Managing stress can be a significant challenge in today’s world. If you take a quick look through the self-help section of your local bookstore, you find shelves and shelves filled with books about various elements of stress management. We are a stressed culture, and we all need a break. And yet we struggle with finding healthy ways to realistically cope with the stress of modern life.
The Problem with Stress Management
Have you ever paid $50 to $100 for a professional massage? It feels pretty good and you may have walked out feeling much lighter. But just a few miles down the road, your stress level starts to creep back up because you have re-entered the world of traffic, bills, relationships and work.
Have you ever returned from a great vacation and decided that you need a vacation to recover from your vacation? Getting away can be truly wonderful, but one or two trips a year is not sufficient to alleviate stress. You return to the same situation that you left, usually with more work piled on your desk!
Have you ever felt too busy to take a break? Perhaps you have pushed through, putting off your own self-care, because you believed that you do not have the time. And when you finally did take that break, you could not relax.
These scenarios describe common problems with typical stress management efforts.
- We use occasional or intermittent efforts
- We often expect too much from our strategies
- We don’t give ourselves enough time to truly relax
It is possible to create a stress management program that overcomes these problems and you can realistically fit into the busiest of schedules. Before I address how to create your plan, let me explain exactly what stress is. Understanding the nature of stress will help you create your program.
Stress is the body’s alarm system. It is a physiological reaction to a threat in the environment. You might be familiar with the term Fight or Flight Response. It is also known as the sympathetic nervous system. When confronted with a threat, the brain instantaneously triggers a release of stress hormones, which in turn create a series of physiological changes.
These changes are designed to allow the body to fight, or run away from the threat. Increased heart rate, sweating, muscle tension, changes in blood flow, shallow respiration, increased alertness and reaction time are all a part of this response. In a life-threatening situation this response is beneficial. You have experienced its benefits when a car pulled out in front of you and you instantly slammed on your brakes. This alarm system can be a true lifesaver.
After the threat has passed, the body has another system, the relaxation response. This is the parasympathetic nervous system, and it returns the body to a baseline relaxed state. The problem is that the body requires sufficient time to calm down. Remember the car that pulled out in front of you? Think about how long it took before your heart stopped pounding. In our hectic world, we face stressor after stressor.
We rarely have time to calm down completely before another threat arises. The brain does not know the difference between a real threat (a mugger) and a perceived threat (fear of losing one’s job). It reacts the same to both threats, and it does so instantaneously. To further complicate the situation, the body’s natural response is sometimes socially inappropriate. As much as you might want to, you cannot hit someone and run away when you are angry.
The outcome is that we rarely return to that relaxed state. Instead the stress load slowly rises, such that mild or moderate stress becomes our new baseline, the new “relaxed.” But our relaxed state is actually a stressed state. Therefore it does not take very much to send us into a highly stressed state. Remember that stress is a physiological response.
This new baseline results in a near constant cascade of stress hormones and physical symptoms (e.g. jitteriness, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, headaches, and muscle tension). If it goes on long enough, it creates emotional and cognitive symptoms (e.g. chronic worry, poor concentration, feeling overwhelmed, anxiety and depression).
Designing Your Realistic Stress Management Program
But there is good news! You can learn to consciously create the relaxation response. A good stress management program has three components: Body, Mind and Heart or Soul.
The goal is to either burn off stress chemicals, induce the relaxation response, or both. Aerobic exercise is an excellent way to burn off the stress chemicals. Remember, the stress response system was designed to get us moving. As an alternative, you can consciously induce the parasympathetic nervous system. There are many effective techniques you may use, such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or prayer. Slow conscious movement and/or slow conscious breathing induce this relaxed state. If you choose exercise, I strongly recommend that you add a second relaxation technique as well to get the full benefits of your program.
Here the goal is to quite the mind’s internal chatter and reduce thoughts that can generate stress. Many of the relaxation methods described above are also effective for quieting the mind. Any healthy activity that provides a focus for the mind can be useful. This would include some hobbies like knitting, reading, or woodworking. If you are in a stressed state, your mind will wander back to the source or sources of stress. This is natural and expected. When it happens – notice I did not say “if” – gently, lovingly guide your mind back to your task. You will have to repeat this often, but over time you will likely see a decrease in how often your mind wanders back to its worries.
Heart or Soul
This refers to a feeling of contentment and happiness. Clearly a worthwhile stress management program must include a sense of relaxation and rejuvenation. What makes you feel refreshed or nourished? It might be meditation or prayer, for example. Any of the activities under mind or body may meet these criteria. You may also find other activities nourish your heart, such as time with your children or in your garden.
Putting it All Together
The most efficient stress management program is one activity that includes all three components. But you can combine activities as fits your preferences. For example, if needlework meets your criteria for mind and heart, you can add progressive muscle relaxation for your body. You can also develop a repertoire of activities from which to draw. This might be necessary for those who bore easily or need variety.
The final consideration is time. How much time do you have for your stress management program every single day? Be honest with yourself. If you cannot devote sufficient time to it, you will not follow through. This is a lesson many of us have learned over and over again. And some of us have failed to learn it over and over again. To be successful, you need a reasonable time commitment each day. It need not be a large block of time. If the answer is five minutes a day, you might choose an especially efficient option like deep breathing.
As you make your choices, remember that stress is a natural response, which is induced repeatedly in our every day life. To counteract that response, we must consciously induce relaxation every day, too.