November 2nd, 2022 was International Stress Awareness Day, as the International Stress Management Association declared. Many people find this time of year to be the most stressful with approaching holiday commitments. What contributes to this stress?
Stress shows up when the demands of a situation exceed the available resources to meet them. Time, money, energy, and emotional availability are all resources needed to address day-to-day concerns.
Stress is a natural feeling from time to time. Its role is to put us on high alert to meet demands. It is designed to be short-lived and subside once the stressor is eliminated. In the past, our known stressors involved hunter-gatherer situations where we were potentially facing starvation or being chased by a predator. The immediate threat of survival was the primary stressor. The danger was in the present, either resolved by overcoming the stressor or losing the battle.
Although our present-day threats of stress are still indirectly related to survival, the stressor link isn’t as straightforward or as apparent as it had been in earlier human experiences. With the societal shifts and the development of technology, we are constantly multi-tasking, receiving notifications, and juggling many responsibilities at a time. Such burdens create an “open loop” in our mind where the brain constantly thinks about all these issues until they are “resolved.” As we’re always worried about several things at once, the “open loop” is never closed, making it hard to relax and contributing to the ongoing battle with stress.
How can you become better at managing stress?
Acknowledge your stress:Recognizing that you are experiencing stress at the moment helps you validate your experience. Labeling stress is beneficial for regulating your emotions and deciding your following action.
Acknowledge your stress.
Recognizing that you are experiencing stress at the moment helps you validate your experience. Labeling stress is beneficial for regulating your emotions and deciding your following action.
Compartmentalize your stress:
Make a written list and prioritize it
This helps you focus on the most critical “open item” at the time so you can filter out any less significant stressors, making them more manageable. Putting things on paper relieves some of the burden placed on our memory. When things are on paper, we can visualize, strategize and feel more in control.
Break down your “to- do” list tasks into chunks
Breaking large tasks down into micro-tasks keeps you present and in the moment. When you are stressed, you lump everything together in an urgent and chaotic way while focusing on the lack of resources available to meet goals. Making micro-tasks gives a more realistic look at each step. These seem more doable and easier to complete, allowing your brain to focus and eliminate overwhelm.
Turn off notifications
Notifications take focus away from the present moment and can be overwhelming when the mind is already overburdened, they add to the sense of urgency and contribute to the list of things in the “open loop”. Every time you hear a notification, the mind must decide: stay on the present task or veer in another direction. This decision-making process depletes your precious mental resources.
Designate a “worry time”
Making lists, prioritizing, and designating time to worry allows the part of your brain known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS) to filter out what is necessary at the moment. The brain has to think about things, problem-solve, and weigh different options. Giving yourself a designated time to worry about individual items and reminding yourself, “I’m not thinking about this till my worry hour,” will help prevent rumination or unproductive worrying. Setting aside fifteen minutes a day to sit and worry in general will quell your anxiety by letting your brain know your pressing thoughts will be addressed.
Recognize situations that cause you stress
Though we can’t always avoid stressful situations, knowing when we are about to enter a position or time of stress can help us plan better. Maybe there is a situation that can be avoided, or maybe there is a situation that can be managed. Recognizing when you feel triggered or anxious will help you arrange the proper coping mechanisms ahead of time and help you manage your priorities appropriately.
Change your stress mindset.
Stress can also serve as a motivator as it puts us on high alert and high performance to meet deadlines. If we view stress as a “helper”, it changes the effects stress has on the body. According to Dr. Caroline Leaf, when you approach stress pessimistically, stress will work against your body by making it more toxic.
The simple act of telling yourself that stress is good for you can change your experience. Approaching stress from a “how can this help me” has a more positive, productive effect on the body.
