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Doctors’ orders: Tips for coping with life’s stressors

January 20, 2019

Stress is like a guitar string. When it is pulled too tight it snaps, but when it is too loose it doesn’t produce a sound.

Too much stress causes anxiety, irritability, anger or exhaustion. Too little stress causes boredom, restlessness and unhappiness. Our goal is not to rid ourselves of all stress, but to keep stress at an optimal level so that the stress keeps us motivated and productive.

The fight-or-flight response was a lifesaver when our ancestors were fleeing saber toothed tigers, but its current activation in situations that are not life-threatening, such as when we’re in a traffic jam, facing a deadline, arguing with a significant person in our life or when our children are making a mess means that some have their stress response constantly switched on.

We can relieve unhealthy stress levels by either changing the stressor or increasing our threshold for coping with the stress. Some ways we can do this are:

1. Step back and evaluate the biggest stressors in your life. Think about finances, work, job loss, kids, relationship issues, crazy schedules, health issues, addiction, past trauma or daily hassles. List the top three stressors in your life.

2. Next, determine if it is possible to get rid of each stressor. Some stressors are relatively simple to reduce through behavior changes like learning how to politely say “no” when you don’t have the time, learning to delegate or reducing time on social media. Other issues such as unhealthy relationships, addiction or past trauma may need a long-term strategy involving a professional counselor or program. It is important to recognize that some stressors cannot be controlled through behavior, such as physical and mental illness, fertility issues and death in the family.

3. If the stressor cannot be reduced through behavior change, we may be able to deal with stress by shifting our view and interpretation of the stressor. One of my students shared an example of this. She had a part-time job, kids, and was a full-time college student. She loathed her long commute to school, viewing the drive as a waste of time when there was so much to get done. She did an experiment to change her perception. The commute became time to relax – she began listening to music, podcasts and taking the time to think. Each drive became her much needed “me time” of the day.

4. Let’s face it. There are some situations out of our control that are just hard. Trying to rosy them up denies them the respect they deserve. If we can neither get rid of the stressor nor shift our perception of the situation it is important to be fully equipped with coping tools to manage the stress. Try creating a list of things that bring you joy that you can do when the stress feels like more than you can handle.

I would like to issue a challenge to try one of the stress reduction methods below (or create your own) over the course of the next six weeks.

• Breathe. Deep, slow, abdominal breathing physiologically relaxes your body, helping to counteract the stress response.

• Move. Exercise, play sports, do yoga or dance. Those endorphins will help improve sleep and fight stress.

• Plan. Whether it is a prioritized to-do list or budgeting, planning can help avoid future stress.

• Nature. Studies show that time in nature reduces stress. Go on a walk, hike or ski. If you’re not a fan of the cold, bring nature to your home through potted plants and nature sounds.

• Physical space. A cluttered or cold environment can exacerbate your stress. Create a clean, quiet, warm space. Paint or decorate it with color schemes, pictures and objects that you love. Use lamps, mirrors, or windows to create and reflect light.

• Learn. A new skill, hobby or good book can help stop you from ruminating.

• Write in a gratitude journal. Studies show gratitude improves physical and psychological health.

• Music. Create a playlist that will make you happy and relaxed. My recent go-to songs for managing stress include Billy Joel’s “Vienna,” John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” and “Ain’t No Man” by The Avett Brothers.

• Movement. Many people find yoga, tai chi or other movement-related activities beneficial to managing stress.

• Smells. Find out what smells relax you and invest in some lotion or a candle. Or go out and smell that fresh air.

• Physical touch. Healthy hugging and other positive touch produces oxytocin and decreases the stress hormone norepinephrine.

• Warmth. Snuggle up in a warm blanket and drink some hot chocolate or other warm beverage.

• Relaxation. Get a massage or soak in a warm bath.

• Laughter. Watch a comedy show with that belly laughing friend of yours.

• Get away. Take a vacation if you can. If you have kids, hire a babysitter and take a few hours out doing something you enjoy.

• Social support. Be sure to have someone safe you can talk to when the stress seems overwhelming.

Treat stress reduction habits as you would treat other essential health activities like eating and sleeping. Your physical and mental health will thank you!

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