April is National Stress Awareness Month. Stress is the process by which we perceive and respond to events, called stressors, which are perceived as harmful, threatening, or challenging. Stressors can be:
- Major life events such as changing jobs, having a child, losing a loved one, getting married/divorced
- Daily hassles like being stuck in traffic, losing your keys, living with an aggravating roommate, forgetting to bring your homework to school
- Catastrophes that are less frequent yet devastating occurrences such as the events of September 11th 2001, a natural disaster, living in a war-torn country
- Environmental stressors such as noisy living environments (e.g., a noisy apartment complex, living by an airport or train station), pollution, crowding (e.g., living in a tiny dorm room or overcrowded city)
- Job stressors such as work overload, burnout, lack of control over work, inadequate career advancement, role ambiguity or conflict
A stressful event can trigger the "fight-or-flight" response, causing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to surge through the body. A little bit of stress, known as "acute stress," can be helpful, as it keeps us active, alert, and can help us perform at our best. But long-term, or "chronic stress," can have detrimental effects on health — it can cause stress-related illnesses (e.g., an impaired immune system) or exacerbate preexisting diseases (e.g., autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases).
Here are some ideas that can help you manage stress:
- Live a balanced life. Eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water and engage in regular, mindful physical activity. Living a balanced life keeps your mind and body running at peak performance (e.g., improves your immunes system, lowers blood pressure and cardiovascular reactivity) so that you are better able to cope with stressors.
- Relax. Incorporate relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, deep or paced breathing, and visualization into your day. Relaxation techniques like these immediately calm your body and can help you cope with many stress-related problems, including headaches, anxiety, chronic pain, and hypertension. Remember, no matter how hectic life gets, make time for yourself — even if it's just simple things like reading a good book or listening to your favorite music.
- Reach out for support. Accepting help from supportive friends and family can improve your ability to manage stress. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by stress, you may want to talk to a mental health professional who specializes in dialectical behavior therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy. These therapies draw on many techniques (e.g., mindfulness, relaxation, controlled breathing, visualization, challenging negative thoughts) that can help you manage stressors before they become overwhelming.
If you have any quesitons or comments, drop me a line in the comments section below.