Note: This is a five part series on stress that addresses stress in children (part 1), stress during the teen years (part 2), stress as adults (part 3), getting control of your stress (part 4) and managing stress on an ongoing basis (part 5).
What do you do when the pressure’s on?
How often do you attempt to relieve stress in ways that are less than healthy?
Do you automatically reach for the chips when you sit down at the computer to work? There’s just something about having a snack to munch on when it’s literally crunch time.
Or how about sinking your teeth into that gooey chocolate candy bar every day when you get a break? You know you shouldn’t, but it’s so comforting!
Maybe you feel compelled to light up an extra cigarette or two when the tension’s building at home. Or perhaps you tend to avoid the family by retreating to the den and playing video games until it’s time for bed.
Whether you eat junk food or go out drinking, surf the web mindlessly or watch hours of television, pop a few Valium or pull out the cigarettes, overeat or skip eating altogether, you can do better.
Of course, you know you can do better, so why don’t you?
Why is it so difficult? Why are so many of us dealing with stress in unhealthy ways, even though we know better? Which of the following excuses have you told yourself?
- “It’s too much trouble.” Elizabeth Scott, author of 8 Keys to Stress Management, notes in a 2014 article of Contentment magazine that some people fail to manage chronic stress because of “a lack of energy to put stress management plans into action.” You’ve got your schedule and your list of things that must be done. It would cause you even more stress, you think, to figure out how to relieve the stress in positive ways! So you stick with the old, unhealthy habits.
- “I can’t afford the extra expense.” Maybe you think stress management involves loads of supplements, counseling, professional therapies, or medications. (And if you needed any of these methods, they would cost some extra money.)
- “It takes too much time.” You have so much to do. You think there’s no way you can take extra time to relax, to get more hours of sleep, or to exercise. You’re barely getting everything done as it is. And who has time to fix healthier snacks or meals? The best you can do most days is to grab convenience snacks and fast food.
- “Too many people depend on me.” You may be responsible for a lot of people, financially or otherwise. Maybe your family depends on you for transportation, meals, or basic care. Perhaps you’re caring for a sick family member. Maybe the daily success of a business depends on your work. You feel it’s impossible to reduce your stress without giving up some of these responsibilities and, thus, failing the people who depend on you.
- “If I lighten up, everything will fall apart.” Sometimes stress involves a sense of losing control over the events in your life. You feel you must keep a certain pace or do things in a certain way in order to keep things under control. Actually, you may be stressed precisely because you don’t feel in control, in spite of all you are doing. People who fear losing control “keep themselves continuously in a heightened state of stress,” writes Elliot D. Cohen, PhD, on the Psychology Today website.
- “I just can’t let go.” Some people are addicted to stress, suggests Heidi Hanna, PhD, and author of the book Stressaholic. Many people may not be aware of their addiction, but for others, Hanna writes, “it’s just easier to stay amped up than deal with the detox of letting go.”
- “I don’t know how.” As Elizabeth Scott reminds us, some people fail to manage stress simply because they don’t know how to do it effectively. They don’t realize that those few moments of indulgence in bad foods, alcohol, drugs or other unhealthy habits may distract them temporarily, but in fact do nothing to actually relieve the stress.
So let’s deal with that last excuse first.
Back to the Basics
Good news! Managing stress begins with some basic principles and may not be as complicated as you think. Let’s examine the fundamentals of stress management.
- 1. Eliminate the stressors you can.
At first, you may feel powerless to rid yourself of particular stressors. After all, you can’t change the fact that you’re a parent, for example, or that you have bills due. But sometimes there are things you can eliminate. It may take some radical thinking, and other people may not understand your decision, but such a decision may save your health and your sanity in the long run. In the end, you have to do what’s best for yourself and for those under your care.
Sarah loved living on her own in an apartment near the college she attended. But as her college funds dwindled, Sarah’s stress escalated. The pressures of school and working to pay all the bills kept her up at night. Although her friends thought she was making a mistake, Sarah eliminated the stress of apartment living and moved onto campus. For her, financial peace of mind was well worth the trade.
Are there stressors you can remove from your life? Maybe you could sell the extra car, quit the team, cancel a club membership, get rid of cable television, give away the stuff cluttering up your house….
- 2. Change what you can.
Even if you can’t completely eliminate any of your stress factors, you may be able to modify your situation and reduce the pressure. Perhaps your son plays on a soccer team across town, for example, and the inconvenience of driving him to practice really creates an extra strain on your weekly schedule. Help him find another team or extra-curricular activity closer to home. He may not like your decision, but in the end, you will both profit from a bit less stress.
Evaluate your own situation. What can you modify in order to reduce stress? Can you…
…cut your hours at work? …change your schedule? …combine weekly errands into one trip? …simplify your chores? …change jobs? …cut your expenses? …transfer to another school? …change your driving route?
- 3. Just say no.
If you find it difficult to turn people down, you’re in a prime position for compounding your stress. It doesn’t make sense to accept more responsibility when you’re seeking to manage the stress you’re already under.
