Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Stress Prevention & Management

Hiya! So for once I thought I'd do a useful, educational post! :)

I've been engaging in several conversations lately about stress: what it is, how to prevent it, and how to manage it, and while a lot of this is information we all already know, I thought I'd just post some little reminders of some great coping strategies we all can practice.

As we all know, the acute stress response is a good thing, but chronic stress can be detrimental for a host of reasons---it sends our emotions into a spin, it makes us more tired and distracted, and it impacts us on a physical level in so many negative ways. Physically the extra cortisol can increase pounds, our skin can break out, our muscles remain tensed, our systems are overtaxed and hyperaware, and of course one of those systems is the immune system, which means we're much more likely to get sick. While chronically stressed, our bodies might start to show responses we've never seen before or to shut down in other ways.

Ironically prevention and management can go hand-in hand, via a large listing of healthy coping strategies. The more you practice a coping strategy for prevention, the less likely for the stress to continue to manifest itself as chronically. If you do feel yourself becoming overwhelmed by stress, the more able you are to regulate the stress response, the better off you'll be in the long run.

So what are some coping strategies? Well a lot of these are common sense, but frequently we get so caught up in the stress of our lives that we forget to put into practice some of the basic tenements of healthy living and those tenements exist for a reason (they allow us to live healthy, fuller, less stressed lives!).

1) Eat a balanced diet. Yup, common sense, but how often when we're stressed do we reach for french fries, caffeine, or ice cream to make us feel better? And frequently when we're stressed, we're not thinking about the fuel we're putting into our bodies in the form of food--instead we're focused on trying to get through whatever is stressing us out. Biologically on an ancestoral level, there are reasons our bodies crave fatty, salty, sugary foods when we're stressed out but the reality is that these days we get enough of those categories just in our regular diets. Extra salt, sugar, & fatty foods just taxes our systems and decreases our chances of eating what we truly need: complex carbs, fruits & veggies, protein, etc. Additionally what we don't always get enough of are the proper vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to restore, only further compromising our systems. A note on caffeine: caffeine in our bodies mimics the stress response, so limit that intake and increase the water intake. Your body could probably use more true hydration to energize, flush out your system, and increase biological functioning. Also ONE glass of wine or beer a day can be relaxing and stress reducing, overuse of alcohol has the contradictory effect however.

2) Exercise. The more stressed we are the less likely we are to want to take time to engage in physical activity, but we need to. Exercise allows us to blow of steam and has so many protective factors for our bodies. It allows us to sleep better, our systems to function smoother, gives us time to process, and also grants MORE energy in the long run. But the other perk to exercise is that it actually puts our body through the same physical motions of the stress response but allows the cycle to complete itself. Additionally some certain types of exercise have been found to be coping strategies themselves, such as yoga and tai chi.

3) Sleep. So many of us don't get enough of it, but it's necessary for us to function well and it taxes all aspects of our health & lives when we don't get enough of it. Sleep debt cannot be made up on the weekends, thus it's necessary for us to be engaging in a regular healthy amount of sleep each night (6-9 hours of sleep a night for most adults). During sleep, our bodies restore and repair, our minds and emotions process and store, and our systems change their energy use patterns and needs. Not getting enough sleep by itself can create stress for most of us and only further propels us toward the stress response to life's normal daily occurrences.

4) Cognitive reframing, ie reframe your stressor. Is that stress really a big deal? Is there a way to think about it differently in order to recognize that there might be benefits to that experience? Is it possible to even just have a neutral reaction rather than think it's the end of the world or a horrible process? This is a challenge for most of us to do and it requires daily practice, but the more you practice it, the easier it becomes. An example of this might be the process of raking leaves or doing yardwork---frequently we might think of these activities as a chore or one more thing that needs to be done. In reality, engaging in raking leaves allows us to engage in physical exercise, we take time to notice the seasons, we utilize our senses, we breath deeply, and we feel a sense of accomplishment when we finish. If we think about the positives of an activity, rather than the negatives, the activity is more enjoyable and is less likely to be considered a stressor. We've out-thought the stress in a sense.

5) Resource management:
Time: We live in a society that is all about time. The more you understand where your time is actually going and potentially reallocate resources, the more apt you are to make stress reducing improvements. Are there areas where you waste time---could that time be better spent somewhere else? Maybe you're stretched too thin at work---record where time is going and have a conversation with the boss. Many of us also like to have a sense of control---having a plan for the week/month/year ahead can help with this process, although that being said stress can also arise due to the unexpected: BE FLEXIBLE. "Plan for the worst, hope for the best"
Money: Do we ever feel like we have enough of it? Have you ever monitored your finances to see exactly where your money is going each month? Are there ways you could cut back in some categories in order to increase savings or to pay off debts quicker? Are there areas where you spend on lots of WANTS rather than NEEDS? Debt and financial emergencies are huge stressors. Getting to a point where debts are paid down and there's a safety cushion can greatly reduce stress. Tracking funding can also let us see where our emotions are impacting our spending rather than meeting our needs.

6) Relaxation techniques: I won't go into all of these, but some might be:
Massage (either paid, self, or what we call 5-for-5 (I'll massage your for five in exchange for five))
Deep breathing exercises & Visualization
Meditation/Mindfulness (just even stop to notice the beauty that surrounds you)
PRM: Progressive Muscular Relaxation
Water therapy: Take a relaxing bath/soak in a hot tub/swim
Sex: enough said.
Journaling/Blogging---thoughts on paper and you can reflect on patterns.

7) Others:
Social support (protective on so many levels!, well, as long as its positive--we all have a friend that can be more draining than uplifting)
Humor therapy (laughter, comics, 30 min comedy on TV, a funny movie, funny Pinterest items)
Creativity (how rewarding does it feel to make something! bake, sew, craft, design, learn a new skill or just try something routine in a new way! this also has protective benefits as it can translate to creative ways to handle stress)
Art Therapy: how many of us use music to destress or process emotions? create something, draw, appreciate the arts created by someone else, go to a play (connect to others and their experience)

I've left some out, but this is just a basic list of some of the coping strategies out there. Again, so many of these are common sense, but rarely do we take the time to actually engage in these for their protective factors. Some of these also overlap incredibly easily, ie go to a comedy movie with your girlfriends. The more time you invest in your health, the better off all will be however!

1 comment:

  1. This is a very timely post for me as I have been pretty stressed out lately between work stuff and studying for this exam that I have to take next Tuesday. And then I worry about stuff that I really do not need to worry about it and gah. Not pretty. I just need to get through my final work trip (and that test next week) and I think I'll be in a much better place. I have been good about exercising and I'm working on eating better. But I really need to start to work on cognitive framing...