What is Stress?
Stress is our body’s response to a state of being perpetually mobilized to respond to perceived danger, threat, or need for action to meet an urgent goal. Stress is largely subjective and entirely dependent upon our brain’s interpretation of the information available to it. The presence of a dog may be perfectly enjoyable and relaxing for someone who’s a dog-lover but incredibly frightening for someone who has been mauled by a dog in the past. Our brain registers the urgency, sends signals to the rest of the body to respond and various systems kick into high gear. Blood flow and respiration rates change, muscle tension increases and a slew of shifts occur in neurotransmitter and hormone release. Your body can only keep this up for so long, though, before it starts to take a toll. In our daily lives, the origin of stress is oftentimes the perception that what we have to do is beyond our capacity to do it, because of either lack of time or skill.
Signs that you are experiencing stress
All of these are byproducts of your body/brain being in a sustained state of mobilization: chronically being fatigued, sleeping either too much or too little, lightheadedness, poor concentration, lack of pleasure in activities that once were fun, tingling sensations in toes and fingers, shortness of breath or feeling unable to breathe deeply, feeling of dread in facing work or personal responsibilities, irritability, spending more time on tasks but accomplishing less, avoiding work.
What do you do when you realize you’re experiencing stress
Step away from your work, take a few minutes and breathe deeply. Slowly filling your lungs completely and slowing releasing the air does a number of things to put the brake on stress: slows your accelerated heart rate, gets more oxygen in your blood stream which decreases lightheadedness, improves concentration and your ability to effectively problem-solve.
Take control of stressors rather than having them control you. Since the origin of stress is in your brain’s interpretation of what you face, you want to make shifts in that perception. One way to do so is to pinpoint and prioritize – specifically identify what is overwhelming you. The following exercise almost inevitably results in a decreased experience of stress. Under stress, we tend to feel overwhelmed, spend time worrying about things over which we have not control, see manageable tasks as insurmountable, and have difficulty identifying specific steps to take manage them. Make a list of all the things about which you’re worried. Rank them in order from most to least stressful. Next to each item, write what it is that creates stress for you. Be as specific as possible, e.g. not enough time to get it done, not sure I’ll do a good job, don’t like having someone unhappy with me and I think someone will be. Identify which items you have absolutely no control over or can’t do anything about. Cross them off the list. (When these pop into your head later, remind yourself that you can do nothing about them, therefore your time is best spent on those items over which you do have control.) With the remaining items, write down what you can do about each one, being as specific as possible, even creating a schedule for them if possible. Re-examine your list as a whole – those items at the top should receive more of your efforts than those toward the bottom. Remember that you can only do one thing at a time.
Talk through your feelings of being overwhelmed with someone you trust. Worries that cycle through our heads tend to get larger with time. Allowing them to travel out of our mouths (or fingers on the keyboard) puts them in front of us, where they often seem less daunting and we can weed through them more easily.
Limit intake of caffeine, alcohol, and other mind-altering substances. In different ways, each of these will increase your experience of stress, either immediately, as a side-effect or as they work their way through your system.
Take time away from your stressors to do something fun, preferably mind-engaging rather than mind-numbing. You want to get yourself actively thinking about something else rather than simply deaden it. This gives your mind/body a break from that constant state of mobilization that is the source of stress.
Include some form of exercise, preferably cardio-vascular, into your daily routine. This improves blood flow and facilitates muscle relaxation, both of which counter the physiological effects of stress. The more relaxed you can become, the more manageable your tasks can appear (remember, it’s all about how you perceive what it is that you face), and the more efficient you can be in completing those tasks.
Be aware of your diet. Your brain needs fuel to face your tasks, i.e. protein, but the more heavy and fat-laden the food you eat increases lethargy and fatigue, which exacerbates the stress. Concentrate on protein and fiber.
Regulate your sleep schedule. When facing what feels like insurmountable tasks, we may get into a cycle of poor sleep habits which then become hard to break. At least six, but up to eight, hours of uninterrupted sleep is necessary for our bodies and brains to feel restored enough to face the tasks of the next day. In order to obtain this, we must deliberately establish a routine of going to sleep and awakening at specific times.
Preventing stress to begin with
Incorporate many of the above suggestions into your daily life: awareness of diet, including engaging and fun activities other than work into your life, exercise, some form of regular relaxation through deep breathing or meditation, regulating our sleep cycle and moderating intake of caffeine and alcohol.
Stress often occurs because we are unrealistic about what we can accomplish and therefore take on more tasks than seem manageable. Be aware of a tendency to take on more than seems realistic. Concentrate on managing and scheduling your time more efficiently, e.g. setting up a very deliberate schedule to work on your tasks, including time to step away from your work for a break, relaxation or exercise, then returning to your tasks.
Develop a support network. Keeping stress from creeping into our lives is often dependent upon being able to step back and see the bigger picture, becoming less self-absorbed and isolated. Engaging with others on a regular basis helps us to keep a perspective on where that task that we’re worried about actually fits in the grand scheme of things.