The term stress has gained a bad reputation in our society. It conjures up images of pressured, overworked people struggling to make it through each day. However, stress is just a word used to describe the body's response to a challenging physical, environmental, mental, or emotional stimulus.
Everything we experience is some kind of stimulus: work, relationships, phone calls, driving, school, conversations, weather, worries. The list goes on and on. The problem is not stress itself; the problem is what happens when the stressors (the things which cause stress) become overwhelming and cause the body and mind to function less and less effectively.
Think of it this way: You stress your car's engine every time you drive it. Starting it and pulling out of the driveway places stress on the motor and every part of the vehicle, but it doesn't overstress it. Overstressing occurs when you push the vehicle beyond its normal limits-driving too fast or too long, or without the proper fluids. Any demand on the car that is greater than it was designed for creates distress, or negative stress, on the vehicle.
Stress is one of the top three reasons why employees miss work.
If you stress a vehicle too much, it can break down. The same idea applies to us. We all have a certain amount of stress we feel when fulfilling our normal responsibilities. But if we are sick, our kids are sick, our workload has significantly increased, or we've lost a job, this normal stress turns into distress. If pushed too hard and too long we will break down as well.
This negative stress or distress is the kind of stress we need to avoid.
If you have not already done so, measure your current stress level by taking our 20 question stress evaluation.
We have defined stress as the body's response to experiences, thoughts, or feelings that present some kind of challenge. A challenge can motivate us to action. But when stress pushes us beyond our ability to function effectively, we call it distress. This type of stress can manifest itself in a number of ways and with a variety of symptoms.
Identifying the Symptoms of Your Stress - This exercise will start things off by helping you identify symptoms that are associated with distress.
Being mindful of your particular symptoms of stress will help you develop a strategy to begin managing your stress.
You have completed the assessment and identified some of your stress symptoms, so the next step is to think about where stress comes from. The pressure of life comes from four basic sources: our environment, body, thoughts, and emotions. The first two are external, grounded in the physical world around us. The other two are internal and have more to do with our perception of the world.
|External Sources of Stress||Internal Sources of Stress|
The events around us, such as the pressures at work or the demands at home, can all build up and stress us out. These are the most obvious contributors to our stress. We categorize such things as stress caused by our environment. Our physical health and fitness also play a role in whether or not a challenge in life will push us to our limits; this falls under the category of our body. Our thoughts also have a major impact on how stressed we are. These include our actual thoughts and our underlying beliefs, and the meanings they give to events in our lives. Lastly, our emotions or the feelings we have will add to or subtract from our stress as well.
With those four concepts in mind, listen to the following audio segment about the sources of stress:
What's Your Biggest Source of Stress? - Now that you have an overview of the different sources of stress, let's see which area has the greatest impact on your life.
Being aware of the different sources of your stress will help you develop a plan to minimize and manage stress in your life.
“Stress Categories, Symptoms, And Sources” - Article by Kenneth Patey MS
The first three steps of this guided solution were designed to help you assess your stress, identify your stress symptoms, and figure out where your stress comes from. Step four will help you develop a strategy to manage your stress. Most of us don't have the luxury of telling our boss we are overworked so we are going to cut back our hours. Nor can we say to God (or various microbes), "Sorry I don't have time to be sick right now." Many of the things that cause stress are entirely out of our control. But even if you can't change the source of stress in one area (such as the physical demands placed on you at work), you can still reduce your overall stress by lowering it in the areas where you do have some control.
Here's an example: Physical illness is stress that originates in your body. You can't wave a magic wand and make the illness disappear, but you can still reduce your stress and speed healing by lowering your stress in one of the other areas (thoughts, emotions, or environment). You could, for example, reduce the environmental demands placed on you by taking some time off work. If that is not an option, lowering your stress in another category can help too. Maybe you can't control the illness but you can control your thoughts or emotions. By choosing to keep your thoughts positive, or by engaging in activities that calm your emotions, you can reduce your overall stress and recover more quickly.
