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We experience both good and bad stress all the time, but the bad often becomes overwhelming, overshadowing the good. Once you understand what stress is and how to identify what is causing you the most stress, you can work towards finding strategies to combat and stress management; your personal stressors and improve your overall emotional wellbeing.
What is Stress?
Stress is your body’s response to a change, threat, demand, or even a negative thought. Have you ever heard the term “good stress?” This term seems counterintuitive, but stress management can be a positive emotion when experienced at low intensities. It can motivate us to follow through on commitments we’ve made and goals we’ve set, and it can alert us to possibly dangerous situations. Stress becomes negative when it becomes chronic or highly intense and when we start to respond to it in negative ways. Negative stress can manifest as physical symptoms. Stress triggers the fight-or-flight response, causes muscle tension, and is therefore very hard on your body.
Here’s a list of possible physical indications of negative stress management:
- Muscle tension and/or pain
- Persistent headaches
- Skin irritation, like acne or eczema
- Poor sleep quality
- Weight fluctuation
- Digestive issues
- Reproductive issues
Chronic negative stress is also detrimental to your emotional health. Here’s a list of possible emotional indications of negative stress:
- Irritability and/or agitation
- Difficulty managing thoughts
- Difficulty with memory
- Poor impulse control
- Feelings of worthlessness and/or loneliness
- Feelings of not being in control
- Unrelenting pessimism or worrying
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
Stress can be caused by a variety of events and situations, and I like to sort those stressors into three categories: Daily Stress, Change Stress, and Trauma Stress.
Everyone experiences daily stress management. We stress over our responsibilities, finances, significant others, children, friends, work, and physical health. National and global influences cause us stress, such as political and societal tension and media overload. Much of daily stress can be overcome by practicing positivity. When we have a positive outlook on life, many daily stressors carry less weight. Mindfulness is also important in managing daily stress as it allows us to question why we are stressed and what we can do to relieve it.
We all become stressed when things in our lives change, especially if that change is unexpected or unwanted. Change can cause good stress, such as the stress of having a baby, moving into your first house, or starting a new job you’re excited about, but if we perceive the change to be negative, it causes negative stress. We experience bad stress when we lose a job, get a divorce, lose a friend, or develop a serious illness. The key to conquering change stress is becoming more adaptive and resilient. We can do this by practicing mindfulness and relaxation.
The most intense type of stress that the typical person will deal with is stress caused by traumatic events, such as a major injury or accident, the death of a loved one, or a natural disaster. Coping with trauma stress takes time, but some of us get lost along the path to recovery, getting stuck in a cycle of negative emotions. To overcome trauma stress, we must face and accept reality before moving forward. It is key to take one day at a time.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Experiencing or witnessing a dangerous, terrifying, or shocking event, such as combat, assault, abuse, or other trauma can cause intense negative emotional impacts. People suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, experience the stress, fear, anger, and anxiety tied to that event long after it has passed. Flashbacks and/or nightmares may force the sufferer to relive the traumatic experience over and over again, often triggered by mundane things, such as a car backfiring, an unexpected touch, or anything that serves to remind him or her of the event. These symptoms may manifest directly after the event, or they may lay dormant for months before finally revealing themselves. PTSD is diagnosed when symptoms persist for longer than a few weeks, negatively affecting life at home, at work, and at social events. Here’s a list of indications that someone may have PTSD:
- Re-experiencing: Sufferers of PTSD will experience at least one symptom of re-experiencing the event. This symptom is involuntary, forcing the person to relive the traumatic event through flashbacks or bad dreams. These intrusive memories may feel completely real to the sufferer as if he or she is actually reliving the trauma.
- Hyperarousal: For a PTSD diagnosis, the sufferer must experience at least two symptoms of hyperarousal, which includes changes in mood (increased irritability and agitation, hot temper, intense sadness, etc.), becoming easily scared, sleeping poorly, or trouble concentrating. Symptoms of hyperarousal are more constant than re-experiencing symptoms; these symptoms are not triggered so much as they create persistent emotional distress.
- Hypervigilance: A form of hyperarousal, hypervigilance occurs when the sufferer becomes overly aware of what is going on around him or her, always alert to possible dangers. Symptoms of hypervigilance include overreaction to perceived threats, exaggerating perceived threats, being startled easily, and experiencing the physical manifestations of fight-or-flight, such as increased heart and breathing rates and higher blood pressure. Hypervigilance is a common PTSD symptom for combat veterans, who have been trained to be hypervigilant and struggle to turn it off in civilian life.
