Stress is commonly understood as the body’s physical response to a perceived demand or threat. If a situation arises and your appraisal is that your coping ability or resources are lacking, you may perceive that situation as stressful, which sets off a variety of physical, emotional, mental, and behavioral reactions.
Your response to stress can be healthy and life saving in situations involving real stressors: for example, a speeding car racing towards you sets off a series of reactions that alerts your brain (perception of danger) and mobilizes your body (blood pumps faster) to get out of the way. However, when your responses to real or perceived stressors run non-stop, the effects on your body can be unhealthy and potentially deadly. Perceived stressors such as the anticipation or anxiety about tomorrow’s deadline can activate a stress reaction. Your body does not distinguish between real (speeding car) and perceived (worry about deadline) stressors.
Chronic inability to effectively cope with stress can lead to more serious issues. After heredity, stress is the leading risk factor for depression, substance abuse, suicide, and sleep, anxiety, and eating disorders.
What are the signs of ineffectively managed stress?
The signs of stress often go unnoticed because they can also be signs of physical illness. While symptoms may vary, following is a list of the most common signs of stress:
- Physical: increased heart rate, increased respiration rate, muscle aches and pains not caused by exercise, headaches, stomach problems, fatigue, frequent colds or flu, exacerbation of an existing illness
- Behavioral: tensing muscles (facial grimacing, jaw clenching), shallow breathing, changes in eating or sleeping habits, changes in bowel or bladder habits, increased smoking, drinking or drug use, and increased yelling, swearing, or hitting
- Mental: difficulty concentrating, decreased memory, indecisiveness, confusion, loss of sense of humor, distorted thinking (see list of Ten Forms of Twisted Thinking below)
- Emotional: increased irritability, anxiety, anger, frustration, worry, fear, and nervousness
How can you take care of yourself?
Effectively managing stress starts with recognizing unhealthy ways of dealing with stress, and then trying a new, healthier approach. Because your reaction to stress includes both your perceptions and your responses, stress management includes strategies aimed at improving both your perceptions and your responses.
Altering your perceptions
- Consider your options: Is there only one way to perceive the situation? Most likely not. The more alternatives you can think of, the less stressed you are likely to feel. The goal of this strategy is to try and generate as many possible alternative options for perceiving the situation, without evaluating their feasibility. Once you’ve exhausted your options, you can go back and determine which interpretation will help reduce your feelings of anxiety.
This same technique can be applied to your physical and behavioral responses to stress. Consider all of the ways you might react, even those that seem absurd (run screaming from the building) and you may begin to feel like you have choices, instead of feeling doomed or helpless.
- Practice time management: Often perceptions such of “not having enough time” or “time is running out” can increase your feelings of stress. If time is a major source of stress in your life, consider taking an inventory of the daily activities that occupy your time (from sleeping and brushing your teeth to attending class, talking on the phone, or watching TV). Then estimate in hours or fractions of an hour how long each activity takes. Add up the hours, and if your total exceeds 24, you may be trying to achieve more in a day than is humanly possible. Prioritize your activities and make sure you aren’t trying to be superhuman.
Another time management strategy is to make a list of your responsibilities and to complete the most difficult task first. Having the most stressful task crossed off the list can help reduce your perception of stress and help keep you from procrastinating by attending to all of the other less important tasks on the list.
- Learn to communicate effectively: If you find yourself constantly stressed out by other people, step back and evaluate if there is room for improving your own perceptions and communication skills. For your perceptions, ask yourself if you are taking things too personally. If your roommate turns on loud music after you’ve gone to bed, did she do it intentionally to ruin your life? Could she be unaware that it bothers you? Or is she just selfish and inconsiderate? Whatever the case, if you can think about the situation more objectively, you’ll likely feel less stressed than if you remain committed to feeling “wronged.”
Communicating effectively with the other person about the situation can also greatly reduce your stress. If you are talking to your roommate about the music, remember to:
- Stick to the facts by saying “I have trouble falling back to sleep when loud music is playing.”
- Avoid accusatory language such as “you are so inconsiderate.” Also avoid “why” questioning that will put someone on the defensive (“why did you…?” or “why do you always…?” or “why can’t you just…?”).
- Express your feelings about the situation and don’t assume that your roommate can read your mind.
- Consider what your goals are before you speak, in order to keep your communication focused on the situation at hand.
