Stressing Over Stress

Gaining Perspective
and Overcoming Challenges
By Shanti Argue

Life is demanding–with deadlines, bills, work and family. From small things, like traffic, to life-altering illnesses, it is important to remember that everyone experiences stress. The management of stress is a critical life skill.

Stress can actually be a good thing. “Some level of stress is necessary to prompt a response,” says Amanda Ward, licensed psychologist at Olmsted Medical Center (OMC). “For example, when studying for a test, stress can provide the motivation to do well.”

“When I get concerned,” Ward continues, “is when it’s past the person’s coping skills. Then the person is in distress.”

HOW STRESS CAN MESS WITH YOU

Erica Runkle, nurse practitioner at OMC, notes that stress is a physical process. “A lot of times, there’s this misconception that stress is all in your head. Just get over it—it’s not a ‘real’ problem. But the mind is part of the body, and there’s no way to tease apart the two.”

Runkle explains that your nervous system has two main modes: fight or flight, and rest and digest. “When the fight or flight response is triggered, your body will release either adrenaline, a quick boost of energy, or cortisol, a lower, longer-acting hormone. So as stress kicks in, you have different physiological symptoms.”

These hormones are chemical messengers that help your body to prioritize its actions in an intense situation. Your breathing and heart rate increase. Blood, oxygen and glucose rush to your muscles so you can defend yourself. 

In the meantime, other less critical functions can be altered or even suspended. Digestion, reproduction and other cellular functions are put on the back burner because this response is supposed to be temporary. You can digest that meal later, but right now you need to escape from that tiger! 

Our bodies are not designed to live in a state of constant tension. That’s why extreme stress can cause visible symptoms like hair loss and acne. Other health problems from prolonged distress include: headaches, fatigue, muscle tension, trouble sleeping, digestive issues, weight gain, anxiety, depression and heart disease. “You can’t be bathed in stress hormones at all times and not see some kind of long-standing result,” warns Ward.

WHAT TO DO?

Runkle says, “Some people learn healthy habits from their family environment and have coping mechanisms integrated from the beginning.” For them, managing stress might seem intuitive. Others need to educate themselves and learn coping strategies. A crisis might require a new game plan entirely.

  Ward says when she tells her patients that they need to dedicate even small amounts of time to managing stress, they sometimes push back. But the busier you are, the more important it is to spend your time wisely. Dedicating even half an hour a week to organizing your time and making decisions can have a huge return.

THE LITTLE STUFF

Most often, women are just trying to do too much. We have so many options—and we want them all. But, Ward says, “Everything has a choice point.” You might not like the cost and benefits of the choice point, but there’s still a trade-off.

In those cases, Runkle says it’s critical to simplify. If you’re juggling too many things, it’s a matter of determining: “Which ones do I need to do right now, and which can I set aside?”

You might not be able to be the best at everything, attend everything, say yes to everything and still have time to sleep and exercise. We just have to choose. And for Ward, that sometimes means helping patients learn how to say “no” graciously without feeling guilt.

THE BIG STUFF

Inevitably, we face circumstances that are beyond our control—a tornado, economic downturn, loss of a loved one—that present a load of negative stress. Even in those cases, it’s beneficial to focus on what is in your control and what choices you have. 

“Sometimes people are just locked in,” says Runkle. When she asks them to find options and they say they don’t have any, she says, “You could stay in bed all day.” When they say they’re not going to do that, Runkle reminds them that they get to choose, and gradually they realize that even in small ways there are alternatives. 

Hollie Heil, nurse at OMC, works with patients on taking small steps toward achievable goals. She says, “Sometimes, just getting through the day, or even part of the day, is a goal in and of itself.”

PERSPECTIVE

One interesting aspect of stress is how our feelings become moderators. Heil says that with positive stress you see an increase in resilience. “When you’re feeling good about it, you can push through. Circumstances can really impact your experience of stress as well.”

For example, moving involves packing, planning and disruption. If you are excited about the move, it can be energizing. However, if the move is due to eviction, divorce or a job, the same tasks may feel overwhelming.  

Ward points out that distress can come from your own personal judgments. She cites the example of a new mom, up with a crying baby. The mom might think, “This goes with the territory. It’s temporary.” Conversely, the mom might think, “What am I doing wrong? I’m not a good mother!”  

Heil emphasizes that those environmental factors can also amplify our responses to smaller stressors. So maybe a crying baby might not normally bother you, but if you have recently lost your job it might feel like too much.

BACK TO BASICS

When you’re feeling distressed and overwhelmed, it’s especially important to maintain healthy habits such as physical activity, sleep and proper nutrition. 

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to regulate stress. Physical activity generates feel-good endorphins, which make you feel happier in general and help you sleep better. Ward says patients who are struggling to cope are often surprised by how much better they feel just by going to bed earlier. The consequences of too little sleep—feeling tired and irritable and having trouble concentrating—all make it harder to deal with whatever else arises.

Erica Behrens, licensed psychologist at OMC, says if one of those areas is lacking, that can often be a warning sign that we are dealing with too much. Ironically, when patients come to her for help, Behrens hears, “Well, I was exercising, but then this happened, and I haven’t had time.” So people are sacrificing the things that are actually most likely to help them.

Hydration and good nutrition are equally important; dehydration actually increases cortisol. When your body is lacking what it needs to survive, that creates physical stress, making it harder to deal with other burdens.

SWITCHING OFF

There are also measures you can take to counteract stress by regularly and deliberately switching your nervous system from fight or flight to rest and digest:

• Being outside—nature has been shown to reduce blood pressure and stress hormones and to promote feelings of well-being.  

• Deep breathing—slow, deep breaths signal to your brain that it is time to calm down and relax, interrupting the cascade of stress hormones.

• Self-care—such as a warm bath or massage. 

• Spiritual practice—including prayer or meditation.

• Listening to music—really listening, not just having it on in the background, especially slow, quiet, classical music.

• Hobbies—such as knitting, painting or crafts.

Managing stress comes more naturally to some than others, but it gets better with practice. Prioritize and make choices. Take good care of yourself physically. Finally, find your own personal antidotes for stress and regularly incorporate them into your routine.  υ