decide to let go of your negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not.
For all it matters, you don’t even have to let the person know you are forgiving them. Don’t even expect an apology. Just forgive. Instead of seeing forgiveness as letting someone “off the hook,” see it as you’re freeing yourself.
You’re only releasing your resentment, not condoning the unjust act. Forgiveness is a choice you’re making. Also, forgiving does not mean forgetting.
And, forgive yourself too.
Psychologists call it “proactive coping.” In this, instead of finding solutions to your chronic stress, you avoid stress in the first place.
Those who cope proactively, they prepare much in advance. By roughly guessing where the next stress could be coming from, they take steps to make the situation less likely to happen. This is ‘stitch in time’ approach.
They don’t smoke or drink. By avoiding those, they also avoid the stress of future health problems. They know that persistent lack of sleep builds up the stress; so they sleep well, nap well. All of us can reduce stress by simply getting proper sleep, exercise and nutrition, and being optimistic.
Stephanie Jean Sohl and Anne Moyer write, “Aspiring for a positive future rather than preventing a negative one is distinctly predictive of well-being.”
9. Be Stoic
Stoics hold that peace of mind comes from what we can control. They believe we can only control our thoughts, attitudes and responses.
We can’t control what lies outside ourselves. And if we try to control external elements, we’ll waste our emotional energy. This is somewhat related to the phenomenon of ‘cognitive control,’ the belief that one can control one’s reaction to events.
The stoics also kept death in their thoughts.
Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able – be good. — Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic and one of the greatest Roman emperors
So, remind yourself that you and others, with all the successes and possessions, are ultimately ephemeral. None and nothing will last. Simply ask yourself, “Will it matter in an year?”
If you’re further interested, here an interesting article on Stoicism by Jonas Salzgeber.
Staying connected with your friends, family and your community is the biggest and the best predictor of our happiness. Studies after studies have proven this, that if you have close social relations, then we are bound towards a happy life.
Robert Sapolsky, the world famous anthropologist and neurologist, says:
The single best predictor of an ability to deal well with stress is how socially connected you are.
So, connect with your friends, if you aren’t. Keep them in the loop about what’s happening in your life. Plan a get-together with your old friends. Stay connected over social media as Facebook and WhatsApp.
Connect with your family and relatives without work pressures. Arrange a picnic or a party exclusively for them.
As you connect, remind yourself to talk openly and honestly. Tell them of your unspoken expectations from the relationship, and urge them to do the same.
Another part of successful connections is accepting other people as they are, and as they are not. Instead of trying to improve them, or make them into someone different, try valuing and loving them.
Epictetus, the Stoic, philosophized thus:
Men are disturbed, not by things, but the views which they take of them.
Nearly 2000 years later Selye noted:
It’s not what happens to you that matters, but how you take it.
So we see that our stress results from the interpretation and reaction to a threat, not from the threat itself. As scientists Smith, Everly, and Johns say,
Stressors, like beauty, lie in the eye of the beholder.
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