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by Erin Alexander, LPC
Stress is the way our bodies react physically, emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally to any change from what is expected. We usually think of stress as negative, but it can also be positive: from an evolutionary, standpoint, for instance, we need it for survival in our “fight or flight” response.
Stress often has a negative impact on our bodies physically; for example, we may have decreased immune system efficiency, poor digestion, problems with metabolism, and issues with blood sugars. Cognitively, we can become forgetful, lose concentration, and even become confused – sometimes when I’m stressed, I even forget sections of the day! Behaviorally, we may become less productive, withdraw from others, or feel negative. From an emotional perspective, stress can cause us to feel anxious, irritable, resentful, and depressed, leading us to snap at our coworkers or spouse. Or, we start making negative comments about our jobs when we really love what we do. Many of the stress warning signs actually mimic Depression and/or Anxiety, like panic attacks, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, heart palpitations, digestive problems, and body aches. Often, doctors will recognize these symptoms as Acute Stress and refer patients to mental health professionals.
What triggers stress? The list seems endless! Marital conflict,, moving, job loss or change in work conditions, vacations and holidays, pregnancy, children leaving home, retirement, legal issues, family reunions, deployment and reintegration-related issues in the military, Financial problems, school, personal injury or major illness, death, care-giving (elderly parent or mentally ill family member), and physiological changes (like menopause and aging). Some of these seem like they would be “happy” events, like retirement and vacations; however, many clients in my practice say otherwise: retirement is a complete life transition from what one has known for 20-30 years, vacations are typically rushed, etc.
Here are some of the best self-care techniques to make sure that you have a good resiliency foundation to deal effectively with stress? Many of the suggestions listed have been recommended by professionals on numerous occasions; some things you may not have considered:
- First of all, eating a healthy diet and consuming enough water is important to help make sure that you have the appropriate nutrients in the body, and that you are hydrated. I consume between 24 and 32 ounces of water in the morning before I have any caffeine. I also use the MyFitnessPal app on my phone to enter everything that I consume so that I have a nutritional food diary.
- Exercising daily is also important…not necessarily for weight loss but to help boost the “feel good” chemicals in the body. I do a 10 minute workout in the mornings while my coffee is brewing. I do something intense, like a few sets of squats, burpees, and oblique planks; that way I have a short full body workout in a short amount of time and I feel good.
- Getting 8 hours of sleep is important but easier said than done. To help with this, I do things to wind down in the evening in preparation for sleep, like taking a hot bath, drinking herbal teas, and doing yoga. I do not watch anything on TV that is going to be emotionally disturbing. I have also gotten into the habit of keeping electronics out of my bedroom unless it is soft music. I do not have a TV there.
- Enjoying quality time with friends/family is essential, as well as making time for your hobbies. I enjoy music, yoga, hiking, and just having lunch and conversation with friends.
- Many people do not know how to set boundaries, or know how to say NO. Learning this skill definitely decreases the stressors that you would ordinarily have.
- Learning to utilize all resources that are available to you is essential for stress management. For example, if others have skills sets that you don’t have, ask for help when you need it! Along these same lines, learn to delegate tasks to others when it is appropriate.
- Another way to utilize resources is to take advantage of your employee assistance program; for example, there are resources to help out with financial planning, elder care, counseling, career, legal assistance, and other issues. Now mental health has expanded to telehealth, to reach people who are not available for more traditional types of counseling. Breakthrough Behavioral provides secure online services to people wherever it is most convenient.
- Learning to set realistic, measurable goals is important for stress management. This helps you to feel accomplished and as if you are managing your time well.
And finally: try to see life through the eyes of a child…laugh more, let things go, have fun, don’t take everything so seriously, and appreciate the beauty in the world.
These things take practice so that they become habits, but once they do, you’ll be feeling lighter and so much more carefree.
Erin Alexander is a Professional Counselor in the state of Texas. She holds an M.A. in Counseling/Educational Psychology from UTSA.