Introduction and the Nature of Stress

Stress Reduction and Management

Stress problems are very common with many people reporting experiencing extreme levels of negative stress. When stress is considered as something that occurs repeatedly across the full lifespan, the true incidence of stress problems is much higher. Being "stressed out" is thus a universal human phenomenon that affects almost everyone.

What are we talking about when we discuss stress? Generally, most people use the word stress to refer to negative experiences that leave us feeling overwhelmed. Thinking about stress exclusively as something negative gives us a false impression of its true nature, however. Stress is a reaction to a changing, demanding environment. Properly considered, stress is really more about our capacity to handle change than it is about whether that change makes us feel good or bad. Change happens all the time, and stress is in large part what we feel when we are reacting to it.

We can define stress by saying that it involves the "set of emoti...More

Fast Facts: Learn! Fast!

What is stress?

  • Stress is a reaction to a changing, demanding environment.
  • Stress is really more about our capacity to handle change than it is about whether that change makes us feel good or bad.
  • Change happens all the time and stress is in large part what we feel when we are reacting to it.
  • Every event in the environment, from the weather to the ringing telephone, has some sort of impact on us, and the instant we become aware of that event taking place, we have recognized a demand.
  • Understanding that a demand has occurred does not automatically cause us to experience stress. Instead, we appraise a demand by asking ourselves two questions: 1) Does this event present a threat to me? and 2) Do I have the resources to cope with this event?
  • If we appraise an event as threatening, the sympathetic nervous system automatically signals our body to prepare for action.
  • Once your body has been prepared for action by the various hormones and neurotransmitters, you are ready to respond to the stressor by taking physical action.
  • Physiologists call what happens next the "fight-or-flight" response to highlight the two most common forms that this physical response tends to take.
  • Once a stressor has been neutralized (or has been avoided successfully), the parasympathetic nervous system starts to undo the stress response by sending out new signals telling your body to calm down.

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What are the effects of stress?

  • Chronic and persistent negative stress can lead to many adverse health problems, including physical illness, and mental, emotional and social problems.
  • Chronic stimulation of the immune system causes the system to become suppressed overall, and thus become less effective at warding off diseases and infections.
  • Many people experience a stomachache or diarrhea when they are stressed.
  • Chronic activation of stress hormones can raise your heart rate, cause chest pain and/or heart palpitations (sensations that your heart is pounding or racing), and increase your blood pressure and blood lipid (fat) levels.
  • People who respond to stress with anger or hostility have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
  • Unhealthy stress coping strategies such as smoking, drinking, or overeating can also damage the heart and surrounding blood vessels.
  • Stress often causes muscles to contract or tighten and over time, sustained stress can cause aches and pains to occur due to muscle tension.
  • The hormones accompanying stress can cause reproductive problems for both women and men.
  • Stress also worsens many skin conditions.
  • Stress hormones can contribute to a sustained feeling of low energy or depression.
  • Chronic and/or severe stress can also negatively affect people with Bipolar Disorder.
  • Some people who are stressed may show relatively mild outward signs of anxiety, such as fidgeting, biting their fingernails, tapping their feet, etc.
  • In other people, chronic activation of stress hormones can contribute to severe feelings of anxiety (e.g., racing heartbeat, nausea, sweaty palms, etc.), feelings of helplessness and a sense of impending doom.
  • People who are chronically stressed may experience confusion, difficulty concentrating, trouble learning new information, and/or problems with decision-making.

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How can I reduce the effects of stress?

  • Restorative techniques are used for reducing the unpleasant and unhealthy emotional effects of stressful events that have already occurred.
  • Conscious deep rhythmic breathing has a calming effect on the body, and tends to help the heart rate to slow down, the mind to quiet and attention to turn inward towards the sensation of inhalation and exhalation.
  • Meditation is putting your mind at ease by controlling the focus of your attention and can also help reduce anger and hostility feelings by teaching you to suspend automatic judgments.
  • Physical activity is one of the best methods for fighting stress. Exercise helps you feel better by harnessing the body's natural fight or flight response, rather than suppressing it.
  • Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi are excellent stress-relieving practices.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation is a stress relief technique that relies upon subtle rather than gross (large) muscular movements to promote relaxation and tension relief.
  • There are several other methods and techniques based on using kinetic (body) movements to reduce stress, as well as those that involve therapeutic touch like in massage, or manipulating specific body points as done in acupuncture.
  • There are a wide variety of medications that can be used to aid in the process of stress relief and prevention.
  • Psychological strategies for stress relief draw upon the broad discipline of psychology to provide insight into why people become stressed and methods for how that stress can be lessened.
  • Visualization and imagery (sometimes referred to as guided imagery) techniques offer yet another avenue for stress reduction.
  • Rather than directly manipulating one's body or mind to reduce stress, you can also change the environment around you to produce a transformative and stress-relieving effect.

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How can I prevent stress in my life?

  • It is much smarter to spend some time developing good stress prevention skills that minimize the need for strenuous self-soothing efforts after stress has occurred.
  • Reducing stress generally includes becoming aware of what true needs are and are not, understanding how to meet true needs and becoming able to resist being exploited or manipulated by other people.
  • Stress prevention is not a one-time effort but rather an ongoing discipline.
  • Developing a clear and prioritized understanding of one's values lies at the core of effective stress prevention.
  • Time management methods involve finding ways to work more efficiently, so as to maximize one's use of time.
  • Another absolutely vital skill for maintaining a healthy balance between work and life responsibilities is the ability to be assertive when necessary. Being assertive means being able to say no, and to refuse requests and demands when they are not healthy for you to take on.
  • Stress Inoculation Therapy (SIT) is a psychotherapy method intended to help patients prepare themselves in advance to handle stressful events successfully and with a minimum of upset. 

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How can I develop a personalized stress prevention plan?

  • Effective stress prevention strategies require people to change their lifestyles so that they take proactive steps to avoid stress and enhance their health every day.
  • The best prescription for reducing stress is one created by you based on your knowledge of the stresses you are facing as well as an appreciation of your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Try to pick goals that you think you will enjoy performing, because these goals will be easier to stick with than ones you anticipate will be aversive.
  • Write down your goals using positive language, saying what you will do, rather than what you won't.
  • When you have a plan you can live with, the next thing you will need to do is to make a commitment to carrying it out.
  • Announcing your goals publicly to people who care about you can also become a way to ask for and receive support.
  • Another way to formalize your goals is to write or type them out in the form of a contract. On this contract, spell out your goals and specify the time frame in which you will meet them.
  • It's important to keep a record of your actions as you work towards your change goals.
  • Lifestyle change goals are not like most other goals, which have a defined ending point.
  • If you lapse from your plans (and you almost certainly will, simply because you are human), don't make a big deal out of it. Instead, simply get back on track as soon as you can.

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