Grace Under Pressure: Understanding Stress
Today’s hectic pace has made stress a way of life for many people.
We are all bombarded by rapidly evolving technology, marathon workdays, and seemingly
constant change. Just when you think you have things under control, suddenly you’re faced with a major storm. Many of us learn to go through our daily routines in a state of hypervigilance, calm on the outside, while our nervous systems are in overdrive.
Society subtly encourages us to take pride in the levels of stress we bear, as
though the resulting furrows in our brows are badges of honor. Sadly, this pressure
to live at a break-neck pace can seriously compromise our well-being. The growing numbers of people who rely on prescriptions for sleep, relief from depression, and anxiety attacks speak to the epidemic of chronic stress that has permeated our culture. Learning to understand and reduce your own stress levels can help you escape such a fate. The sense of relief you feel will be more than a pleasant experience. Even a little stress reduction can restore your immune system, brain chemistry, and sense of vitality.
Secondary symptoms of stress like health issues or sleep disturbances may be the only alert you have to your own anxiety levels. Many people who suffer from such conditions swear up and down that they’re actually very relaxed. Another person may completely deny her condition, believing that she is, in fact, very content. She couldn’t possibly be suffering from stress. Those who are most likely to experience serious issues are the very people most practiced in the twin arts of denial and repression of emotions.
The fact is that even happy transitions like a honeymoon, birth of a baby, promotion, or vacation involve a kind of positive stress, known as eustress. However, unwanted events such as a job loss, serious illness, or death of a loved one can overwhelm our innate ability to cope, leading to distress. Hans Selye, the founder of current science of stress, has taught us, “Its not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”
According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” Learning to harness your own abilities to adapt and thrive in the face of change, affords you the opportunity to get to know yourself better, and vastly improve your quality of life. Developing the self-awareness needed to recognize your inner state and define your threshold for change are the first steps in effective stress management. Doing so removes elements of uncertainty, instantly diffusing the potential emotional volatility of change. Such awareness also allows you to construct a personal strategy for removing stress triggers, or to at least discover more helpful coping mechanisms.
The first step in handling stress in your life is to recognize the psychological and physical signs of it. Here is a simple test. Rate yourself on how you have handled stress, over the past year:
On each of the items below, give yourself a score of 1, 2, or 3, as follows:
1 = Rarely or Never 2= Sometimes 3= Usually or Often.
Don’t cheat yourself; you’re the only one keeping score. Be honest with yourself.
- I regret the way I have reacted to difficult situations.
- I consume stimulants (caffeine/nicotine/other substances).
- I consume comfort foods (containing large amounts of carbs/sugar).
- I’ve had 3 major life changes this year.
- I’ve had serious physical illness or pain this year, which interfered with my regular functioning.
- I work under pressure with deadlines or unfinished tasks in my job.
- I don’t have time to take regular rest breaks at work.
- My daily responsibilities cut into my personal time.
- I have money worries.
- I receive too many phone and/or email messages.
- One or more of my loved ones has been very sick or died this year.
- My job and/or family commitments limit my time with friends.
- I experience being misunderstood or criticized by others.
- Daily responsibilities are more than I can handle.
- I’m limited in my ability to make my own decisions.
- I have trouble sleeping enough to wake up refreshed.
- Some of my habits are considered (by myself or others) to be self-destructive.
- I’m aware of muscle tension at times that I should feel relaxed.
- My moods interfere with my relationships to others.
- Overall, I feel dissatisfied with my life this year.
Results: YOUR TOTAL SCORE: _________
Just about everyone occasionally scores a 2 or higher on many of these items, but if your total score is higher than 30 on this self-inventory, you have experienced a significant level of stress this past year. You may even be suffering from the damaging physical and psychological effects of excessive stress.
If you have been really honest with yourself and know that you have experienced distress lately, it’s time to make some changes in how you’re living. Remember, it’s not just the luck of the draw. It’s how well you play the cards you have.
Experienced therapists teach relaxation techniques to their clients as part of a brief and effective stress-management program. In another article, titled A Handy Stress Reduction Tool I have given the details for one very effective tool relaxation exercise you can use for reducing distress on your body and well-being. There are many other approaches to relaxation and stress-management, which are best learned through consultation with a professional therapist.
Living well and nurturing joy in life takes awareness and flexibility. These are personal qualities that can always be improved. The earlier we learn to deal with bumps in the road, the easier it will be to navigate the uncharted waters of our life’s journey. With just a bit of guidance, you can quickly learn new stress management tools to help you flourish.