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Stress Management

Last Modified: January 01, 2014

Healthy Mind

Are you reading this while squinting? Is your jaw clenched? Are your shoulders up by your ears? If so, chances are you’re feeling stressed. You probably use the word “stress,” or some variation of it, when you feel that everything seems to have become too much – when you are overloaded and wonder whether you can truly cope with the pressures placed upon you.

Stress is a normal physical response to events that affect your health and well-being, or make you feel unbalanced. When you sense danger – whether it’s real or imagined – your body’s defenses kick into an automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response.

The stress response is your body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it can help you stay focused, energetic and alert. In emergency situations, it can save your life, giving you the extra strength to defend yourself or slam on the brakes to avoid an accident, for example. It also helps you overcome challenges. Stress is what motivates you at work, sharpens your concentration when attempting a game-winning free throw or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather watch television.

But at a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts weakening your mental and physical health. Stress can easily creep up on you – you get used to it. Stress can start to feel familiar or normal, and you don’t notice how it’s affecting you. So, it’s important to learn how to recognize when your stress levels are too high.


Stress causes changes in your body, and it can affect your emotions.

Common symptoms of stress include:

  • Headaches and body aches
  • Neck, shoulder or lower back pain
  • Upset stomach, nausea or diarrhea
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Heightened emotions
  • Sense of loneliness or feelings of isolation
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Persistent feelings of sadness, unhappiness or depression
  • Nervous habits (nail biting, pacing)


You might have also heard of a “stressor.” This is different than “stress.” A stressor is any situation or pressure that causes you to feel stressed – or causes you to feel anxious, overwhelmed or upset. You might think of stressors as being negative, but positive events like going to college, receiving a promotion or getting married can also be stressors.

Stress isn’t always caused by external events. It can also be self-generated. For example, excessive worrying or negative thinking can also cause stress.

Common external causes of stress include:

  • Family problems
  • Relationships difficulties
  • Financial matters
  • Lack of time
  • Your physical health
  • Significant life changes and transitions
  • Unemployment

Common internal causes of stress include:

  • Unresolved grief
  • Feelings of uncertainty
  • Unrealistic expectations/perfectionism
  • Negative self-talk
  • Chronic worry
  • Rigid thinking or a lack of flexibility

Your Stress Tolerance Level

Everyone reacts differently to stress. For example, you might be able to roll with the punches, while others seem to crumble under pressure. Your ability to tolerate stress depends on many factors, including the quality of your relationships, your general outlook on life, your emotional intelligence and even your genetics.

Here are a few things that influence your stress tolerance level:

  • Your support network. A strong network of close family and friends can be a buffer against life’s stressors. Conversely, the more lonely and isolated you feel, the greater your vulnerability to stress.
  • Your attitude and outlook on life. If you tend to be more optimistic, you’re more likely to positively and effective cope with stress. The ability to embrace challenges, maintain a sense of humor and accept change as a part of life can increase your tolerance for stress.
  • Your ability to deal with your emotions. You’re more vulnerable to stress if you don’t practice self-management techniques when you’re feeling sad, angry or overwhelmed. Your ability to effectively manage your emotions helps you bounce back from adversity.
  • Your sense of control. It can be easier to overcome stress if you have confidence in yourself and your ability to persevere through challenging times. However, if you feel like things are out of your control, you’re likely to have a lower tolerance for stress.

Effect of Chronic Stress

You already know that too much stress isn’t good for you – its effects can be debilitating. But how bad is “bad,” really? Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health conditions. It can increase your blood pressure, speed up the aging process and even rewire your brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Over time, chronic stress can also lead to problems with your:

  • Muscles. Constant tension caused by stress can lead to neck, shoulder and lower back pain, and it can worsen certain conditions like arthritis.
  • Skin. Skin conditions like acne and psoriasis are often made worse by stress.
  • Stomach. If you have stomach problems like gastroesophageal reflux disease or irritable bowel syndrome, stress can make your symptoms worse.
  • Immune system. Constant stress can compromise your immune system, making it more likely that you’ll get sick more often.
  • Lungs. Stress can worsen symptoms of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • Heart. Stress can lead to increased blood pressure, abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia), blood clots and heart diseases like hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), which can lead to heart attack and heart failure.

Strategies for Coping with Stress

You already know that stress can wreak havoc on your health and well-being. But here’s the good news: You can consciously influence your body’s reaction to stress, particularly when you’re aware of your stress triggers.

Here are six stress management tips to cope with stress:

  • Take a breather. Do you ever notice yourself responding to a frustrating situation with a deep sigh? Deep, mindful breathing can result in a sense of relaxation. Next time you’re you find yourself in a stressful situation, focus your attention on your breath while you take slow, deep inhalations and exhalations. This simple tool can help calm your mind, refresh your perspective and serve as your “reset” button.
  • Write it down. Sometimes it’s helpful to make a list of your frustrations – no matter how small. You can type it up, draft an email or write it down on paper. Then, after you’ve looked over your list, take a few deep breaths and toss it. Don’t forget to let go of the negative feeling associated with it. The idea is to interrupt the negative, repetitive thought cycle you’ve been focusing on and move on to more positive thoughts.
  • Think positive. This goes hand-in-hand with writing it down. Rather than incessantly worrying about the same things, break the cycle and train your brain to think in a way that’s positive and uplifting. One way to do this is to envision the results you want – not the results you’re afraid of. Sometimes, the very thought of things working out in your favor can be inspiring.
  • Go outside. Stimulate your sense and shift your awareness to something other than the stressor by going for a walk, getting some fresh air and sunlight, and gaining a new perspective. A little break from your current environment might be just what you need to rejuvenate your mindset.
  • Burn off steam. Exercise is a great way to get your mind off things you find stressful. Just 20 minutes of heart-pumping activity can decrease stress hormones and increase endorphins, which are often referred to as the body’s “feel-good chemicals.” Exercise classes like Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi can also help you to relax and find balance.
  • Help others. Research shows that volunteering can relieve stress. It can be an uplifting way to change how you feel about your life – and positively impact someone else’s life. Volunteering can help you find a sense of purpose and build your self-esteem.
  • Set an intention for the day. To overcome stress, begin each day with a stated intention like: Today I will…
    • Take three stress breaks during the day
    • Assess my stress level each hour
    • Keep a log of my stressors
    • Search for two opportunities to help others

Even small goals can have a significant impact on your stress level. But don’t shoot for perfection, which can cause more stress.

If you practice these stress relievers each day and find they’re not working as well as you hoped, it might be time to seek professional help. Call the Parkview Behavioral Health Help Line at (260) 373-7500 or (800) 284-8439, anytime 24 hours a day. Our dedicated assessment specialists are available to guide you to the appropriate level of care – or resources – for your situation.

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