- Check your thinking: Your way of thinking about a situation can sometimes become distorted. Most people have engaged in negative thinking patterns from time to time, but thinking this way on a regular basis can have emotional consequences of guilt, frustration, anxiety, anger, or sadness—emotions that often are associated with feeling “stressed.” Check out the list below of some common forms of cognitive distortions, and see if any sound familiar to you.
The Ten Forms of Twisted Thinking
- All-or-nothing thinking. You see things in black-or-white categories. If a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure.
- Overgeneralization. You see a single negative event, such as a romantic rejection or a career reversal, as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words such as “always” or “never” when you think about it.
- Mental filter. You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively, so that your vision of all of reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors a beaker of water.
- Discounting the positive. You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count.” If you do a good job, you may tell yourself that it wasn’t good enough or that anyone could have done as well. Discounting the positive takes the joy out of life and makes you feel inadequate and unrewarded.
- Jumping to conclusions. You interpret things negatively when there are no facts to support your conclusion. Mind reading: Without checking it out, you arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you. Fortune-telling: You predict that things will turn out badly. Before a test you may tell yourself, “I’m really going to blow it. What if I flunk?” If you’re depressed, you may tell yourself, “I’ll never get better.”
- Magnification. You exaggerate the importance of your problems and shortcomings, or you minimize the importance of your desirable qualities. This is also called the “binocular trick.”
- Emotional reasoning. You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel terrified about going on airplanes. It must be dangerous to fly.” Or “I feel hopeless. I must really be hopeless.”
- “Should” statements. You tell yourself that things should be the way you hoped or expected them to be. “Musts,” “oughts” and “have tos” are similar offenders. “Should statements” that are directed against yourself lead to guilt and frustration. Should statements that are directed against other people or the world in general lead to anger and frustration.
- Labeling. Labeling is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking. Instead of saying “I made a mistake,” you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” You may also label others. When someone does something that rubs you the wrong way, you may tell yourself: “He’s an S.O.B.”
- Personalization and blame. Personalization occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control. Personalization leads to guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy. Some people do the opposite. They blame other people or their circumstances for their problems, and they overlook ways that they might be contributing to the problem.
Adapted from David D. Burns (1999). The Feeling Good Handbook. NY: Plume
Identify if any patterns contribute to your perception of stress. If your habit is to think in all-or-nothing/black-or-white terms (“If I don’t get an A, it will be a total disaster”), try thinking in shades of gray. You might imagine your extreme thoughts as points at either end of a 5-point scale (5 = “success” with the grade of A and 1 = “total disaster” with any grade other than A). Then try to generate more positive, rational thoughts that lie on the points of the scale in between the extremes (on 2, 3, or 4).
If your habit is making “should” statements, try substituting “would” instead. For example, rather than saying “I should be studying more” (which will likely make you feel guilty or anxious), substitute “it would be nice if I studied more” or “there would be some advantages to studying more.” The difference is subtle, but one that is far less judgmental (and less likely to make you feel guilty).
Changing the way you think about a situation can lead to changes in the way you respond.
Altering your responses
- Learn to breathe correctly: “Deep” or diaphragmatic breathing can immediately impact your physical responses to stress. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing for a few minutes every day (when you are not feeling stressed) can increase your ability to gain control over symptoms when you are feeling stressed.
- Practice meditation: There is much research to support the stress-relieving benefits of this ancient practice. Stress generally propels the mind into the future with anxious thoughts of “what if” and can keep you from being mindful of “what is.” Meditation is a way to experience present-mindedness. Incorporating meditation into your daily routine can help to prevent stress from building in your life, much the way brushing your teeth every day can help to prevent tooth decay.
- Sleep: Basic, common sense self-care habits are often overlooked as sources of stress relief (or, if neglected, contributors to stress). Sleep deprivation in adults can sometimes result in thought disruption or inability to function. Make sleep a priority on your list of responsibilities.
- Exercise: Exercise is a healthy emotional and physical outlet for stress, but a habit that many people have trouble fitting into their schedules on a regular basis. Consider brisk walking. The benefits of walking (30 minutes a day, 5 days per week) are well documented in academic literature and popular press, and include improvements in mood state and cardiovascular health. Yoga is another practice that is gaining popularity as a modern choice for exercise.
- Eat right: Certain foods can affect your mood. Keeping your body well nourished with a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains can improve your feeling of well-being and, in turn, your ability to cope with stress. Consider reducing or eliminating caffeine, tobacco, and other drugs from your diet as they can often increase feelings of anxiety and stress.