Counterbalancing the Effects of Stress - Consider ways you can counter some of the stress in your life by looking at the four areas where stress originates.
The most important part of effective stress management is to take time to offset the negative aspects of stress by doing something positive for yourself. This is going to "feel" like the wrong thing to do: "What?! I am so busy already. How can I possibly take time to do something else? Even if it is for myself?" But remember, if you don't take time to keep yourself in top physical, mental, and emotional shape, the stress is going to wear you down and then tear you apart. So, make sure you get the rest you need, eat healthy foods, guard your mind from any kind of negative thinking, and take time to laugh a little more. In the following audio, Brett Williams discusses how making time for positive and relaxing activities is essential in helping to decrease your stress level and increase your productivity.Listen Now
Counterbalancing stress with positive activities is the ideal way to keep your stress in balance. But if you really don't have time, another effective strategy for reducing stress is just maintaining your regular routine. Unfortunately that's the opposite of what most people do. When we are under stress, most of us have the tendency to cut back on sleep, abandon our exercise program, and eat junk food. All of these are deviations from our regular patterns and can increase the stress.
Stress Pattern Inventory - This exercise will help you evaluate your habits when you are stressed.
Identifying ways to counteract your stress is only half the battle; the finishing step is to follow through and start making those changes that will help you. Focus on the areas you can control. Action taken in those areas will lower your stress in the areas you can't control.
The next step is to find stress reduction techniques that work for you. Here are a few that may work for you.
One way to lower your overall stress it to keep your thoughts positive. Negative thinking can be a source of distress all by itself. Let's spend 5 minutes with an exercise that will help you start thinking more positively immediately.
What's Great About Stress - This exercise will help you learn to use stress to your advantage by focusing on the positive side effects of stress.
Although stress is often considered a negative aspect of life, not all stress is harmful. The following article teaches how to differentiate and find a balance between positive stress and negative stress.
Breathing correctly as a means to relax can reduce your body's automatic stress response and it delivers immediate results.
Breathing Through the Bottom of Your Feet
This is a 15-minute audio exercise to calm your body, thoughts, and emotions. Get yourself in a comfortable position for this one.
Progressive muscle relaxation, developed in the 1920's by Edmund Jacobson, is another technique used to calm your body and your emotions. But instead of doing this by controlling your breathing until you relax, it does it by controlling your muscles. When you are stressed or worried and your body is on high alert, your body is preparing itself to fight or flee. It wants to tense all its muscles and put them into action. Therefore, using progressive relaxation, you are going to intentionally tense certain muscle groups one at a time and hold them tight until they become exhausted and are forced to relax.
As with the breathing exercise, it is best to learn this by doing it. When you have practiced this enough, you will be able to do this at your desk at work or during stressful board meetings. You will see that you can calm your emotions by learning to control your muscles.
This 15-minute audio exercise will teach you how to use your muscles to calm your body and mind.
Balancing the effects of stress on your life won't be an easy task at first, but by practicing techniques to keep it at a manageable level, you will be able to lighten the load.
Now that you have completed steps 1-5, you can follow up on what you have learned by exploring some of our best resources for your particular situation.
Strategies for Stress Relief Workshop
This is a fully interactive learning module that will help you evaluate your stress and help you form new strategies for dealing with your personal situation.
“Traditional Stress-Management Strategies” - Article by Kenneth Patey, MS
“Stress and Stress Management” - Audio by Rich Varlinsky, PhD
10 Simple Solutions to Stress - Book by Claire Michaels Wheeler, MD, PhD
A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook - Book by Bob Stahl, PhD and Elisha Goldstein, PhD
The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook - Book by Martha Davis, PhD, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, MSW, and Matthew McKay, PhD
“UPROOTING STRESS: The Exciting Discovery of an Innate Process in Man” - Article by Kenneth Patey, MS
“Staying Positive in a Negative World” - Audio by Rich Varlinsky, PhD
“Controlling Anger in a Stressful World” - Audio by Kevin Skinner, LMFT