How to Cope With Stress
Recently, I read a book about how stress affects us and what to do about it. I was taking a psychology course called Issues in Psychology and stress was one of the subjects. I wanted to do more research about it to learn the science behind it. Furthermore, I also wanted to learn more about therapeutic tools for stress and some stress management techniques.
Anxiety and stress are the most common reasons people come to therapy for, and I wanted to learn about them in depth. The book I read was called “The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity” by Melanie Greenberg. And let me tell you, it is a very good read. It is both scientific and an easy read. More importantly, it is applicable. If you want some quality reading on this subject, go check her book. This post contains information from her book as well as other research I did on the subject.
Why are You Stressed?
You have a big project. There is a deadline coming soon. You have a stressful job or you don’t get along with our boss. Your mom/dad is stressing you, or your spouse and kids are stressing you.
Maybe you moved out. Or the finances are tight. You might have problems in your relationship. What else? You got into an accident. You or someone you love got diagnosed. Even the traffic stresses you.
Believe me, this list goes on. There are so many stressors that it will take years to write. But the main point is: we all are stressed. There is no denying it. Some of us manage it better and some of us crumble under the pressure of it. It is also very well known that stress affects not only our day to day lives but our health too. Everybody says that being stressed is harmful but no one tells us why. Here, in this post, I will try to cover most aspects of the concept of stress and I will give you some tools to manage it.
Facts About Stress
Here are some facts about stress.
- Stress is a hormonal response to a certain type of stimuli.
This means that, when you face a situation/event/object/environment, your brain responds to these stimuli. If it is a scary or life-threatening situation, your brain activates fight-or-flight response. The visual information comes to the amygdala, and it creates a response. If it senses the situation as threatening, it sends signals to the hypothalamus. Hypothalamus is the CEO of the brain. It commands the body what to do. When a stressful event occurs, the hypothalamus commands your adrenal glands to raise the level of cortisol for you to respond effectively and fast. So think of the cortisol as your “stress hormone”. This stress hormone causes us to stay alert until we are safe.
- Stress is adaptive
Stress response helps us to survive by activating fight-or-flight response. It is an adaptive mechanism for us.
- Stress can change your brain.
The mechanism mentioned in fact #1 shows that it involves our brains. It is also true that when under stress for a long time, your brain changes through the effects of chronic stress. Your amygdala might be over-active or your prefrontal cortex –which signals amygdala to slow down- could be not in touch with your amygdala. The good thing is, there is a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means that you can create new neurons and pathways in your brain and actually change how you react to a certain stimuli.
- Not all stress is bad for you.
Dr. Lazarus claimed that there are two types of stress: Eustress and distress. Eustress is actually the “positive” stress that makes you more productive and excited about things. It helps you to meet deadlines, it motivates us to do things. When we lack this kind of stress, we are bored. There are many studies that show the correlation between eustress and performance. Your performance peaks right when you are under the right amount of pressure. On the other hand, there is distress. It is the “negative” type of stress and it is long term. It is troubling and affects our level of functioning.
- Stress is not caused by stimuli but how we react to it.
Do you wonder why some people are afraid of heights and others aren’t? Or do you know why some people go through negative events better than others? Not any person experience events in the same way. We also interpret the events differently. Some are afraid of heights and some aren’t. It is how we interpret the stimuli causes a stress response, and how we interpret changes by our genetics as well as our life experiences. You know some people grew up in very optimistic households and. therefore they are stressed less. You know some people catastrophize everything. This fact that we interpret the situation to create a stress response is useful because not only it is true, it also shows how we can change and control it. It is cheesy to say people “be more optimistic” but it works.
- Stress makes you more vulnerable to diseases and can even make you ill.
Short-term stress causes bodily responses such as high blood sugar, low immune system and muscle tension. When stress is chronic, you are more prone to diseases such as obesity, heart diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, asthma and mental disorders such as depression and general anxiety disorder.
Causes of Stress
The stress response is sometimes expected more than at other times. These situations can be fall under several categories. Stress level and our response can differ in each of these categories and although the stress is expected, it can change our daily life functioning. Some of these stressful events that are categorized in Greenberg’s book are below. Check which one of these stressors you have and make a list of them.
1- Developmental changes: These are the situations where we need to adapt to new situations. These can be moving house, starting a new school, getting married or engaged, retiring, starting a job or getting promoted, pregnancy or adopting and many more. These can cause major emotions and can create major stress for a person.
2- Major life events: These events are harder to adapt then developmental changes. Some of these events are the death of a someone loved, unwanted pregnancy/abortion/infertility/stillbirth, academic failure, getting fired, breakup or divorce, serious financial problems and you or a family member getting diagnosed by an illness. Because they cause a major emotional response, these responses should be examined and the person should use mechanisms and tools to support himself/herself in these crisis times.
3- Chronic stressors: These are the stressors that we face every day. They are continuous and can affect our daily functioning. Some of those stressors are loneliness, lack of support, abusive/neglectful home environment, financial difficulties, academic difficulties, demands of your job and diseases.
