How to go from stressed ... To unstressed

Managing Stress
How Change Can Create Stress
Signs of Stress/Distress

Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress

"Stress" is our body's normal automatic response to change in our lives. The change may be negative, positive, or imagined. When we feel unable to cope with a new demand, we begin to feel stress. Stress is highly individual - what may be very relaxing to one person may be stressful to another.

Not all stress is bad. We need a certain amount of stress in our lives because it stimulates and energizes us. At low levels, it motivates us to face challenges and achieve, and it adds excitement to our lives. Without stress, we may feel bored or depressed.

There are two main types of stress:  eustress, the "good" type of stress, and  distress, which is considered "bad" stress. Distress occurs when our stress level becomes too high and unmanageable.

As with body temperature, we can't function well if stress is too low or too high. Each person needs to find an optimal level of stress that is motivating but not overwhelming. Then stress will work for you instead of against you.

It's Important to Manage Stress

Recognizing stress is the first step toward reducing it. Stress can build up gradually and you may not be aware of it until it has reached a critical level. If you are experiencing stress symptoms, you have gone beyond your optimal stress level. This is a signal that you need to reduce the stress in your life and/or improve your ability to manage it. Remember, the goal is not to eliminate all stress. Your aim is to manage it, keep it at a healthy level, and prevent distress.

Key steps in stress management include:

  1. Identify your current stressors (external, relational, internal)
  2. Identify your current coping reactions (helpful, not helpful)
  3. Change stressful situations and/or your reactions
  4. Increase your positive, healthy coping reactions

How Change Can Create Stress

The  "stress reaction" originally helped prehistoric humans survive dangerous situations by preparing them for "fight or flight." It consists of three phases:

  1. Alarm - the body is aroused by a stressor and releases hormones to cope with the threat.
  2. Resistance - the body repairs any damage done during the alarm stage and returns to normal.
  3. Exhaustion - may occur if the stressor continues or several stressors are present; the body is chronically aroused, cannot repair itself and adapt, and the person becomes impaired. The stress reaction should typically be short-term and infrequent.

While physical threats are now less common, the fight or flight response can still be activated by any change or threat, real or imagined. If we think a situation is harmful to us, the body will overract as if it were a life or death matter.

Some causes of stress include:

  1. External stressors - things outside the person, often things we can't change (e.g., noise, new residence, bad weather, schedule changes)

  2. Relational stressors - things we can sometimes change (e.g. conflicts with roommates, friends, family, dating partners, or co-workers; losing a relationship; problems with professors)

  3. Internal stressors - including things we say or do to ourselves, often things we can change (e.g., perfectionism, negative thoughts or feelings about ourselves, selcting a major or career)

Signs of Stress/Distress

Physical Symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Headaches
  • Digestive problems
  • Muscle tension or soreness
  • Skin outbreaks
  • Rapid breathing, shortness of breath
  • Change in appetite and/or eating
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Fatigue, exhaustion
  • Restlessness
  • Underactivity, overactivity
  • Increased illness
  • Decreased sex drive

Emotional Symptoms

  • Depression
  • Anxiety, worry
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Cry easily
  • Feeling pressured
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Being overly sensitive/emotional
  • Anger, resentment, hostility
  • Impatience
  • Loss of sense of humor
  • Low self-esteem

Mental Symptoms

  • Poor concentration
  • Lack of interesst
  • Negative attitude
  • Procrastination
  • Being disorganized
  • Forgetfulness
  • Indecision
  • Poor judgment
  • Confusion
  • Calculation errors, increased mistakes
  • Reduced creativity

Social/Behavioral Symptoms

  • Withdrawal from others
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Lack of intimacy
  • Loneliness
  • Accident proneness
  • Alcohol, tobacco, and/or drug use
  • Buying things you don't need

Spiritual Symptoms

  • Emptiness
  • Apathy, indifference
  • Loss of life's meaning
  • Unforgiving
  • Loss of direction or purpose

Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress

For Your Body

  • Eat healthily and regularly
  • Get your "normal" amount of sleep (relax 1-2 hours before sleep)
  • Practaice deep, diaphragmatic breathing
  • Regular exercise and other physical activity (keeps energy high, loosens muscles, improves sleep)
  • Listen to your body's stress signals

For Your Mind

  • Have realistic expectations of yourself
  • Recognize that you are always in control of how you cope with problems and stress
  • "Reframe" your problems as challenges that are opportunities for personal growth
  • Pace yourself and reduce time pressures
  • Practice positive self-talk ("I may not get an A in chemistry, but I'm doing above average work and as well as I can right now.")
  • Realize that making mistakes is part of the risk-taking needed for growth
  • Anticipate and plan for change
  • Improve time management (control your time and energy, create a realistic and balanced schedule, focus on priorities, break large demands into small parts and do one task at a time)
  • Enjoy yourself and the humor in life

For Your Relationships, Social Life and Leisure

  • Build a support system of people that help you feel good
  • Be assertive, support your own needs and interests
  • Spend time with friends regularly - talking, "hanging out," sharing feelings and concerns
  • Take time for fun, doing activities that are enjoyable and good for you
  • Create a comfortable environment that includes pleasant space and people
  • Allow other people to help you with tasks

For Your Spirit

  • Pray, meditate
  • Take private quiet time - for a walk, a hot bath, listening to calming music