With winter just days away and the holidays here, it may seem that stressful situations are around every corner. “Today” contributor and psychologist Dale Atkins explains how to avoid anxiety and find time to accomplish all that needs to get done.
When you have more on your plate than you think you can handle you’ve got stress. There is stress that is motivating and good for you, and stress that outstrips and depletes your resources and is bad for you.
Poorly managed stress can be hazardous to your health by increasing your susceptibility to illness.
It is about responsibility and control. When your responsibilities and your feelings of control over them are about equal, you can say that your life is in balance. You may have a lot to do, but you manage and you feel OK about what gets left for tomorrow. You may have a lot of responsibilities but you may feel like you have them under control most of the time.
But your stress level rises when you feel as if you have too many responsibilities and not enough control. And it isn’t even about the number of responsibilities. If you are feeling fragile, and have two things to do, it may be two things too many. Your main source of stress may be from your work, family, caregiving, financial concerns — whatever the source, your body does not know the difference. The body reacts to the feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to control what it needs to do.
What is stressful for one person may not be stressful for someone else. We all react differently to stress, based on our experiences, our personalities, and our coping strategies. We need to recognize the kind of stress we have, how we deal with it, and what happens to us when we are under stress.
There are three types of stress:
Acute — This is the most common form and examples include being late for your kid’s baseball practice or having the bank close as you get there, or the dishwasher breaking during the Thanksgiving dinner. It doesn’t usually do extensive damage but there can be emotional distress and physical symptoms that come as a result.
Episodic acute — This happens when you feel you’re in a state of chaos or crisis most of the time. You may often be ill-tempered, irritable, anxious and come across as hostile in your inter-personal relationships.
Chronic stress — Chronic stress grinds away at you over time, and often people do not notice how worn down they are, emotionally, physically and mentally. They feel there is no way out and need long-term medical and psychological treatment with specific stress management interventions.
The important thing is to recognize our own personal warning signs and live a life that incorporates “stress busters” that preventing the disabling affects, and manage the stress when we have it.
Each person must find what works for him or her and put it into practice on a regular basis. Again, it is not stress that is bad. It is how we deal, cope and manage the stress in our lives that determines whether it is healthful or harmful. Taking care of ourselves is the first step toward being less stressed. It has to be OK to live a healthy life. It has to be acceptable to say no, to take time for yourself (without being sick), to relax, to play with your dog, to knit for fun, to take a long walk in nature, to read an inspirational passage, to get the sleep you need, to treat yourself to something pleasurable and not be embarrassed or make an excuse (“I had to have a massage because my back was killing me.”)
What is wrong with scheduling a massage on a regular basis so that your back remains strong and you have something to look forward to that keeps you in balance?
We need to manage our lives so that the stress we encounter does not overwhelm us. For many people, work is stressful. Prioritizing and working on simple problems first, solving them and stepping into more complicated arenas fills us with a sense of mastery and control and a sense that we can manage what is on our plates.
When stress is not managed well, it is difficult to prioritize and all of the problems we face appear to have equal weight and we experience that feeling of being overwhelmed and surrounded by stress. Our productivity is reduced. Since stress often shows up in physical symptoms, we need to pay attention to the “minor” symptoms such as stomach or head or muscle aches. They can be good warnings that your life needs to be managed better.
Recognize your signs of stress (physical, emotional and psychological) and acknowledge and accept it. Pay attention to what you feel and do when you get stressed out. Perhaps it takes the form of not returning calls or e-mails, sleeping fitfully or not at all, become short-tempered, driving carelessly, stopping exercise, drinking too much, eating junk food or compulsively. We each need to know ourselves and then watch for what we do.
Then take the steps to re-balance your life by learning methods for managing stress. You may need to learn how to do deep breathing and relaxation techniques, creative visualization, participate in exercise, yoga, meditation, dance, play, eat healthfully, ask for help to get chores done, walk during your lunch time, eat away from your desk, do stretches and “stress buster” postures while at work, listen to your favorite music, spend time with a friend, go to sleep after a long, relaxing bath.
Most people who feel “stressed out” focus on what they cannot do anything about instead of what they can do something about. Often they worry and lose sleep. Sleep is a major stress buster. If you are sleep deprived, your ability to concentrate and to focus is affected. You are also more prone to accidents because you are not as alert. Often getting a restful night’s sleep can do wonders for feeling stressed.
Consider all possibilities for what you would do with some “free time.” Find out what you really want. Get comfortable, take several deep breaths, clear your mind of intrusive thoughts and imagine yourself two months from now. Ask yourself, “in an ideal world, what would I do with my free time?”
Find out what comes to mind — do not censor or edit. Just let what needs to come forth, come forth. You may find yourself in a dance class, walking a dog, hiking, reading a book outdoors, going to a flea market. Let yourself ask and answer the question from a place of relaxation and openness.
Examples of typical feelings and some physical symptoms:
Sad, depressed, feel your life is in a rut, feel trapped
Feel that something is missing in your life
Small pleasures of life fail to satisfy you
Minor problems upset you excessively
Experience flashes of anger over things that previously did not upset you
Not thinking clearly, confused, forgetful
Getting mad for no reason, using family as scapegoats for daily tension buildups
Feeling unappreciated by those in your family
Headaches, backaches, stomachaches
Escaping through drugs, alcohol, sexual acting out, losing interest in sex, NOT doing the things you know are good for you
Tips to de-stress
There is a need to set priorities and celebrate your successes and recognize what you do that is and has been good and beneficial. Allow yourself to appreciate what you have done especially as you gear up for a new thing.
Learn to let go of things outside of your control
Practice controlled breathing
Meditation helps us to feel in control of time rather than feeling controlled by it.
Organize your time
Listen to your body
Eat well, exercise, do daily spiritual practice
Use social supports (your own personal ties)
Write in a private journal
Sleep since often sleepless nights result from restless days
Keep realistic expectations
Involve yourself with the outdoors in nature
Interact with animals
Listen to your favorite music
Read articles and books unrelated to work
Engage in a new or old hobby
Don’t feel guilty
Put a picture of a beautiful place at work
Volunteer and help others since this makes your own plight seem less important
Laugh and watch things that are funny
Develop a spiritual life
Learn and practice regular meditation
Separate yourself from your work (carve out “home” time with spouse, friends, children, a good book, your favorite show)
Do something creative
Write letters or create tapes for friends as you drive (have an “ongoing” conversation as you talk into a tape recorder while driving to work, and then send the tape to a friend)
Let other people know that you are feeling overwhelmed
Talk about what you are feeling
Take care of yourself
Remind yourself not to abuse drugs, alcohol, tobacco or other patterns of addiction
You need to maintain the capacity for emotional and psychological balance and good judgment and be sure to use internal and external resources to the fullest advantage.