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Wellness and Personal Development

Stress Management Techniques

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

There is no doubt about it; the world is a difficult place to live. Making a living, raising a family, and negotiating relationships are difficult but necessary tasks for all people - and these sources of stress are just the normal everyday ones. Abuse, violence, chaos, disease, misfortune and other 'out of the ordinary' sorts of situations can and do add additional layers of stress to our lives. It's no wonder that many people become tense, burned out and looking for means of escape.

Though life is often unavoidably difficult, there are effective ways to manage how much we become affected by stress. We'll explore some stress management methods in this article, but first, we'll start by defining what stress is.

The Nature Of Stress

When we talk about stress, really we are often talking about how stress affects us in body mind and spirit. Stress can be defined then as the reaction we have to difficult, demanding or challenging events. Our bodies and minds have been designed with a 'fight or flight' reflex that helps to orient and become alert when we are faced with challenging or dangerous events. Our attention gets narrowed towards such events, and our brain instructs our bodies to prepare for possible physical action such as confronting the event physically (e.g., 'fight') or running away from the source of the danger (e.g., 'flight'). Muscular tension, increased heart rate, and higher concentrations of blood sugars and hormones are involved in this process.

Our body's stress response is really designed for the people we once were; less sophisticated hunter-gatherer type tribes people whose major sources of stress are where the next meal will come from and how to avoid predators. The stressors faced by most of us today are less physical and concrete than those faced by our ancestors; We worry instead about the threat of being laid off from work, of how to keep our children from becoming drug addicts, and about what to do if terrorists attack. Where our ancestors could deal with their stress reactions through direct physical activity (e.g., hunting for food, running away from an attacker), our own threats are less tangible and larger-scale and we often are unable to find anyone to attack or run away from. Even when we can, for example, attack someone as a way of discharging our tension, we often don't because we don't want to be sued or arrested for breaking the law. Because we are often unable to discharge our activation we end up experiencing this activated physical and mental state a lot of the time so that it ceases to be just occassional 'acute stress' and becomes instead 'chronic stress'.

Stressful Events

Breakup of intimate romantic relationships, friendships

Death of a family member or friend

Economic hardships

Racism and Discrimination

Poor Health

Assaults on physical safety

Birth or Adoption

Relationship transitions (marriage, moving away from home)

Promotion or Demotion at work

The table above lists a number of serious stressful events that people experience, often more than one at a time. It's important to note that a given event doesn't have to be negative in tone to be stressful; Any significantly challenging event, even positive ones like weddings, can create stress.

Where acute stress is healthy and very important to our well being, chronic stress is unhealthy. A great number of diseases (physical and mental both) are either brought on in part or made worse by people being chronically stressed out. Chronic stress also makes it more difficult for us to handle our relationships well.

Coping With Stress

People try many ways, both positive and negative, to lessen their stress levels. Dysfunctional negative and unhealthy methods of coping include:

  • Addictions (alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, etc.)
  • Smoking
  • Over-eating
  • Being Perfectionistic

These methods are considered dysfunctional because, over time, they end up making the situation worse for people rather than making it better. Drinking as a means of stress reduction works in the short term because alcohol is a powerful muscle and attention relaxer. Repeated use of alcohol ends up causing 'tolerance' which means that people have to drink more and more to get the same effect. The end result is addiction to alcohol (a very serious health and social risk) which only adds stress to the drinker's life.

There are many positive and 'functional' methods of coping with stress:

  • Relaxation/Meditation - Cultivating interior stillness and calmness through meditation and relaxation techniques such as massage therapy, and progressive muscle relaxation.

  • Exercise - Regular physical exertion of any intensity (a gentle 30 minute walk, a Yoga or Pilates class, an hour long strenuous free-weight workout, etc.) helps discharge muscle tension and build strength, resilience and energy.

  • Healthy Diet - Eating healthy whole foods and avoiding sugary and fattening treats helps keep the body's internal rhythms more balanced.

  • Socialization And Supportive Conversation - Many people are able to relax and to feel part of something larger than themselves by sharing their concerns with trusted others. This can take the form of talking with friends and family, psychotherapy or counseling, or prayer.

  • Assertive Communication - Some stress is caused by not getting what you want from other people. Asking for what you want in a direct but polite way is the best method for getting what you want, and thereby reducing stress.

  • Time Management - Some stress is caused by poor organization. Learning how to manage appointments, to say 'no' to requests you can't get done, to organize records, and to use memory enhancement tools (like alarm clocks and 'palm pilots') can make a big difference.

  • Asking For Assistance - Whatever it is that you are dealing with right now, other people have dealt with it before. Seeking out their counsel when you don't know what to do is often a good way to avoid reinventing the wheel.

The big problem with healthy coping strategies is that they often don't make one feel better immediately; they only really work after one makes a commitment to practicing them repeatedly over time. It takes some faith and a certain amount of discipline to make it possible for these strategies to work.

Good General Advice For Managing Stress:

"Make the time to practice one or more healthy coping strategies on a regular basis. You won't have time to fit it in at first but do it anyway. Over time your practice will yield results and you'll find you want to make the time to continue your practice."

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