No matter the season or time of year, it seems like there’s no downtime for stress. But, if we can’t get away from the daily pressures and feeling stressed, how can we best manage it to keep our sanity?
Normal Stress vs. Chronic Stress
Though it gets a bad rap, stress is not naturally our enemy. Suppose a fire alarm goes off and smoke pours into the room. Our bodies respond by pumping hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, and we can do amazing things: We can pick people up, carry them down the stairs and bust open doors.
Our bodies really don't mind such stress. They don't mind chasing off the tiger. What they don't like is chronic stress — being surrounded by tigers all the time. When the tigers are always there, not only do we feel bad — our heart rates and blood pressure are continuously elevated — but all of our risk factors for health problems go up, too. Chronic stress is harmful to our health.
Effects of Stress
Stress has another potent, but subtle, effect on our health. Stress is an important element in how we eat, whether we exercise, how much alcohol we drink and how we interact in relationships. All those things that influence the likelihood of premature heart attacks or strokes are ultimately emotional decisions.
Whether you choose to play football or watch football, to eat a cheeseburger or a salad — these are emotional decisions, not cognitive ones. And if you're stressed, you're more likely to make the choice that will make you feel better in the moment (more on distractions later), not the one that's better for you in the long term.
Stress, then, is important in part because how you feel at the moment affects choices that impact your health. Once you understand this, you can address individual stress problems more effectively.
To address the stressor, consider what you can change.
- You can change the external situation that's causing the tension.
- You can take a mini-break from the stress through avoidance or distraction.
- You can modify your internal response.
Remove the External Source of Stress
The first situation is actually the least common. There are certainly cases in which you can successfully remove yourself from an external cause of stress – change jobs, finish a big project, or increase your income, for instance. However, more often than not, the stress will follow you to your new situation if you haven’t learned to internally manage your feelings about the source of your stress.
Avoid and Distract from the Source of Stress
This is probably the most common method of stress management, and it comes in many, many forms. Examples can be as banal as checking your social feeds, exercise, playing a game, drinking or eating, binging the latest and greatest on Netflix, and on and on. Really, anything that allows your brain to think about something other than your stress, counts as a distraction that helps you avoid feeling stress for a brief period.
Modify Your Internal Response to Stress
Changing your internal response to stress requires work and introspection, but generally rewards that effort with skills that help you to better manage stress in the long term. We often recommend some form of meditation and mindfulness to assist in stress management.
Meditation can be a powerful tool to manage your internal response to stress, by allowing you to become a neutral observer of yourself. One of the most important parts of meditation is the non-judgmental awareness -- of seeing things for what they are rather than what you think they should be.
The goal of meditation is not to “think nothing,” it’s to follow along with your thoughts and feelings in order to learn from them. Where does your mind go when you are still? A person, a situation, your to-do list, does it go to someplace happy? What thoughts are the root cause of your feelings of stress? Do you see any trends? In order to change how you react to stress, you first need to have this awareness.
It takes practice, but once you are able to calmly allow yourself to feel negative emotions and explore the root causes, you will be able to better manage your internal response to stress.
Here are some tips for beginners:
- Give yourself permission to feel your negative feelings – even for just a few minutes to begin with. Set a timer if needed. If you ignore negative emotions, they get worse.
- Try journaling to get negative emotions out of your head and onto paper.
- Focus on your breathing. Your breath doesn’t exist in past or future, breathing is always in the present, which is why it is a good anchor for meditation.
- If sitting in silence is too much, go for a walk outside. Try to notice something new, or focus on each of your five senses. What can you hear, see, taste, feel, smell?
- Seek out an expert, such as a counselor practicing cognitive therapy or a certified health coach.
Stress Isn’t All Bad, It’s All in the Way You Manage It
Overall, stress is an important element of health — it affects your hormonal balance, your immune function, and whether your choices are healthful or harmful. And it's an element you can manage.
Normal stress may be best served by removing the external source of stress or by distraction.
Chronic stress and the associated negative feelings are the body’s way of trying to tell you that something is out of balance. Ignoring these negative feelings because they are uncomfortable, actually moves you further out of balance and ultimately makes chronic stress worse. Modifying your internal response to stress is the most effective solution for lasting relief.
The Dangers of Unmanaged Chronic Stress
Unmanaged chronic stress can cause serious health concerns. Beyond the obvious impact of chronic stress on mental health and the increased risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, chronic stress has been linked to eating disorders and obesity, gastrointestinal health, skin and hair problems, menstrual irregularities and sexual dysfunction. In short, learning to manage chronic stress is critical to your current health and safeguarding your future health.
How PartnerMD Addresses Stress Management
At PartnerMD, we believe great care treats the whole person, so we are committed to multiple dimensions of health. Our best-in-class health coaching is included in every membership with unlimited, one-to-one coaching sessions presented by a highly trained wellness team with expertise in stress management, nutrition, exercise, smoking cessation, balance, and sleep. We realize that when it comes to wellness, one size does not fit all. Our health coach offerings are tailored to the unique needs of each member.
Your certified health coach will deliver truly customized care. With your coach, you will explore a comprehensive list of services and identify what will be most beneficial to you. Together, we will develop a plan, establish accountability, and support you in meeting your goals. We are committed to empowering you to make the healthy lifestyle choices today that lead to peak health and vitality in the future.
Find relief from chronic stress. Request a free wellness consultation with a certified health coach today.