Tool Module: Managing Stress
What is stress? First of all, it is a set of bodily reactions to new or threatening situations. These reactions developed over the course of evolution precisely so that we could survive such changes or threats.
Thus, stress, far from being harmful in and of itself, can actually be very useful, and you can be sure that it helped our ancestors to escape many dangers. Nowadays, the stimuli that induce stress in our lives rarely take the form of a wild animal poised to attack. Far more often, they involve stressful social situations, such as school exams, or verbal threats by other people.The human cerebral cortex, by decoding language, can form images of such situations that will affect the brain in the same way as the physical threat of a wild predator. Human culture is becoming increasingly sophisticated, but our basic emotional reactions remain the same.
When stress occurs, the body MUST eventually act to put an end to this tense waiting state, because all the changes that stress stimuli induce in the sympathetic nervous system result in a large, immediate expenditure of energy. For example, under stress, your heart beats faster and you breathe more quickly to get more oxygenated blood to your muscles. The blood that normally goes to your skin and your internal organs is also redirected to your muscles.
Obviously, you cannot maintain this state for very long without experiencing physical problems. High blood pressure and stomach ulcers are two examples of symptoms that are attributed to stress, and hence to inhibition of action. Over the long term, stress also diminishes the body’s immune defences. This phenomenon is now widely recognized and has even given rise to a whole new field of research: neuropsychoimmunology. In other words, our brains, and hence our thoughts and emotions, influence our resistance to disease.
Now science has even identified several mechanisms by which the brain interacts with the body’s defences. For example, we now know that a state of inhibited action or sustained stress increases the level of glucocorticoids in the body. Glucocorticoids are natural anti-inflammatories, in the same family as cortisone, and are known to weaken the immune system over the long run. This makes us more susceptible to pathogenic microorganisms, for example. So when somebody tells you that he has just lost his job or broken up with his girlfriend, and that to compound his bad luck, he is also coming down with the flu, he is actually confusing luck with a simple cause-and-effect relationship. Likewise, it has long been known that many older people die of grief just a few months after their spouses have passed away.
So in stressful situations, we have to find ways of taking action, or suffer physically sooner or later. For example, we might channel our suppressed aggressiveness into playing a sport. Or sometimes, simply talking or writing about a problem can help relieve it, because for human beings, language has become a symbolic form of action.
Here is a basic set of instructions for managing stress:
1) First, be on the lookout for the harmful side effects of stress, such as headaches, heartburn, stomach aches, and difficulty breathing, because the body is not separate from the mind. More often than not, psychological distress will result in physical symptoms as well. For example, we know that sustained stress weakens our immune systems. Your immune system is constantly working to fight off invaders inside your body, and if it is weakened, you can get an infection or catch a cold more easily.
2) Second, learn to recognize the sources of stress in your life. For example, school is the source of acute stress reported most often by young people. Among specific stressors at school, having to make oral presentations tops the list, followed by writing exams, arriving late, having too much homework, and getting bad marks. The second most important source of acute stress in young people is their love lives– difficulties meeting people, first dates, lovers’ quarrels, fears about first sexual encounters, and so on. Other sources of acute stress include events associated with violence, such as being followed, getting mugged, and so on. Chronic stress, on the other hand, usually arises from the family setting, especially as the result of communication problems.
3) Third, you need to understand your reactions to stress and know which ones are good for you and which ones are harmful. The three most common reactions to stress are inaction, assertiveness, and aggressiveness. Contrary to what many people think, of these three reactions, it is inaction rather than aggressiveness that can do you the most harm. Sitting alone and brooding is the worst thing you can do. Rechannelling your aggressiveness and letting off some steam by dancing at a party or playing a sport will do you the most good. Calling friends or seeking out help are also positive ways to assert yourself.
4) For every stressor that you encounter in your life, you should try to find an activity that relieves it. For instance, if you are experiencing a stressful change in your life (such as moving house), you might make a point of visiting old friends and establishing comforting rituals and routines. If your stress is coming from overwork at school or on the job, you might set some priorities and delegate some responsibilities. If you are experiencing a frustrating situation such as harassment in the workplace, you might ask for a meeting to express your point of view. If you are feeling lonely (for example, if you have just ended a romantic relationship), you might rediscover some personal interests and seek support from your friends.
In short, inhibiting yourself from acting does the most harm to your organism, so a good way to fight stress is to act, to do something to relieve the tension that has built up as the result of the stress. Rechannelling your frustration or aggressiveness into physical activity can be a good outlet for stress. Having to spend a whole day sitting at your desk at school or work is another kind of stress that you can relieve through physical activity.
There are many other ways to reduce stress. For example, if you are not a naturally active person, relaxation techniques, meditation, and tai chi can be good methods of stress relief. Some other, "instinctive" methods include laughing, crying, yawning, and stretching. Anything that draws on your creative talents is also good, such as music, painting, or writing. Sometimes, simply talking about your stress can help to relieve it, because for human beings, language has become a symbolic form of action.
Adaptability is very important for reducing stress.You can make yourself more adaptable, but it takes time. To do so, gradually increase the difficulty of the stressors that you deal with, and learn to set yourself realistic goals. Eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep are also essential prerequisites for managing stress effectively.
In the end, it is your own attitude toward stressful situations that determines whether they are positive or negative, because stress has a lot to do with whether you feel that you have chosen to be in a particular situation. For example, if you are hanging from the edge of a cliff, it is much more stressful if you got there by accident than if you did so on purpose while rock climbing.
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