This post was written by Rebecca Minser, MD, PPG – Integrative Medicine.
Stress is a universal experience. There are both good and bad kinds of stress. Both death and marriage can be stressful situations and both can give you increased points on the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, a tool to help measure and assess the amount of stress you’re experiencing in your life. The scale allows you to answer an inventory of life event questions and create a score, telling you how much risk your health is under due to the amount of stress you’re experiencing. And, if you take a closer look at all the different stressors listed in the inventory, there is one common theme, change.
The specifics of stress
As humans, we find change stressful, whether it’s good or bad. Stress is necessary and part of what will help us grow and evolve. It’s often the driving force for learning something new or making a change that we otherwise would not have made. Think about it. How many times have you gone through an experience, such as a move or loss of a job and it turns out to be, “the best thing that could have ever happened to me?” It doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t difficult, it’s simply that it induced growth that you would have otherwise not had.
Physical stress is also beneficial for our bodies if it’s an appropriate amount. For example, doing strength training and gaining the benefit of added muscle mass and improved metabolism is because you are stressing your muscles when working out. However, too much physical stress causes us to break down and leads to illness. It’s a well-known fact that marathon runners get sick with a cold after running a race. It’s a balancing act.
Stress is also highly personal and depends on your perception of the situation. What is highly stressful for me may seem like nothing to you. When I discuss a person’s stress levels with them, what I’m listening for is how they’re viewing a situation and how it’s impacting their lives, not whether or not it “seems” like a stressful situation. The good thing about perception is that it’s something you have control over and can change. It gives you a possible coping mechanism to help you deal with the stress in your life.
Stress relieving strategies
So, what can you do to cope with the stress that inevitably finds its way into your life? Having good coping skills that you can rely on can lessen the impact of stress and make your journey through changes or difficulties easier overall.
First, you can reframe how you see your stress. Let’s take the loss of a job. Often that starts a cascade of worry about paying bills, buying groceries, keeping your home, etc. You can choose to focus on the worry, thinking about it all the time while blaming your boss or whatever lead to the loss of your job. You can stay with the hurt, anger or fear and give in to the anxiety. Or, you can work on seeing what positivity might come of it. You never know what may come out of an unexpected change. Focusing on positive thoughts instead of fear of the unknown can help you lessen the effects of stress on your system. It’s as simple as thinking, “this may turn out to be great,” instead of succumbing to, “this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.” Remember, you are the only one who has power and control over your thoughts. William James said it best, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
Another way to help you cope with stress is through various mental and spiritual pursuits. There are a variety of coping mechanisms that fall into this category. Try a few of these strategies when faced with difficult times:
- Prayer and spiritual connection: Prayer practices are very helpful in times of stress, regardless of your faith. Whether you go to church, attend mosque, gather with friends or simply enjoy walking and being one with nature, choose whatever gives you a sense of spiritual connectedness. It will help lessen stress.
- Meditation and guided imagery: There are many ways to meditate. This can include quiet contemplation, working with breathing, clearing the mind, saying a mantra, working the rosary and more. Studies have shown the benefit in the brain and calming of stress hormones in people who meditate will have a profound and lasting impact. Guided Imagery, however, is a bit different. By utilizing this technique, you are usually listening to someone guide you through a highly visual meditation. This can also be very helpful and relaxing.
- HeartMath: This is a specific type of biofeedback that will rebalance your stress hormones and improve your resilience in the face of stress. The app is free, but you must purchase the connector. Also, if used daily it has been shown to lessen stress, anxiety and depression while also improving sleep. There’s a lot of free information and guidance on their website.
- Support system: Being in a loving environment and having good social support increases the likelihood that you will get through whatever stress you are experiencing in better shape than someone going through it alone. We are social creatures and need the interaction and support of others. Those walking alone through stressful times experience more stress-induced illnesses.
- Forgiveness: Yet another thing that can help lessen the effects of stress on your life. Forgiveness can be difficult and sometimes lifelong work. Holding on to anger, pain and rage are very damaging to our health and well-being over long periods.
- Exercise: We don’t tend to get enough exercise, and it’s often the first thing to go when we’re stressed. However, exercise is crucial, proving to be both mentally and physically beneficial. Exercise can not only help decrease stress hormones, but also help you work through difficult emotions, burn off excess energy and anxiety, and improve sleep. All these things are an issue when we’re stressed, and exercise helps correct that.
- Avoid or decrease your caffeine: Caffeine causes a reaction in your body that mimics adrenaline which is one of your main stress hormones. The last thing you need is a racing pulse, increased blood pressure and anxious feelings. Dialing back the caffeine can help lessen that.
- Put yourself on your to-do list: Last, but not least, care for yourself, especially during times of high stress. Modify your schedule, stop some of the busy-ness. Even if that means stopping a volunteer position for a while and just let yourself have the space to heal. I promise, your mind, body and spirit will thank you for it.