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March 4, 2010

Managing stress

Stressed out by the winter weather, by work, by family issues? stressYou’re not alone, but there is something you can do about it, said a counselor last month at a stress management workshop.

Everybody has stress in life, and that can be a good thing in short bursts, as a motivational tool for meeting a work deadline, for example, according to Emily Levenson, account manager at Life Solutions, who led the workshop sponsored by the Staff Association Council.

“The problem is when it goes from small bursts of stress, time-limited stress, to something that becomes every day, day in and day out, when you’re chronically in that stressed state,” Levenson explained. “What can be really motivating in the beginning, can be really destructive in the end.”

To manage, control and alleviate stress, you need look no farther than your mirror, Levenson said. “The bottom line — and I always get an argument when I say this — you, yourself are the biggest cause of your own stress.”

To bolster her argument she cited no less an authority on human nature than William Shakespeare, whose character Hamlet says, “Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

“Why can one person walk into a situation, laugh and have fun, while another person can be brought to tears by the same exact situation? The situation is the same, the reaction different. It’s the perception of the person that causes the stress, not the situation itself,” Levenson said.

There are two kinds of stress, she explained: the stress that arises in response to an acute physical stressor and the psychological stress that’s born of interpretation.

“If you were being chased by a tiger, you want to run like hell to get away or you will be dinner,” Levenson said. “Running to get away is a fight-or-flight response brought on by stress. Adrenaline is pumping. That’s a good thing.”

The bad kind, or chronic stress, comes from an interpreted psychological stressor, which affects the body in a similar way, she said.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a tiger, a pile of laundry or a lengthy to-do list that’s making you stressed out. Your body is still reacting the same way,” Levenson explained. “Over time, that’s a very bad thing for your body and it can lead to a lot of diseases. It’s probably one of the biggest causes of diabetes, heart disease, stroke.”

Stress can manifest itself in physical symptoms such as cold hands, tension headaches, heartburn or indigestion, muscle tension, rapid breathing, poor sleep and high blood pressure, she said.

“With chronic stress those physical effects lead to emotional effects like anxious moods, poor concentration, poor memory, irritability, crying spells, emotion-based eating, worry and mood swings, which eventually could lead to serious depression,” Levenson said. “These all tie together. It’s not a surprise that stress, chronic stress, is the doorway into anxiety and depression and illness, because your immune system suffers when you’re under stress.”

The physical and emotional symptoms of stress are warning signals, she said. “So these are signs we need to pay attention to. ‘I’m feeling a little stressed out, I’m getting a headache, I need to take a step back,’” Levenson said.

Stress also is not limited to negative events, she noted. “The birth of a child generally is considered a positive event, but it also happens to be one of life’s most stressful occasions, because your sleeping is disrupted, you now have to care for someone else and it even affects everyone around you,” Levenson said. “So positive events, negative events, it’s all about perception. That’s where the focus should be for managing stress.”

Levenson recommended three techniques for managing stress: deep breathing exercises; “thought-stopping” exercises, and “looking for the positive” exercises.

She said the proper technique for deep breathing is to sit up straight and concentrate on bringing slow breaths from the diaphragm; breathe in slowly through the nose at even rates, over a count of three-five, and then double the time exhaling over six-10 counts. Allow your abdomen to expand, rather than your upper chest, and breathe out slowly through your nose.

The benefits of deep breathing include: lower blood pressure; relaxed muscles; slower heart rate; slower respiration rate; reduced insomnia and fatigue; reduced anxiety; increased energy levels, and a more quiet, peaceful mind, she said.

“It’s the easiest, most effective stress management technique in reducing stress. You will feel better even in 60 seconds, but the longer and more often you do it, you’ll actually be able to take one breath and your body will immediately feel better. You’re training yourself so that your blood pressure will go down and you’ll enter into a relaxed state,” Levenson maintained.

You should make time daily for deep breathing, she added, even if you are not feeling particularly stressed.

“Do it when it feels right for you. Pick a time when you know you can do it every day, so you get into the habit,” Levenson recommended.

In addition to deep breathing, Levenson said there are two cognitive techniques that work to alleviate stress levels by shifting one’s perception, “because everything is connected: how we think, how we feel, how we behave. If you can change one of those levels, you will make a change in the others. You will feel differently if you change how you think, and you will behave differently. If you change how you feel, you will change how you think and how you behave, and if you change how you behave you will change how you think and feel. It’s called the cognitive triad.”

One such cognitive technique is to concentrate on stopping stressful thoughts or creating alternative thoughts, she said. “This is a skill that requires commitment and practice, because our responses to events become conditioned,” Levenson said. “First make yourself aware of your thoughts, but do not waste time wondering why you think negatively. Develop simple words, phrases or actions that help change the direction of your thoughts. Remember, change your thoughts and you can change your feelings and your behavior.”

Examples of phrases you can use when you are under stress: Cut it out; What are you doing? I can’t control it, let it pass; I have done it before, I can do it again; Just slow down, you will be all right; This will pass; Give it time; Just relax.

She said the wife of a fellow employee has cancer, which now is in remission. “When she was going through treatment that was the most stressful time in her life and her family’s lives. Anything else to them just doesn’t compare. So when she starts to feel stressed out, she says, ‘It’s not as bad as cancer.’”

As part of thought-stopping, you also can create alternative thoughts by taking action, Levenson said. “Talk to someone. Problem-solve together, to learn the cause of the stress. Breathe deeply; forcing breathing into a conscious act helps stop your thoughts. Carry a lucky charm, a worry stone, for example, and touch it when you feel stressed out. Visualize a peaceful scene.”

A second, related cognitive technique is to “find the good” in a stressful situation by focusing on solutions, Levenson said.

“For me, I hate more than anything being stuck in traffic. ‘This traffic is terrible. I’ll be so late for work.’ Well, I should stop at that point, and think about what I can do. I can plan while I drive. I can listen to my favorite music. I can listen to a book on tape. Nothing I can do will get me there any faster, but this way I’m arriving without the stress,” she said.

Keeping a “thought record” of stressful incidents can benefit an individual by identifying patterns, she added. “I write down my thoughts — I hate traffic — and the emotions or feelings I have at the time: frustration, anger, anxiety. My physical reactions are that it makes me grip the wheel, and I get tense in my neck and have faster, shallower breathing — all symptoms of stress. Then I record my coping technique, such as deep breathing, and on a scale of 1 to 10 rate its effectiveness,” Levenson explained.

By following these steps, you can track repeating stressors and the effectiveness of your stress management techniques, she said. “If every Thursday at 2 p.m. you feel stressed, maybe you know you have to do things to get ready for a meeting every Friday. You can anticipate the stressor and remind yourself: You’ve gotten through the Friday meeting many times before; you can do it again. If instead you’re putting all your energy in anticipating something bad, it will give you negative thoughts and feelings.”

Finally, Levenson said that stress can be relieved by prioritizing intelligently.

“We all know what we need to do, it’s making the time and setting those priorities. It’s difficult achieving that balance and still be able to step back and breathe so that you can ask yourself: What do I need to do? What do I have to get done today?” she said.

But most people fail to include making time for themselves a priority, Levenson added. “We need to do that to take care of ourselves, because if you can put yourself on that list, you’ll be a lot more productive, you’ll feel more balanced and start to feel less stressed out. Even five minutes a day to devote to self-care, such as deep breathing, will help. You will feel better and less stressed.”

—Peter Hart

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