- Avoidance: Sufferers of PTSD will experience at least three symptoms of avoidance. They will tend to avoid situations, people, and other aspects of their lives that can trigger memories of the traumatic event. They also avoid talking and thinking about the event.
Short-Term Strategies to Battle Stress
Stress management is so powerful, it can quickly become overwhelming. When the fight-or-flight response is triggered, your breathing and heart rate quicken, you begin to perspire, and your body is flooded with adrenalin. The emotional impacts of this bodily response can become too much. If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack or an anxiety attack, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you struggle to overcome stress when it threatens to overwhelm you, consider the following short-term strategies for battling stress management.
When emotions like stress threaten to take control, one of the simplest things you can do is count to ten. I know, this is an old trick, but it forces you to slow down and think about the situation at hand rather than react impulsively based on intense emotion. You may count silently or aloud, whatever works for you, or you may use another strategy to force yourself to wait. What you want to accomplish is to give yourself the chance to turn your mind away from the automatic response (be it anger, sadness, or another intense emotion) and toward a place of calm and reason.
When the counting/waiting is not enough, take a break from the situation, and get some fresh air. Although there’s something especially calming about a deep breath out outside air, this could be as simple as going into another room. Take a moment to calm yourself down and look at the situation from a calmer perspective. Whether it’s an argument with your spouse or an unpleasant customer at work, sometimes, the best thing you can do is remove yourself for a short time. Just be sure not to leave and never come back. We must face our negative stressors in order to resolve them.
Have you ever heard the term “acupressure?” It is a form of traditional Chinese medicine in which certain pressure points within the body are stimulated to relieve pain and illness. This technique may also help to calm you down in times when your anxiety or stress is most intense. Try activating the following pressure points while practicing deep breathing to help promote a sense of calm and relaxation.
- Hall of impression point: Have you ever been stressed or frustrated and placed your thumb or index finger to the spot between your eyebrows? This is a pressure point. To stimulate the hall of impression point, find a comfortable seat, close your eyes, and massage this spot in a circular motion. You want to use firm but gentle pressure. Doing this for up to ten minutes can decrease stress and anxiety.
- Union valley point: This pressure point is located on the web between your index finger and thumb, and stimulating it can decrease stress as well as relieve pain caused by tense muscles, like neck pain and headache pain. To stimulate this point, apply pressure to each side using the opposite hand’s thumb and index finger, and massage it for a few seconds.
- Heavenly gate point: The heavenly gate point can reduce anxiety and stress, and it also relieves insomnia. You may need a mirror to find this point. It is located on your upper ear right by the triangularly-shaped depression. To stimulate this point, press it between your thumb and index finger, and massage in circles for a couple of minutes to relieve stress.
We have touched on practicing breath control to relieve our intense negative emotions. It is a great tool for helping yourself calm down in a tense or overwhelming situation. Diaphragmatic breathing is a specific technique that helps you practice belly breathing, that is breathing into the belly instead of the chest. Here’s a quick guide on how to practice diaphragmatic breathing:
- Get comfortable. Breathing from the diaphragm is easiest when lying on one’s back. If you don’t have anywhere to lie down, find a comfortable chair to sit in. You want your muscles to be relaxed. Focus on keeping your knees bent and your head supported. You want to allow your neck to fully relax. It can help to feel your diaphragm rise and fall, so you may place one hand on your chest. Place the other hand on your belly just under your ribcage.
- Inhale through your nose into your belly. We inhale through the nose during this exercise in order to take slow, deep breaths. As you inhale, focus on the expansion of your belly. Feel it push into the hand below your ribcage. Keep your breaths in your belly. The hand you have rested on your chest should not move more than very slightly throughout the whole exercise.
- Exhale through your mouth, tensing your belly. Purse your lips when you exhale, allowing your stomach muscles to tense as they push the air out. Feel your stomach fall inward with the hand resting just below your ribcage.
- Stop this practice if you begin to feel lightheaded. Remain lying or sitting down until you no longer feel lightheaded.
If you suffer from any kind of lung condition, especially asthma or COPD, speak with your doctor before practicing diaphragmatic breathing.
