Coping With Stress: Advice on How to Recognize and Deal With It

 

Coping With Stress: Advice on How to Recognize and Deal With It

Dr. David Tolin says stress isn’t always something to get . . . well, stressed about. 

“Stress in certain amounts is what motivates us to get out of bed and do things, function and solve problems. Stress is in many ways a very critical part of being human. If we didn’t have stress we wouldn’t function,” says Tolin, director and founder of Hartford Hospital’s Anxiety Disorders Center. “If your stress level is too low, you tend not to do very well because you’re not really paying attention and you’re not really motivated to do anything.” 

But, obviously, there’s a darker, potentially harmful side to stress. “If your stress level is too high, then functioning starts to break down because you start to become overwhelmed,” he says. “So for any given person in any given situation, there is sort of an optimal level of stress.”

Adverse effects from too much stress can include headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression and anxiety.

We spoke with Tolin and other experts to look at what causes stress, how to recognize when you have too much of it, and what you can do to effectively manage this biologically necessary but often unpleasant emotion.

STRESS-CAUSING CULPRITS

“Stress is experienced in the body as what we call the fight, flight or freeze response,” Tolin says. “Basically what that means is the body is mobilizing for a threat of some kind, so what happens to you when you experience stress at work is biologically very similar to what happens if someone is robbing you and you’re getting ready to either run away from it or to fight back. Your body is getting ready to deal with a threat, which means your heart rate increases, you start increasing your oxygen intake, your muscles go into a state of tension. Your body starts creating cortisol—a natural painkiller and healing chemical—getting ready essentially for injury. All of that is perfectly fine, and certainly good if you’re being robbed. Where we run into trouble is when that’s happening chronically, where it’s happening day in and day out without release, then you start to get negative health effects.”

The data suggests this bad type of stress is on the rise. “Stress is very common now,” says Dr. Rajita Sinha, of the Yale Stress Center. “The American Psychological Association does yearly surveys and nationally 58 percent of people are reporting being moderately stressed to very stressed. More than a third of those are children.”

Sinha adds that there are some common stress-causing culprits. “When you look at the type of events that people are talking about, they’re pretty significant losses in their life from death to losing homes, losing jobs, losing important relationships, being victims of violence. Losing jobs, financial stress is a big one,” she says.

However, it’s not just bad life events that can cause stress.

“It doesn’t have to be negative things,” Tolin says. “In fact, what we find is that positive circumstances are often every bit as stressful as negative circumstances. So we might think of losing a job as being a source of stress and that’s very true, but getting a job is also a source of stress. Losing a marriage is certainly a source of stress but getting married is also a source of stress. We also find that even the small stressors over time can build up and have an impact on us, again sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. Meeting deadlines at work, or the phone ringing a lot, or having to attend to chores throughout the home or related to the family, even having pressing social engagements are a source of stress. So those little things either alone, or sometimes in combination as they build up, can also become a source of stress.”

WAYS TO REDUCE STRESS

“The first step to reducing stress is to recognize it,” says Sinha. “One of the ways people try to cope with stress is to minimize it and ignore it; sometimes that can be helpful when you really have no answers, but a lot of times that will only go so far. Even if you feel like there are no answers or no way out, it’s important to begin to acknowledge the stress and notice how it’s affecting you.”

She adds some common symptoms of stress include “sleep difficulties, irritability, feeling down, withdrawing or not really wanting to go out much or do social activities, not enjoying the things you normally enjoy, aches and pains difficulty concentrating, forgetting things. These are all symptoms of being in highly stressful periods, or coping with uncontrollable stress.”

Once you’ve realized you have too much stress there are steps you can take to better manage it.

“When somebody is noticing that their stress level is getting to the point where it’s actually causing their performance to suffer, there are several things they can do,” Tolin says. “One is to prioritize. When we’ve talked with chronically overwhelmed and stressed-out people, a lot of times what we find is that they have not done a very good job of prioritizing tasks, so everything is critical and everything has to be done right now. Sometimes that’s true, but most of the time it isn’t. So lots of times there are important things to get to and less important things to get to.”

He adds that one helpful technique is to break big tasks down into more manageable sub-goals; another is to step away from the stress, even briefly. “There’s much to be said for just simply taking a break,” he says. “Workaholics like me are not very good at doing that—we have a tendency to just keep pushing and pushing and pushing—but oftentimes what we find is if you take a break from the task and give yourself time to recover, you actually come back to it more focused, less stressed out, less overwhelmed, and better able to actively solve the problem.”

Sinha agrees and advises those who are stressed “to build in enjoyment-related things in your life that will give you a break from stress, connect with family and make sure you have social support from family or friends.”

She adds it’s important to monitor overall health. “Exercise and diet are two things that are really critical and people often don’t think of those things as being connected to stress,” she says. “Exercise we do, but diet often we don’t; however, eating healthy meals, eating three times a day, and being physically active can really help with stress.”

Sinha suggests it can also be productive to see a professional counselor or psychologist to discuss stress management. In addition, there are alternative methods one can engage in to reduce stress. “In many communities in Connecticut, there are yoga classes, there are support groups, there are spirituality classes. People like to go do those things and those can help reduce levels of stress,” she says.

One place these types of classes are offered is at Finding Feathers, a healing center in Fairfield. At the center, free meditation classes are offered. According to owner Denise Lamoureux, the mediations “are what we call meditation positiva, as opposed to what we call meditation negativa—mediation where you sit silently and you have to shut your brain off.

“This meditation positva is so awesome for stress because when we’re under stress we can’t calm our brains—we just can’t,” she says. “Our minds are thinking about everything we have to do. So what this does is it engages you in the meditation so that you kind of have no choice but to stay focused on the meditation. It gives you that peace from that busy brain, that monkey mind, as I call it.”

She encourages even those who are skeptical of meditation to give it a try. “There are lots of different forms of meditation. You just want to find the one that works best for you,” she says. “The key thing to remember is not to make it such a big-time consuming type of thing. Know that you can meditate for five minutes in the morning and it’s going to make a difference for the entire day.”        

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