It seems like stress has become the universal enemy.  Some research indicates that more than 75% of us regularly experience physical symptoms related to stress.  But, no matter how much we stress about our stress, nothing seems to change.

Understanding Stress

We are evolutionarily wired for self-protection, and this wiring is largely responsible for the stress that we experience.  One of our brain’s main jobs is to scan our environment for threats and signal the danger to us.  This triggers the well-known fight or flight response.  The problem is, in our modern lives, this system doesn’t always help us.  Sure, if we’re alone in a dark alley, it can be useful, but in our daily lives it can cause real trouble.  Chronic stress can lower our immune response, disrupt our sleep patterns, or upset our digestive functions. 

We cannot control the circumstances that may cause our stress.  We will continue to have times when the work hours get long, the kids get sick, and the car breaks down.  But, we can choose how we respond to these circumstances and get a better grip on our stress.

 Mind Your Self-Care

I don’t know about you, but when I am feeling stressed, my self-care can be the first thing that gets dropped.  I indulge myself with food that I know will make me sluggish and tired the next day. I cut into needed sleep by mindlessly watching television.  I hit the snooze button over and over.  And forget about exercise – I’m way too stressed for that!

This pattern, of course, only increases the stress I feel.  I wake up more drained and groggy the next day.  I often start out behind and never seem to catch back up.  And, at the end of the day – surprise! – I’m even more stressed than I was before.

To combat this cycle, I’ve developed a list of supportive activities that I know will help me ease stress in a healthier way.  Getting outside as much as possible, even if it’s only parking the car a few spaces further away and really enjoying the walk into the office or the store.  Or eating dinner outside with my family instead of in the kitchen.  Taking a warm bath and drinking a cup of hot tea.  Getting an extra fifteen to thirty minutes of sleep.  Listening to music that supports my mood.

If you find yourself slipping in self-care when you’re stressed, make a similar list for yourself.  Your list may be totally different than mine, but each item on it should encourage you to make a little bit of time and space for yourself and to support your health in times of stress.  Maybe you will go for a long run, or take a favorite kickboxing class.  Maybe you’ll wear a favorite shirt, or even spray a perfume that makes you feel awesome.  Whatever it is, be sure to have the list at hand so you don’t turn to those automatic responses the next time you’re feeling stressed.

Choose Your Perspective

Time for some brutal truth here.  Some people respond better to stressful situations because they choose to do so.  How?  By choosing a perspective that allows them to move out of stress and into action.  This sounds simple on the surface, but training yourself to adopt a positive, constructive mindset in the face of challenging circumstances takes practice and work.  Nevertheless, it can be done.

Much of our stress is caused by our interpretation of what’s happening to us.  Your boss criticizes a project you’re working on, and you begin to worry that you’re about to lose your job.  Your colleague goes to lunch with a co-worker from another department and you wonder if you’re being pushed aside.  Someone else is picked to chair a committee at your child’s school and you know it’s because you’re the mom they can’t rely on to get to the meetings on time.  Here’s the problem – none of your interpretations may be accurate.  In fact, the only thing they have in common is that they make you feel awful and drop you into a pool of stress.

If you can adopt a neutral, factual interpretation of what is going on around you, you’ll find yourself less stressed in your everyday life.  So, your boss’s reaction to your project may become, “My boss said she thought the project was too narrow in focus.”  Removing the idea that this is a “criticism”, with all of the emotional baggage criticism brings along, lets you focus on just the words that were said.  Maybe you will see that you agree the project was overly narrow.  Maybe you won’t.  But you will be able to focus on facts and respond without all of the stress that comes from feeling criticized.

Beware the Vent

Having a vital social network is undoubtedly helpful in managing your stress.  Be cautious, however, about using your friends to vent your frustrations over and over.  Not only will some of them find it frustrating, you will get stuck in a spin cycle that is more likely to reinforce your stress rather than easing it.

Telling a story over and over again often serves to strengthen our negative interpretations and opinions of what’s happening and pulls us further away from a neutral mindset.  Our friends are our friends because they support us and empathize with us when we tell them people are being unfair, or we are overwhelmed, or we can’t get ahead.  The problem is, these are our opinions of what’s happening and not factual events.  While support and empathy are important, they do not help us see the negative perceptions that are contributing to our problems.

Am I saying to shut your friends out when you are going through stressful times?  Absolutely not.  But, you should be aware that venting is not the stress release we may have been told it is.  A good laugh and a glass of wine is a different story…

What about you?  What makes your stress worse?  What tricks have you found to ease the pressure?