Long-Term Strategies to Battle Stress
Be Honest with Yourself
Many of life’s stressors exist because we have unrealistic expectations of ourselves, other people, or situations. A common manifestation of this is perfectionism. To reduce your stress levels, it’s important to be honest with yourself about the realities of life. For example, no one is perfect, and expecting perfection from yourself is a self-defeating cycle because you will never achieve perfection. Learn to accept your limitations and shortcomings rather than ignoring them. When you are honest with yourself and have realistic expectations, it is easier to progress, to grow, and to move forward.
The Four A’s of Stress Management
The four A’s of stress management are a group of coping strategies used by many to overcome stress. You may use one or all of these to help you deal with your high stress management levels.
Although general avoidance will cause an increase in stress levels, you can use this tactic thoughtfully to cope with stress. You can practice avoiding stress by planning ahead, avoiding people who cause you undue stress, limiting your daily tasks to those you know you can complete that day, and learning how to say “no.” Sometimes, we cause ourselves undue stress by accepting responsibility we don’t have the time or energy to commit to. It’s great to want to help others, but it’s important to say no when this help is detrimental to your own emotional wellbeing.
Sometimes, the thing that is causing stress is an alterable aspect of the situation. For example, if you’re trying to get work done and a coworker is distracting you, assert your thoughts and feelings. Let that person know that he or she is being a distraction, and politely ask to continue the conversation another time. We can also alter stress management situations by finding compromises. You must also be willing to alter your own behavior if a situation calls for it. Find a compromise that is satisfactory for everyone in the situation.
Acceptance is a powerful tool in stress management. When we choose to accept a situation, we eliminate resistance, which causes an increase in stress. When you make a mistake or find yourself in a situation you have no control over, learn to accept, learn, and move on. An easy way to practice acceptance is through positive self-talk.
There are several strategies we can use to adapt to our stressors. The first one I want to discuss is reframing the situation. When a situation causes you stress, try to look at it from a place of positivity instead of negativity. Changing your attitude towards the situation can remove its power over you. Often, we give our stressors too much power over us by losing track of the big picture. You may benefit from taking a step back. Look at the overall situation and ask yourself if it will matter in five minutes, five hours, five days, or five years. Chances are, it won’t.
When we’re overly stressed, it can be easy to have a generally negative attitude towards life. We can overcome negativity and foster feelings of poise and appreciation through the practice of gratitude. When you cultivate an attitude of gratitude, it’s easier to maintain a good mood, feelings of being satisfied with life, and overall emotional health. Here are some strategies for practicing gratitude:
- Challenge negative thoughts with grateful ones. When your thoughts turn negative and focus on what you don’t like about a situation, try to challenge those thoughts to aspects of the situation that you do like. For example, when you’re feeling stressed about a relationship and focusing on what is bothering you about that person, try to come up with a few things you like about that person. By reminding ourselves of the good things, we can take the power away from the bad.
- When you’re grateful for another person, say something. Letting others know how much we appreciate them is a great way to practice gratitude. If you can, get specific. If your significant other prepared dinner to take something off your own to-do list, say, “Thank you for preparing dinner. Now, I have time to relax after a hard day.” The more you get loud about your gratitude, the better you will get at recognizing the good things in your life.
- Start a gratitude journal. Sometimes, the easiest way to practice gratitude is to simply write down what you are grateful for. Try to journal on a regular basis at least once per day. If you can cultivate a habit for gratitude, you will eventually not need the reminders. You will simply look for the good things because that’s what you always do.
Forgiveness is a form of acceptance, and it is paramount to maintaining emotional well-being. When we hold grudges against others and against ourselves, we allow the negative emotions to call the shots. By practicing forgiveness, we can take the power away from negative stressors by allowing ourselves to accept the past and let it go, which allows us to begin the healing process rather than remaining in a cycle of negativity. Professionals in the field have found that practicing forgiveness promotes a variety of benefits, both physical and emotional, including improved sleep quality, resulting in less fatigue, improved overall physical health, sometimes including the elimination of medication, and improved relationships.
Keep In Mind
If you find forgiveness a difficult practice, consider the fact that we do not forgive for the sake of others. We forgive for our own sakes in order to allow ourselves to accept undesirable situations and move forward. For example, when we forgive ourselves for a past mistake, we stop that mistake from having power over us in the present. We are no longer allowing that stressor to affect our emotional health. To forgive is to let go of the past and commit to a more positive outlook.
Another great way to combat stress and other intense negative emotion is to bring more joy into your life. Keep reading to learn how to discover what brings you joy.