“If you face a difficult situation with a “glass half full” attitude, the blood vessels around your heart dilate. Increased blood flow results in increased oxygen flowing to your brain, which, in turn, increases your cognitive fluency and clarity of thought—that is, your ability to not only face a challenge but overcome it. This increased blood flow also allows a number of neurophysiological and genetic processes to work for you, fueling intellectual growth and resilience. A genetic switch will be turned on inside the hippocampus of your brain, which strengthens your body, allowing you to cope in a difficult situation and stay strong amidst adversity.” -Dr. Caroline Leaf https://drleaf.com/blogs/news/stress-is-good-for-you
Take care of your bodily stress management supports
Get enough sleep
Most adults don’t get adequate sleep, which makes handling stress all the more challenging. Rest is necessary for allowing our brains to recharge during the night. During the night memories are consolidated, and emotions are processed. Lack of sleep can influence mood and emotional reactivity. Each stage of sleep is important for optimal brain functioning. Whatsmore, lack of sleep increases the body’s cortisol levels, the body’s stress hormone.
Provide yourself with a restful 7-8 hour sleep, going to bed several hours before midnight and eliminating distractions at the end of the night.
Eat a well-balanced diet
When you are not eating a balanced diet, your body goes into “triage”. Your body will delegate precious nutrients to keep it alive. Only the systems necessary for short-term survival are supported. Emotional regulation is one of the systems that are not prioritized in a survival state.
In addition, the stress, in turn, depletes nutrients. When your body is in a state of alarm caused by a lack of resources, it is impossible to manage thoughts and feelings. Eating a well-balanced meal is necessary for prioritizing mental health and coping with stress.
The Standard American Diet, which is high in carbs, sugar, trans fats, and processed food, does not support stress regulation. When you eat this way, your body suffers from inconsistent blood sugar levels, which spike stress chemicals and make concentration and sleep more challenging. Eat consistent meals with high-quality protein and Omega-3 fats, fruits, veggies, and grains to help support a calm mind.
Creating an elevated heart rate and getting into your body helps “resolve” stress as it stems from an evolutionary need to run from the stressor. The act of exercising releases endorphins which combat stress. Exercise keeps you in the present moment as you focus on your breath, body, and movements. Exercising regularly also can have long-term effects by improving your body’s immune, cardio and digestive systems.
Avoid alcohol and drugs
Many people who experience high levels of stress may often turn to alcohol or other drugs to alleviate their anxiety symptoms. The effects of the relief felt by alcohol and drugs are temporary and can often leave you feeling worse off. In addition to spiking blood sugar, which plays a role in feelings of stress, alcohol and drugs are often depressants as they wreak havoc on neurotransmitters, neural pathways, and information processing and deplete nutrients used to manage stress.
Connect to your breath
Deep breaths trigger your rest and digestion system which is better for clear decision-making. Deep breaths also signal to your body that there is no imminent danger and put us in the present moment. Focusing on slow, controlled breaths allows the body to “reverse engineer” a state of relaxation.
A box breathing technique has been shown to work well in times of stress.
Use your social supports to manage stress
Humans are social beings, and having a healthy approach to stress begins with creating a connection. There is evidence that feeling more connected with others can improve physical symptoms such as cancer survival, cardiovascular mortality, and decrease depressive symptoms, among other symptoms.
How to use your social supports to combat stress:
Delegate responsibility and ask for help when possible
Are you taking on more than necessary? Are you saying yes to everything when you are already short on time? We often feel the need to take on tasks for other people or not ask for help to satisfy the people-pleasing side of us. We don’t want to be trouble or a burden to anyone. However, whenever we take on more responsibility than is necessary, we often feel resentment toward others. In addition, asking for help can help cultivate feelings of connection and community, which helps manage stress.
Talk it out with a friend, family member, or support group
You can get valuable perspectives from other people, and just hearing yourself talk can help you problem-solve and create organization in your brain. As you speak, you will most likely receive validation and support for your experience, which helps lessen your experience of stress.
Talk to a professional
If stress is becoming an ongoing, burdensome issue, you may be in “Survival Mode”. Therapists can help you notice patterns that can contribute to stress and provide resources for processing, coping, and self-soothing. Accelerated Resolution Therapy offers a release for stressful situations by focusing on a “stress trigger” while applying soothing techniques such as eye-movement therapies and image rescripting. To learn more about working with an ART trained therapist visit https://acceleratedresolutiontherapy.com/therapist-directory/ to find a practitioner near you.