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You can’t possibly eliminate stress from your life, but if you don’t get a handle on chronic stress you’re at risk of physical and mental health consequences that can diminish quality of life. Although you can’t get rid of stress, you can learn to minimize it, become more resilient to its effects and learn coping strategies which further reduce its negative impact.

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress

We think of stress as a bad thing – something to be avoided whenever possible, but stress is neither good nor bad, it’s just a necessary evolutionary process that lets you marshal extra energy and focus when you need it most.

  • The extra adrenalin you feel in a close tennis game helps you run a little faster and hit a little harder
  • The stress of a ticking clock deadline at work keeps you alert and ups your focus level
  • In moments of actual physical danger, stress responses quicken your senses and improve muscle strength and speed - improving your chances of getting out of risky situations

In some situations, stress helps improve your performance, but your body wasn’t designed to handle prolonged intense stress, and so when stress becomes chronic, things start to break down and you start to experience mental and physical health consequences.

Stressed Out – What’s the Problem?

So I’m stressed out a lot of the time. Everybody’s busy these days – it’s just a fact of modern life, so what’s the big deal anyway?

Well, as much as you may tell yourself that you can grow used to a chronically stressed and frantic lifestyle, your body is not evolutionarily very different from your ancestors of many thousands of years past, and it’s simply not built to handle chronic stress very well.

Live with chronic stress? If so, you’re at risk for

  • Memory problems and an increased risk of early and accelerated dementia
  • Headaches, muscle aches and other non specified aches and pains
  • Sleeping problems and fatigue
  • Obesity – stress can cause comfort eating and excess stress increases cortisol levels which promote the storing of fat, especially around the midsection
  • An increased risk of a host of emotional and mental health conditions
  • An increased risk of baldness
  • An increased risk to abuse drugs or alcohol, eat to excess or engage in other maladaptive coping activities
  • An increased risk of digestive problems, such as GERD and IBS
  • Many more health and well being consequences

How Do I Know if I’m Too Stressed Out?

You can’t avoid stress, and occasional acute stress won’t do you any harm, but frequent and prolonged stress – chronic stress – can reduce your quality of life and affect your health.

Is chronic stress taking a toll on you?

Not sure? – Well according to the American Psychological Association, you need to be on the lookout for the following warning signs of excessive stress:

  • Irritability
  • Headaches or unexplained muscle pains
  • Chest pains
  • A reduction in sex drive
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleeping problems
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness and or an inability to concentrate
  • Depression
  • Increased social isolation
  • Increased use of alcohol, drugs or tobacco to cope
  • Changes in eating habits – eating too much or losing your appetite1

Ways to Reduce the Stress in Your Life  

The truth is, you’re never going to eliminate stress from your life.

But though you’ll never rid yourself of the frustrations and challenges of the modern world, you can do a lot to minimize how the stress in your environment affects your health and happiness.

To reduce the negative impact of stress, you need to:

  1. Work on eliminating what stress you can from your lifestyle
  2. Work on increasing your resilience to stressors – so stressful events don’t stress you out quite so much!
  3. Work on improving your coping skills, so you can handle the bumps in the road without feeling your heart pound for quite so long

1. Eliminate Stress

Some ways to reduce your stress load include:

  • Learn what stresses you out and make lifestyle changes when possible to minimize predictable stress – Use a stress diary for a few weeks to record in real time what’s causing your stress…and then make the changes necessary to shed unnecessary stress from your routine. Sometimes better time management practices let you get just as much done without inducing so much tension.2
  • Protect your time and energy by learning to say no – If you don’t protect your time and energy people will take it all from you. Learn to say no and avoid getting over-committed, and if saying no is a problem for you, think about assertiveness training that can help you learn to say what you really mean.
  • Simplify, where possible – Too much stuff, too much mess, too much media, too much multitasking…just too much going on at the same time! Physical and mental clutter increases stress, so turn off the TV and shut down the computer, get rid of that excess stuff you don’t need and try to stay organized with less and most importantly, learn the value of focus. Multitasking doesn’t really improve efficiency, but it does increase stress. 3

2. Increase Your Resilience

Notice how much harder things seem when you’re tired or emotionally frazzled?

Well, you can’t ever hope to rid your life of all stress, but since you know it’s on the way, you can take steps to improve your body’s resilience to what’s coming.

And maybe, if you do it well, stress won’t be quite so stressful anymore!

Some ideas for improving your stress resilience include:

  • Maintain a balance between your work and home life
  • Get enough sleep each night
  • Exercise regularly
  • Try to cultivate a habit of positive thinking. Learn skills of positive self talk
  • Find someone you can talk to about what’s going on in your life (social support) and make an effort to develop a robust network of social support. The social support you build in the good times helps enormously during times of great stress
  • Limit your use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs

3. Improve Your Coping Skills

You’ll never get rid of all stress, but master a few stress-busting coping skills and you’ll greatly reduce its negative impact on your health and happiness.

When you notice your blood pressure rising, try:

  • Exercising for a few minutes - Stress processes are evolutionary mechanisms that trigger your body’s flight or fight response and get you ready for a few minutes of vigorous activity (as if you needed to run from a lion!) Therefore, a great way to reduce feelings of stress is to let your body release the energy it has mobilized for a fight or a flight through a few minutes of exercise.
  • Deep breathing exercises – With stress, your body gets ready for danger. Let your body know the danger is gone with deep breathing exercises that slow down the physiological changes of the stress response. Try deep breathing into your abdomen, inhaling slowly for a count of 5, and then exhaling for that same count of 5. Repeat until you’ve calmed down.4
  • Meditating – a few moments of quiet mindfulness in the midst of stress can restore a lot of calm. You may also want to try muscle relaxation exercises, like progressive muscle relaxation, which works similarly to meditation in relaxing and calming the mind and body.
References
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Page last updated May 19, 2015

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