The Importance of Stress Awareness
For those of you that did not know, April is stress awareness month. While stress awareness month is an important opportunity to highlight and talk about data, resources, and services around stress, anxiety, and related issues, stress is not something any of us can afford to think about only once a year. For many of us, stress is something that affects us day to day, maybe even hour by hour. Stress can be caused by so many things and sometimes nothing at all. Likewise, symptoms of stress can manifest themselves in a variety of ways including both physically and non-physically. Because of these oftentimes ambiguous causes/symptoms of stress, it is critical to our wellbeing that we are able to recognize and manage stress levels effectively on a day to day basis and to be proactive with stress management.
Proactive Stress Management
So, what is proactive stress management? Being proactive with stress management means taking time to learn the various sources of stress in your life. Some sources like stressful occupations, financial issues, or a significant loss are obvious. Others may not be so obvious, and it is also possible to feel stress for no reason at all, which is why the next part is crucial, recognizing the symptoms of stress and how they affect you. Once you learn to recognize how stress manifests itself in your mind and body, you can begin to figure out what the most effective ways for you to manage your stress are. Here’s where the proactive part comes in. Once you know how to manage your stress don’t wait for stress to get overwhelming to practice stress management. Instead, build these anti-stress practices into your daily life so that you are consistently practicing good habits and mindfulness to provide a constant outlet to relieve the effects of stress. It is this proactive approach that keeps stress to a minimum and helps mitigate much of the impact that stress and its various side effects have on your wellbeing. First, let’s delve a bit more into the various sources of stress that you may encounter.
Factors and Sources
There are a lot of stressors that may be very unique and personal to you though chances are, many, if not all, stressors in life can be categorized into some common buckets; environmental, social, physiological, and psychological. Let’s talk a little about these. Recognizing these categories can help you think about stress systemically to help analyze primary causes of stress in your own life.
- Environmental stressors come from all around you and can include things like noise, traffic, pollution, bad weather, and negative or excessive media consumption. These stressors come from the world around us and there is very little we can do to change them. Some environments like our homes, and in some case our work environment, we have a little more control over. For the most part, though our best bet is to adapt to our environment rather than try and change that which we cannot.
- Social stressors come from other people as well as pressure from roles we hold in our lives. These include job pressures and deadlines, arguments or fights, relationship issues, parenting, loss of loved ones, and demands for your time and attention. These are a very personal set of stressors and can involve those we love making them very important to navigate in a thoughtful and measured way.
- Physiological stressors come from your own body. These can include things like adolescence, illness, aging, injuries, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, menopause in women, and inadequate sleep. Again, these stressors can be minimized by changing those we can and accepting what we cannot. Examples of this may be accepting that you are getting older but at the same time striving to eat good nutritious food, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep every night. More on this later.
- Psychological stressors are very tricky because they come from your own mind. These come down to how your brain processes internal and external stimulus. When our minds interpret something as a threat, such as changes to our environment, job issues, or family troubles, it turns on the “flight or fight” response which not only causes stressful thoughts but releases adrenaline and other stress hormones into our systems. This response has many side effects in the body and can present itself in a few different ways such as anxiety, sleeplessness, and anxiety.
How Stress Can Present Itself
Symptoms of stress can manifest in many different ways, and a single stressor can cause multiple symptoms. The areas where stress-based symptoms can pop up include physically, emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally. Let’s take a closer look at these areas by examining some common issues that can pop up in each area.
- Physical symptoms can include fatigue, headaches, teeth grinding, perspiration, and digestive issues.
- Emotional symptoms can include anxiety, guilt, fear, depression, anger and irritability, and depression.
- Cognitive symptoms can include confusion, a decrease in attention span, memory issues, trouble making decisions, and obsessive thinking.
- Behavioral symptoms can include changes in activities, withdrawal, decrease in appetite, insomnia, nightmares, and suppressed sex drive.
A tricky aspect to keep in mind is that almost all of these symptoms can be caused by other issues as well such as various health conditions, environmental factors, and normal biological cycles, so it’s important to be on top of things and see a doctor if are experiencing any severe or chronic issues.
There are several misconceptions about stress that can lead to downplaying the effects of stress or even that you are stressed at all. Misconceptions like “people always know when they are stressed,” or “stress only affects those with high-pressure lives” can lead to not seeking help. Other misconceptions can include thoughts that emotions cannot be controlled and that the only thing that may help is medication. These are also not true and are dangerous thoughts. Medication can help in the right circumstances for certain individuals, but others may benefit greatly from some simple self-care, elimination of bad habits, or some counseling. Make sure to approach your stress, and the treatment of it, in an honest and unassuming manner.
Ways to Combat Stress
As we said earlier, the best ways to combat stress are proactive ones. The key here is to stay aware of yourself and how you are reacting to stressors in your life. Here are several areas to be aware of and techniques to help keep your stress from reaching unhealthy levels.
Be Aware of Important Factors
To help discern how you are reacting to stress pay attention to your feelings and emotions on a constant basis. A good way to do this is to stop and perform periodic self-checks by asking yourself questions. Look at your level of anxiety. Do you worry about money, or what may go wrong with certain things in your life? We all worry about these things but are they causing you more anxiety than normal? What about your anger levels? Are you getting more irritated at work or becoming impatient with people easier than usual? How is your self-confidence? Do you wonder if you are doing a good job? Do you worry a lot about what others think? How are your relationships going? Do you spend more time alone than you want to? Is it hard to get close to people? Are you too tired to devote time to your relationships? If you find that you are answering “yes” to any of these questions it may be a sign of moderate to high stress levels.
