Stressing Out: Reaching the Finish Line On Your Own Terms
by Allison Bulliman, guest blogger and practice mate, Seattle Direct Counseling.
Everyone has stress at some point in their life. Any event or a big change brings out some good or bad stress. Have you ever wondered how an ER doctor can stay so calm when someone’s life is in their hands? Or what about others who love riding roller coasters, but you would not be caught dead standing in line? Stress is subjective to the person experiencing it. Some of us love that thrill of encroaching on a deadline for work or the high that the roller coaster gives you. Others of us have projects prepared weeks in advance and avoid anything that increases their heart rate.
I love getting my heart rate up while I am running half and full marathons, but I actually consider it fun and relaxing (I guess I am one of those running nuts). I find that training for the “next big thing” is a great form of consistent exercise for me. While I run these marathons a few times a year I always see those intense elite runners at the starting line looking to beat their last personal record. When I am halfway through my event (I do not use the word “race” since I am not trying to beat anyone, I am just trying to finish!) I will check my watch just to see how I am doing pace wise. Other racers check their pace every mile to make sure they do not fall behind their goal finish time. If they see themselves slipping, their run may become a bit more stressful, mentally and physically, in order to give them that edge to keep going, faster and stronger.
Does your heart beat faster when you sleep through your alarm? What about when you are sitting in traffic on the way to work (after leaving the house late from oversleeping)? Have you finished that paper for class or project for work yet? These things are considered “good” stress, just as things like moving, getting married, or having a baby can add to your bucket of stress, but are not necessarily threatening your overall health or immediate safety. In fact, aren’t these moments supposed to be some of the happiest of your life?
On the other hand “bad” stress can interfere with your daily life. Things like a job, a toxic relationship or something that prevents you from enjoying life. Most doctors call this chronic stress and could be from unemployment, an unhappy marriage, or living in an unhealthy environment that has no end in sight. When you feel hopeless and helpless to change the situation you are in, this stress can start to affect your mental and physical health. Have you ever had frequent headaches or an upset stomach when you are put in a certain situation? Sometimes stress can even impact our sleeping habits or take away our energy and ability to focus.
Stress is an evolutionary automatic response to keep us from harm. We react in a “fight or flight” response when faced with an unexpected situation. Our bodies react with increasing levels of adrenaline and cortisol to boost energy to the brain, heart, and muscles. Chronic or bad stress can eventually create an unbalanced level of these hormones and start to cause the immune, digestion and other systems slow down in order to allow for energy to be focused on “dealing” with the stress at hand. Stress may increase your reaction time to feelings, judgment, mood and memory. Think about the last time someone cut you in line or cut you off while driving in traffic… (I won’t ask you to repeat what you were thinking or what you said aloud…) try to reflect on what kind of mood you were in and how unsafe or threatened you felt. Once that stressor is gone that stress hormone cortisol returns to normal and allows your body to recover with the relaxation response.
We all know that traffic is just a minimal problem to the real stresses in our lives; our relationships, our job, our health and finances tend to take a higher priority and must then affect our stress levels more than just sitting in traffic. Research shows a relationship between our mental stress and health problems like heart disease, digestion (IBS), anxiety or depression, asthma attacks, memory, and even sensitive skin (flare ups of acne or rosacea, psoriasis). Sleep may suffer if you know your next paycheck will not cover your mortgage, food, and gas this month. Similarly, you might go grab that pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a bad day at work. How would you deal?
If it’s true our mental stress can affect us physically, why couldn’t the relationship go the other way? Just as I run to relax, others work out to “get out stress”, or they take a yoga class to help with their breathing and relaxation. Sometimes these moments of relaxation allow us to see things clearer, or at least understand that we are in control of the outcome. I love making to-do lists to keep things manageable and in my control. I know exactly when something is due, how long I have had to complete it, and what needs my immediate attention so that it does not slip out of my control.
Sometimes the cause of your stress is not always obvious, but if you can figure it out, it can be easier to manage. There are many different ways to handle the stress in your life, whether short term or chronic, but ultimately only you will know what is best for you:
Seven Tips to Handle Stress
1. Breath. Deep breathing and relaxing can help bring your heart rate down and put things back into perspective (was cutting that car off in traffic really going to help how you were late to work?). If you are at work, try taking a walk for a few minutes away from your desk. It can clear your head and give you some time to approach the issue or project from another angle.
2. Prioritizing your stress. This may sound like just another way to avoid or delay change, but it can also be a more manageable approach to overcoming it. If you try to change too many things at once you might just make yourself even more overwhelmed than you were before. Going on a diet, exercising daily, and saving more money starting all in the same week might just create even more stress with all the new changes and things to remember. Make a plan to start one thing for a month or even just carve out more time for yourself (whether it’s alone time, time with family, or doing something you love) and slowly you will find that you are in control. Changes become more manageable and attainable when you have seen the successes you already made.
3. Eat, sleep, and run. (ok, I added run, but any form of exercise that you prefer will do just fine!) Since stress affects us mentally and physically remember our bodies need to recover and recharge through sleeping and eating right. Try to keep a steady bed time and wake up around the same time. Stimulating activities like watching tv, reading in bed, or drinking alcohol right before bedtime can disrupt sleep patterns. Busting a few moves on the dance floor has been known to make you sweat and get those feel good hormones going. Whatever form of exercise you prefer will help (if you hate running, don’t worry I won’t hold it against you) you want to be active daily.
4. Perception. Looking at stress differently; take a step back, what would a friend do? Are you putting a lot of the stress on yourself to achieve and succeed? For me, this might be the hardest one to perfect. When my adrenaline is going, I am not going to stop and ask myself- “what would my grandmother say?” However, I might use this approach in a situation where the cause of my stress is more of a long term problem.
5. Use your friends and family. They love you and they care. They want to hear about what is going on in your life. Granted, if you are always complaining to them, they might need a little breather (don’t stress out your coping mechanism), but otherwise they can be just the thing you need to de-stress. You could just enjoy their company or ask their opinion on anything.
6. Progressive Muscle relaxation and guided imagery. What does that mean? Start with one muscle and focus on relaxing it. Move on to the another one, all the while focusing and telling it to relax. Progressive muscle relaxation. If you have ever taken a yoga class, I would equate it with Shavasana. That was my favorite part! You can take a class or use an audio guide to help you.
7. Saying No. Need I say more? I struggle with this on a weekly basis. You need a ride to the airport? Ok… You want to meet at 7am instead of 9am on a Saturday morning? Well, alright… The list goes on. Saying no to a boss is one thing, (if you truly are overwhelmed at work that should be communicated before you start to drown in responsibilities) but if you need to say no for one weekend because you need to sleep in or you can’t spend $40 on a tank of gas to help a friend run errands… It is up to you to find that balance and what you need to do for your body to recover.
At SDC, we can help you with what stresses you out. Identifying factors and causes of stress is the first step toward managing it effectively. Whether it be body based learning through breath and progressive muscle relaxation, or needing that extra support through prioritizing and learning how to say no.
Editor’s Note: you can learn more about Allison’s role in providing counseling as an Associate at Seattle Direct Counseling by checking out her profile page.