4- Adverse Childhood Events: A person who had these kinds of stressors can be heavily stressed even if the situation passed. Some of these events are abuse, neglect, a parent who had mental illnesses and/or substance abuse, being adopted, parental separation or divorce, witnessing family violence and death of a family member. A person who has experienced these events can get help immensely from therapy and can resolve many unfinished businesses and issues.
5- Trauma: A person can experience a high level of stress and stress-related disorders after a traumatic event. Some of these events are rape, the death of a spouse or child, physical violence, natural disasters, being threatened and stalked, accidents, serious illnesses or injuries, abusive relationships and combat. Some of these can also be experienced by being a witness. These events are all very serious and impair our daily functioning.
Now that we explained what stress is and what causes it, we are going to explore what can we do about this stress response. How to release stress and how to cope with stress are frequently asked questions and therapists generated some tools for these questions. I listed some stress management techniques below that you can use every day. These stress management techniques are very powerful and can help you cope with stress greatly. You need to adapt these tools as well as go through the cause of stress and eliminate it. The elimination of the cause of the stress response is the key. Do whatever you can to analyze your feelings. Therapy helps very much and never hesitate to ask for help. Remember that there are always resources and you don’t have to do everything on your own.
Stress Management Exercise – 1
Mindfulness is a subject that everybody talks about but in reality, nobody knows what it is. That is why I will give you an exercise instead of explaining what it is. You need to do this exercise not only when stressed but in your daily life too. This should be a part of your daily routine. It makes you more aware and present. We don’t want our minds to wander and go to places that it shouldn’t. We don’t want our mind to stuck in the same things over and over again. It doesn’t help with anything when we dwell on things and stress ourselves more.
Pick a comfortable, quiet place to do this exercise. Sit upright and close your eyes. Focus your attention to your breathing. Don’t change how you breathe, just explore it. If you want, you can count how many seconds you inhale and exhale. When you are comfortable, stop counting and go back to your breathing again. If your mind wonders, focus on your breathing as soon as you realize it. Don’t dwell on thoughts, you should be alone with your breathing only.
Do this exercise at least twice a day for 5 minutes each. This exercise should be part of your daily routine. When you feel stressed, you also need to do this exercise too.
The rationale behind this exercise is as follows: Under stressful circumstances, your breathing changes. It becomes shallow and more frequent. In these times, even if the situation is out of your control, you can control your response by controlling your breathing. You can slow your stress and panic response by just focusing on your breath.
Almost everybody knows that breathing exercises work for anxiety under stressful conditions. Still, almost everybody ignores it.
You might have seen people saying “Take a deep breath” or “Just breathe” very frequently to calm other people. Even though we know how to calm others, we don’t do it ourselves.
You should know that this breathing exercise is an easy way to deal with anxiety and stress. It is also free and you achieve immediate solutions. This exercise helps you take control of the situation by controlling yourself. It never hurts to try it.
Stress Management Exercise – 2
Be an Observer Exercise
This is the second part of breathing exercise. It is useful because it makes you more aware of how you feel inside and out.
After you do the breathing exercise, open your eyes and take a look at your surroundings. Start with what’s in front of you. Look at it and notice its features. Try to notice how it makes you feel. It may seem silly at first but do it anyway. Try to scan your surroundings one by one. Notice your feelings, and then let go.
After you scan your surroundings, close your eyes and focus on your body. Start with your toes and go upwards. Feel every part of your body. Try to notice how you feel about them and then let go. Don’t dwell on negative and positive thoughts. Your job here is to be an observer. You need to stop making comments and just be neutral.
Now turn inwards. Notice how you feel. This part of the exercise is about your mind and your emotions. Notice how you feel and identify your emotions. If you think about a specific event, notice how it makes you feel. Then let go of the emotions and turn to your neutral state.
The reason we do this exercise is to change our perception. Our stress response is created by our perceptions, as already mentioned above. If we are more neutral than angry/sad/frightened, then we feel less stressed.
Stress Management Exercise – 3
This is a very common exercise in cognitive behavioral therapy, given to clients as homework. The reason therapists want the client to do this stress management exercise is to identify the stressors and realize how much they affect us.
All you need for this exercise is a paper and a pen. You can even do it on your phone. Every day for at least a week, you keep a log on situations where you feel stressed. Write the situation, how it makes you feel – write an emotion, and how much it stressed you – rate the stress out of 100. At the end of one week, sit down for half an hour and look at each of the stressors one by one. Group them if you need to, it can be work related, school related, relationship and/or family related etc.
When you go through them, ask yourself just one question: “How can I change it?”. Don’t dwell and try to solve the problem completely. Focus on minor fixes and things you can implement. Find at least one solution for each stressor. If you can’t change the situation, you can change your response. Your solution can be even “I will count to 5 before reacting”.
Stress Management Exercise – 4
Irrational Beliefs Exercise