Learn to say no without feeling guilty. You cannot do everything. When friends, family or co-workers ask favors or extra work from you, be honest. Let them know you simply can’t take on more responsibilities at that time. If they don’t understand, it’s their problem, not yours. They’ll likely get over it.
You know your limits. Don’t be a pushover. Stand up for what’s best for you. It’s okay to say no. If you need permission, here it is: You may say no.
- 4. Treat your body right.
When it’s treated properly, the miraculous human body has the capacity to heal and recover from many conditions and illnesses, including the effects of stress overload. Sometimes a little extra attention to the basics of health may relieve your stress symptoms.
Examine your diet. If you’re not giving your body all the nutrients it needs, you’ll be less likely to handle the pressures of life without negative physical effects. Vitamins C and B5, for example, play particularly important roles in adrenal gland function, which determines your body’s ability to handle stress properly. Increasing your intake of foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, peppers and dark leafy greens, and of foods high in B5, such as chicken, fish, eggs, organ meats, avocados and cauliflower, may yield improvement.
All of the B vitamins are important for proper functioning of the nervous system, as well. In his book, The Natural Physician’s Healing Therapies, Dr. Mark Stengler points out that mental stress can deplete the body of B vitamins. In addition to those foods listed above, include the following in your diet to maintain a healthy balance of the B’s: whole grains, brown rice, milk, cheese, peanuts, walnuts, almonds, bananas, asparagus, liver, mushrooms, and orange juice.
Your body may also need extra fatty acids, notes Paul Pitchford in his book Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition.
For relief of stress and its related symptoms, particularly migraine headache and high blood pressure, he suggests adding foods such as flax and pumpkin seeds and plenty of fish, including tuna, sardines, anchovy, and salmon.
Pitchford also notes the relaxing effect of magnesium and suggests magnesium-rich foods as an alternative to stress-relieving drugs. Whole grains, legumes, seaweeds, nuts, and seeds provide abundant amounts of this important mineral. He suggests further that adding certain groups of foods to the diet may help “reduce nervousness, treat insomnia, and improve mental focus.” These foods include: oyster shell; whole wheat, brown rice and oats; mushrooms; silicon foods, such as cucumber, celery and lettuce; mulberries and lemons; dill and basil.
Consult with your health professional to evaluate your diet. Consider the possibility of supplementing if you feel your diet doesn’t provide all the nutrients you need.
Drink more…water, that is! Did you know that if you are dehydrated, you’re more likely to feel the effects of stress on your body? The reverse is also true: When you’re suffering from stress, your body tends to lose more fluids, leading to dehydration. So reducing stress for you might start with breaking this negative cycle. Drink a few more glasses of good quality water throughout the day and notice the results.
Sleep! A well-respected website lists as one tip for reducing stress and getting better sleep: “Get adequate sleep.” Do you see a slight problem with this advice? Of course, you want to get adequate sleep! That’s the part of the problem—you can’t.
If stress is keeping you awake at night, you’ll probably find yourself in another bad cycle. When you lose sleep, your body loses even more of its ability to cope with daily pressures, which causes you to lose more sleep.
So how you can break this cycle without turning to medications? The National Sleep Foundation suggests beginning to wind down at least two hours before bedtime (stop working and eliminate phone calls), then read or listen to music one hour before. Make the bedroom a pleasant, relaxing environment, and save daytime activities, such as computer usage, for other rooms.
More tips for breaking the insomnia-stress cycle:
- Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
- Stop consumption of caffeine, tobacco, or alcohol several hours before bedtime. (Easier said than done, perhaps, but definitely worth a try!)
- Sleep in a completely darkened room or use a sleep mask.
- If you’re plagued by thoughts and ideas running through your head, keep a notebook and pen by your bed. Get your thoughts down on paper before going to sleep or when you’re awakened in the night.
- If you find yourself lying awake for more than a few minutes, get up and go into another room for a few minutes. Do something relaxing or boring and then try going back to bed.
- Try taking a magnesium supplement or the popular herbal supplement valerian root before bed.
Don’t underestimate the power of exercise. Many studies confirm that even a few minutes per day can clear your mind, boost your mood, improve self-confidence, reduce other stress-related symptoms, and give you a sense of control over your life, say experts from Mayo Clinic.
Take time to laugh.
Have you ever noticed how good you feel after watching a really funny movie or listening to your favorite comedian? Laughter promotes health in many ways, including stress reduction, according to the Mayo Clinic. The physical effects of laughter result in (among other things) relaxation, tension release, mood improvement and an increase in your ability to cope with difficulties. So the next time you sit down to enjoy the jokes in Reader’s Digest magazine or to watch an episode of your favorite sitcom, don’t feel guilty. You’re not wasting time. You’re managing your stress.
If you’ve eliminated stress factors, modified your situation to reduce pressure, succeeded in saying no when necessary, and made necessary improvements in your health routine, yet you’re still not successfully managing your stress—don’t panic! Stress management methods abound.
Written by Beth Prassel-Sieg
- OTHER PARTS IN THIS SERIES -
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
A Child's Life
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
A Teen's Journey
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
An Adult's Pressure
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
Craft Your Management Plan—and Follow Through
Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved
Gain All You Can
When Anger Backfires
The Downside of Lighting Up