Understanding Stress and Making Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference.
By: Angie Holstein, MSW, RSW
Adults, children and teens are more stressed than ever as our culture has become faster moving and more demanding with it’s expectations. From constant emails, texts, and social media to finding time to work out, eat healthy and look great. The feeling we have to do it all can be hard to escape, so it’s not surprising that we feel stressed and, at times, totally burnt out. This culture of stress is being passed down to the younger generations in what is called stress contagion. Emotions are highly contagious, meaning the emotional storms of others automatically trigger the stress response in us unless we are doing something to intentionally counter it.
In my work with adolescents, I’ve noticed that talking about being stressed and not sleeping enough is a way they can convey that they are hardworking and achieving. Has appearing stressed and sleep deprived really become a badge of honour? We rarely hear talk about self-care strategies or the good nights of sleep they are getting. However, our bodies are talking honestly. They are telling us to slow down. Science now confirms what has been known for centuries: the mind and body are deeply connected. Stress not only lowers our mood and creates anxiety, but it also diminishes the body. Whether your stress is chronic in nature or comes in spurts, it affects our mental and physical health. Dr. Gabor Mate convinced me of this in his book “When the Body Says No – Exploring the Stress and Disease Connection”. More than 90% of medical visits and 80% of diseases are stress related.
When we are stressed our bodies automatically initiate what is called the Stress Response. Here is what happens:
Mind: An individual’s response to stress is controlled by the central nervous system (the brain and spinal chord). When stressed, the body signals the adrenal gland in the brain to “spray” epinephrine to initiate the “fight – flight -freeze response.” Being stressed is a signal that danger is present. Triggers for this process are varied and range from: a bear running at you; being called on in class for the answer; walking into a room and knowing no one; someone cutting you off in traffic; trying on clothes and feeling inadequate. These triggers signal the brain to release hormones, such as cortisol, to sustain this on-guard response state.
The effects of these hormones on the body are as follows:
- Feeling nauseous from improper digestion. This is caused by increased blood flow to the muscles, therefore reducing the blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract.
- Dilation of blood vessels.
- Increased breathing rate.
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure.
- Increased blood sugar levels in order to provide more energy for this process to occur.
For many individuals this process occurs multiple times a day, every day of every week leading to a state of chronic stress and poor mental and physical health.
Some Common Signs and Consequences of Stress:
- Mood swings
- Feelings of isolation
- Lack of focus
- Memory difficulties
- Depression and anxiety
- Poor judgment
- Chronic worry
- Sleep disturbances
- Headaches and migraines
- Breathing difficulties
- High blood pressure
- Intestinal upset or Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Muscle pain and tension
- Hair loss
- Sleep disturbance
- Weight Gain
- Hormone imbalances
Almost 50% of Canadians say stress is negatively impacting their personal and professional lives. This can lead to feelings of helplessness to these automatic responses within the body and confusion about how to alleviate it. All of us have the ability, with self-compassion, life management skills and intention, to maintain our well-being. Consider some of the tips below and remember that small changes can have a big impact.
Learn and practice saying “No” and “Later”. A common cause of stress is having too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Learning to say “No” to additional or unimportant requests will help to reduce your level of stress, and may also help you develop more self-confidence. If a direct “No” is difficult, try: “Now is not a good time…” or “I would love to, but…”
Journal: Keep a journal exploring your relationship with stress. First write down your Roses or “bright spots” from the day. What are you already doing in your day to reduce stress? Praise yourself and share this with another person. Second, write down the Thorns or challenges you experienced. Finish with your Buds or hopes for tomorrow. This is a parenting technique for anxious children and adolescents and valuable as a whole family approach.
Assess and reduce your Trauma Input. Be mindful and intentional about what you watch. Be proactive about creating a balance between crime related shows like “Criminal Minds” or the evening news and integrating some shows that are light and funny like “Modern Family”.
Practice Transition Rituals from work/school to home. For example: change your clothes, take a 2-10 minute pause using a meditation app such as www.donothingfor2minutes.com.
Take a non-judgmental, detailed Inventory of what’s on your plate right now (work, family, home, health, volunteering, other). What stands out? Seek the help of family, friends or a therapist to help you make changes to the problem areas. Learn from the example of others who’ve shared their experiences with this idea. Like Cheryl Richardson’s book “Take time for your life” (1998).
Practice Delegating. Start small by identifying one task from your week and delegating it to another person, either at home, work or school.
Declutter your living and work environment. If you haven’t used something in more than a year, can you consider getting rid of it?
Learn more from books, talking to others or web based research about managing your stress with self-awareness and self-compassion.
Maintain your physical health. Exercise, sleep (7-8 hours), eating a balanced diet, regular medical check ups, reducing caffeine and processed products. If you want to understand more about the impact of stress on the body, consider reading: Gabor Mate, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress
Meditation and self-compassion. Schedule and practice a pause every day. Sometimes the thought of this can be overwhelming so start by building in 2 mindful moments in a week. Celebrate your efforts. Experiment with different resources and don’t wait until the dishes are done or that last assignment handed in! www.donothingfor2minutes.com/ www.stopbreathethink.com/ – a quick and simple tool to guide people through self-awareness, mindfulness and self-compassion. Consider building a brief meditation into existing structures of your day i.e. 2-5 minutes at the beginning of meetings, as a family, before bed or in your car before going into your home.
Practice daily Gratitude by writing; making a mental note to yourself or sharing with another. Studies are showing changes to neural pathways with this practice.
Be aware of your thoughts. Talk openly to a friend, colleague or a trained professional that can help support and find solutions to your stress.