What is stress?

Stress is a normal bodily response to a trigger in your environment that causes you to feel threatened or upset. When your brain perceives danger, it signals your body to activate an automatic process. Stress can include thinking, emotional, behavioral and physical symptoms, including the following:

  • Memory problems
  • Foggy thinking
  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Low energy
  • Irritability
  • Moodiness
  • Nervousness
  • Sleep problems
  • Emotional eating
  • Procrastination
  • Bodily pains
  • Heart palpitations
  • Indigestion
  • Impaired immune system

Stages of Stress

Hans Selye (1907-1982) conceptualized the body’s stress response as a series of three stages, referred to as the General Adaption Syndrome.

Stage 1: Alarm Reaction

This first stage refers to your immediate reaction to a stressor. During this stage, you experience the “fight-flight-or freeze” response, which is your body’s automatic process to deal with a perceived threat-real or imagined. Your body undergoes a series of physiological processes to prepare you to handle the threat. In particular, a signal is sent to the brain’s hypothalamus then to the pituitary gland and finally to the adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones trigger your body to immediately react.

Stage 2: Resistance

If the stress remains, your body attempts to adapt to the stressor and maintains a level of alertness. Your body continues to release hormones to help the body react.

Stage 3: Exhaustion

When the stress remains, your body has difficulty resisting the stressor. By this stage, your body becomes exhausted and many bodily functions can become impaired. Someone who experiences daily conflict at work or home, for example, might eventually develop high blood pressure, get sick, experience sleep problems or feel fatigued.

What is causing you stress?

Identifying the source of your stress is the first step. Stress comes from your perception of events. Thus, what might be stressful for one person, may not for another. Often stress is triggered from many different areas of your life, including work, finances, and relationships.

Start a Stress Journal

If you are having a difficult time identifying what is causing you stress, using a stress journal may help. When you feel stressed, write down what you think caused you to feel that way. Notice any precipitating events, such as an argument with your partner or a low balance alert from your bank. Also, track how you felt emotionally and physically when this happened. Document your behavior to the situation and what, if anything, that you did to make you feel better. After you made multiple entries, take a look at the journal for any patterns and themes. Pay particular attention to unhealthy coping, such as overeating, drinking alcohol excessively, being aggressive, and isolating from others.

Healthy Ways to Manage Stress

Stress can often feel overwhelming and burdensome; however, with proper stress management techniques, you can significantly reduce the effects of stress. There are two basic strategies to deal with stress: change the stressor or change the way you deal with the stressor.  If you noticed that you tend to use unhealthy coping, it’s important to practice more healthy ways of dealing with stress.

Change Your Reaction

Recall that stress starts because your brain perceives an external stimulus as stressful. While an impending bear attack is a good reason for your body to react, an argument with your boss may not necessarily be worth the stress response.

  • Change your thinking process: One way you can change your reaction is to change your thoughts. When confronted with a stressor, automatic thoughts often occur, which are ingrained and repetitive thoughts. Often these thoughts are negative and irrational. Take some time to think about your thinking. What are you saying to yourself? Ask yourself if this is productive or harmful thinking. Are there more positive and rational ways to think of the situation? Is there any evidence for the conclusions you are making? If you change your thinking, you can often change your emotional response to a situation, leading to less stress.
  • Express yourself effectively: Communication can be categorized according to passive, assertive and aggressive styles. When you appease others and don’t express your opinions, you are using passive communication. Keeping your emotions bottled up may be contributing to stress. You may be internalizing your frustration with others, causing you to feel helpless and angry. Alternatively, aggressive communication is characterized by angry outbursts, blaming, and confronting others. Often this leads to arguments and can even escalate to physical confrontation. The most effective form is assertive communication. With this style, you express yourself in a productive manner so that the recipient accurately receives your message and establishes mutual respect. Assertive communication allows each person to be heard and understood-an essential component of healthy relationships.
  • Practice acceptance: Acceptance refers to an attitude of assent. Having an attitude of acceptance is an effective approach to deal with uncertainty. Practicing acceptance can reduce your sense of helplessness and uncontrollability, which often contribute to stress.

Change the Stressor

Avoiding or altering the source of your stress can be an effective and healthy coping mechanism.

  • Avoid who and what is making you stressed: If possible, avoid the people and things that trigger stress. Some people believe in the adage, “misery loves company”, but this can lead to stressful relationships. If talking to your step-mother gives you heartburn, then allow her call to go to voicemail and call her back when you are emotionally prepared. Also, setting boundaries with those who take advantage or abuse you is important in managing stress. Although we love our high-tech gadgets, taking a technology break can provide you with some quiet and calm time.
  • Change your environment: Attempt to avoid situations that make you feel stressed. If watching politics makes you anxious, turn off the TV and pick-up a book instead. If work has you completely stressed, you may want to inquire about your company’s alternative work patterns (e.g. telecommuting, 4/10 shifts, job share). Research has shown that employees on flexible shift schedules have greater work satisfaction and lower absenteeism rates.
  • Manage your time: Incorporating time management strategies can help you manage your day so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. Maintaining a calendar with personal and professional activities allows you prepare for your day and manage your schedule. There are a variety of great scheduling tools, including those provided by Google, Microsoft Outlook and Franklin Covey. Scheduling time for family and friends is important to maintain your social support. Also, don’t forget to schedule healthy coping mechanisms, such as exercise, meditation, and hobby time.
  • Incorporate relaxation into your life: Relaxation techniques can significantly reduce your feeling of stress. Aim to incorporate these practices into your life on a daily basis to receive maximum benefits. Meditation, hot baths, yoga, leisurely walks, soothing music, and aromatherapy are just some ways to relax.
  • Eat a balanced and nutritious diet: Eating healthy helps your body combat the effects of stress. Eat a balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, proteins, and carbohydrates. Limit sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, and processed carbohydrates. Pay particular attention to any foods that cause indigestion, fatigue, irregular bowl movements, which may be a sign of a food sensitivity. When you eat foods that trigger food sensitivities, you are putting additional stress on your body.
  • Exercise regularly: Exercise has been shown to reduce stress by increasing certain neurotransmitters in the brain called endorphins. These neurological chemicals help your brain manage the stress response. Additionally,  exercise increases brain derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF) in the brain. BDNF impacts neuron functioning, specifically learning and memory.  Regular exercise improves sleep quality, reduces fatigue, and improves mood and cognitive functioning. Ensure that you choose an exercise that is appropriate for your health status.

While we can’t eliminate stress completely from our lives, we can better manage stress. This will lead to improved physical, emotional, and cognitive health. Meeting with a therapist can help you identify what specifically causes you stress and how to better manage stress in your life. Call 480-448-6755 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Mazzei, who has helped numerous individuals reduce stress and increase their well-being.