Change Bad Habits
There are stressors in our lives that we can’t change. However, there are many things that we can do to make sure that we are not contributing unnecessarily to our own stress levels. Take time to evaluate your habits both good and bad, and think about how they may impact your wellbeing for better or worse. These habits are going to be particular to each individual and their lifestyle but for the purpose of this blog let’s look at 5 critical areas where replacing bad habits with good ones can make a huge impact.
- Exercise: Despite what some people may think, habits like smoking and drinking can increase stress on the mind and body even if it provides a temporary illusion of relief in the moment. Instead, support your body through movement and exercise. Exercise is a great stress reliever in many ways. Exercise helps regulate your hormones and neurotransmitters that may be contributing to stress if they are unbalanced and helps increase blood flow to the brain. Exercise helps mitigate stress causing diseases and conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and cancer. It helps maintain a positive body image boosting self-confidence and helps boost energy levels helping you be more productive. Also, just the physical exertion of exercise is a great outlet for stress and negative feelings. Making exercise a habit can be tough at first but if you stick with it and workout regularly for at least 90 days your mind will begin to normalize the activity and you will eventually begin to crave working out, especially if you focus on picking exercise activities that you enjoy.
- Nutrition: This one is a big deal too. Try and replace any bad nutrition habits like eating junk food and consuming excessive amounts of alcohol with good consumption habits. Make sure to always strive to eat a variety of whole, nutritious foods and stay away from processed and surgery food. It is also important to limit caffeine intake as it can potentially induce a stress response in the body and act as a catalyst for anxiety in some people. We talked about nicotine and alcohol but remember there are many drugs, both legal and illegal, that can have a negative influence on your wellbeing and it is up to you to keep potentially hazardous substances like these in check. Or better yet stay away from them altogether unless they are medically necessary. Before making any changes be sure to talk to your doctor as they are your best source of information around your health and medical needs.
- Relaxation and sleep: It is very easy to underestimate the importance of making time for yourself to relax. It’s critical to take it easy sometimes and occupy your mind with something you enjoy doing. This may be walking outdoors, building crafts, drawing, writing and journaling, watching a movie, playing a game, or spending time with friends or family. These types of activities allow you to get your mind off whatever may be causing you stress and provides opportunities for positive stimulus. Sleep is another prime component. Getting adequate sleep (7 to 8 hours per night) is critical to maintaining energy levels, supporting mind and body functions, regulating your bodies chemicals, and repairing your body from exercise and activity. For more information about sleep check out our recent blog for Sleep Awareness Day.
- Time Management: Are you happy with the ways you use your time? Time management can be a huge source of frustration if you always feel like there’s never enough time in the day. Building a schedule and sticking to it can go a long way in helping you spend your time wisely. Try keeping a day calendar on paper or on your computer or mobile device. Don’t just schedule in the things you have to do, schedule things you want to do as well such as time with friends or family, hobbies, or simply free time where you have no obligations. Running late can be another huge stressor, make sure you are waking up on time in the morning, avoid distractions, and give yourself enough time to get where you need to go so you don’t have to rush.
- Self-Talk: It’s all too easy to be hard on yourself and become negative when things are going wrong or stressful. Interrupt this habit by practicing positive self-talk. When you feel your thoughts slipping in a negative direction make a mindful effort to think constructively, not only just about yourself but others as well. Tell yourself things like “I can do this!” and “everything will be okay.” Doing this consistently will help minimize your tendency to interpret events or yourself in a negative light.
Square breathing and other ways to reduce stress
While the ultimate goal is to focus on long-term habits and thought patterns that will help you throughout your entire life, there are many things that you can do in the moment to help bring you back to center and regain composure in a stressful situation. One such exercise is a simple mindful breathing technique called “Square Breathing.” Square breathing is a simple mindful breathing technique that you can do almost anywhere and anytime. By practicing square breathing, you can slow your heart rate, focus your mind, and ease anxiety helping you to become more calm, present, and able to focus on the current moment. One of the great things about square breathing is that it is quick and easy, meaning you can do a quick session in between phone calls or other daily tasks, while you drive (or are stuck in traffic), or practice it for longer as part of a larger meditation or relaxation session. It goes something like this:
Inhale… Begin by slowing inhaling while counting slowly and steadily to 4.
Hold… Once you’ve finished inhaling, hold your breath for another steady count to 4. Seeing a pattern yet?
Exhale… Next, exhale slowly again counting to 4 as you do so.
Hold… Once you’ve exhaled you want to “hold out” your breath for another 4-count.
Repeat… Simple right? Feel free to repeat the cycle, or square, as many times as you’d like. We suggest doing the full cycle at least 4 times.
For more (25) ideas you can click here to view and download a PDF guide of 25 ways to reduce stress.
Stress Awareness Month may be over, but I hope the information presented here shows the importance of always being mindful and aware of how stressors in your life may be affecting you. I also hope that this information has equipped you with some helpful tools to use to help keep your stress levels in check and maintain a positive outlook even when life gets a little intense.
And remember if MINES is your Employee Assistance Program we are always here to help. If you need a little boost call us 24 hours a day at 1-800-873-7138 to talk to someone or hop online at www.minesandassociates.com and login to your PersonalAdvantage for helpful information on stress, resilience, fitness, nutrition, and tons of other topics and wellbeing resources.
To your wellbeing,
The MINES Team