Stress is a major contributor to physical and mental health issues. Knowing how to handle it is rarely taught and involves a plan to offset life’s demands.
Head-on Approach to Handling Stress
When life delivers stress, how we cope is key to health
By HILARY GOWINS – firstname.lastname@example.org
Oversleeping. Missing an appointment. Traffic jams.
Annoying? Undoubtedly. There isn’t a driver in the greater Chicago area who hasn’t experienced the maddening frustration that comes with navigating the region’s overpacked infrastructure.
But what of this list?
Marital issues. A sudden career change. Having to take care of an elderly father whose ailments have rendered him unable to care for himself.
On a daily basis, most Americans experience the superficial types of stress found in the first set of examples.
In 2007, however, Crystal Lake resident Chris Stephan found herself buried by the second set of setbacks.
She and her husband were going through a bumpy patch, on top of the fact that Stephan was in the process of switching jobs. While tricky and difficult, however, the most challenging addition to Stephan’s stress level stemmed from an accident in 2007, during which her elderly father fell and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
“I spent November and December of 2007 and January and February of 2008 with dad at the hospital and rehab center,” she said. “Then I brought him back to his town house and realized he couldn’t navigate stairs.”
The stress that came from dealing with these issues began to weigh on Stephan.
“It was chaos,” Stephan said. “You tend to go through a lot of depression with stuff like this because you see yourself as failing. You set ridiculously high standards, so when you can’t do it, it triggers that depression. You get into this tunnel thinking. And it drags you down physically, as well. In my case, I suffered a lot of anxiety. Sure, there’s Valium or Xanax, but I’d rather not go through life that way.”
So she went to Blair Counseling, where she initially worked with founder and licensed clinical professional counselor Dan Blair to learn how to manage her stress.
Stephan isn’t alone. A recent survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that on a scale of one to 10, residents of eight U.S. metropolitan areas told psychologists that they rated their level of stress as 5.2, while their ideal stress level fell at 3.6.
Much of what ails Americans today stems from a few basic issues: money, uncertainty of the nation’s economy, and family issues, making the advice Blair and fellow counselor Eric Bruemmer bestowed upon Stephan fairly universal.
No matter what ails a person, whether the stress trigger is severe or comparatively mild, many of the ways to deal with it remain the same, depending on the person’s stress response.
“It’s always good to recognize what is in your control and what is not,” Blair said. “Taking action when action is required, and recognizing when to let go is crucial. Define your desired outcomes, and list behaviors and thoughts that lead to that outcome. Then practice acceptance of those events and thoughts which are out of your control.
“Two sides of managing both major and minor stressful events is taking action and practicing acceptance,” Blair continued. “Acceptance often cannot occur without a grieving process.”
And that goes for all stressors in life – whether you have to drive the kids and the neighbors’ kids to school and practice the next day or just found out your husband has been diagnosed with cancer. If you don’t take steps to ensure that you’re prepared to handle stress when it comes, or if you aren’t able to manage it when it hits, your body will pay the price.
“There are two reasons stress affects us physically,” Blair said. “One is that the fight-or-flight system is meant to be short term. Chronic engagement of this leads to excess adrenaline and cortisol and other hormones secreted, meaning the body is under stress. The heart rate is increased, it affects all major organs, and the body is just not built to sustain this long term. So over time, chronic stress can lead to disease and also increase the chance of accidents.”
A person can tell that stress is starting to take a serious toll on the body and mind in a number of ways, said Mary Krueger, a Cary-based licensed clinical professional counselor.
“Some people might find that they can no longer function optimally,” she said. “Friends and family members may notice the changes before you do. Listen to them and take a personal inventory of how you’re functioning. When you’re walking around in a dialed-up, anxious state, stress is a problem.”
But recognizing how much stress is affecting your life is only the first step. The next is understanding how to cope with it in a healthy way. Some positive ways to manage stress include eating right, exercising, taking advantage of support systems, seeking professional guidance, relaxing and laughing, Krueger said.
There also are unhealthy ways to deal with life’s problems, including overeating, excessive drinking and other mind-numbing behaviors; procrastinating; excessive sleeping; worrying; ignoring others; allowing irritability to overtake; and more.
Stephan found ways to manage her stress. She learned how to find a good balance in her life, and even made time to take an eight-week Spanish course for fun. She said that after counseling and making adjustments on her own, she came out on the other end a more relaxed person.
“When you’re in the middle of crisis mode, everything is overwhelming, everything is a priority,” she said. “In reality, no one can do everything and not everything is an ‘A’ priority. Not everything is life and death. So it helps you to look back and say, ‘What’s an absolute must?’ In my case, my dad was an ‘A’ priority, but, I can offload running to the grocery. That’s why you have support systems.”
And when things got really tough, Stephan liked to remember one of her favorite prayers.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Negative effects of stress
- Decrease in ability to see consequences of one’s actions.
- Decrease in ability to see options to solve a problem.
- Decrease in ability to make sense of another’s point of view.
- Disruption in short-term memory.
Effects of chronic, long-term stress
- Heart problems
- High blood pressure
- Susceptibility to infection
- Skin problems
Source: Dan Blair of Blair Counseling, Crystal Lake