Everybody experiences both good and bad stress. It comes from mental, emotional and/or physical activity. The way we interpret stress is unique and personal. For example, what may be relaxing to one person may be stressful to another. Good stress can be healthy and useful. It helps us get to an appointment on time or meet a deadline. But when stress becomes overwhelming it becomes distress, or bad stress. Bad stress can lead to chronic stress which can leave you feeling nervous, on-edge, and tense. It also puts you at greater risk for numerous health problems, including heart disease, sleep problems, digestive problems, depression, obesity, memory impairment and various skin conditions, such as eczema. Learning what causes stress and different ways we can cope with it helps us to be more balanced and healthy throughout life.
Learning healthier ways to manage stress
Since everyone has a unique response to stress, there is no "one size fits all" solution to managing it. No single method works for everyone or in every situation, therefore it is important to experiment with different stress reduction strategies to lessen your feelings of stress. Focus on what makes you feel calm and in control.
Two common strategies for managing stress include changing the situation and changing your response to the situation. If there is a situation that you can identify that causes stress, avoid it. For example, if the crowds and chaos of the State Fair make you feel anxious to the point that you do not like to go, stay home instead. In unavoidable situations, such as a holiday dinner with in-laws, you may have to change your reaction. Accept it for what it is, focus on what is really important, adapt to the environment, and move on.
Stress management strategy #1: Change the Situation
Evaluate your physical environment. If the color on the walls affect your mood, or if you are worried about a toddler falling down the stairs or a loved one with dementia wandering out of the house in the middle of the night—modify your environment with paint, gaits or alarms on the door. Take a look at the people in your life. Is there a person or group of people that really causes you stress? If so, you may need to distance yourself or resign from that organization/group. Review your calendar. Sometimes stress results from our inability to say "no." Look at your commitments. Are you doing what you want to do, should do, have to do? If part of your stress is over committing yourself, pare back. Many commitments and tasks are beneficial, but if it is hurting your health it may not be worth it.
Stress management strategy #2: Change your Reaction
Laugh, don't cry. Some things we just can't change. These are the things that we need to learn to accept versus letting them bother us. So your neighbor painted his garage hot pink. Instead of getting worked up when you drive past, accept the pink and laugh at his lack of style. Compromise. Our need to be "right" often interferes with good communication and can cause stress when we are so focused on what the other person is doing. If we ask someone to change, we need to be willing to change ourselves. Let it go. Ask yourself, does it really matter? Will it matter in five years? Sometimes we have to pick our battles. For instance, a mother and child fought most mornings about what the child was going to wear to school. The child chose gym shorts and t-shirts over the mother's choice of "school clothes." It was causing stress in their relationship as well as starting the day off with ugly confrontation. When the mother finally decided to let it go and allow her child to choose his own clothes, the morning conflict ended. The mother recognized that it really didn't matter if the child wore a t-shirt or a polo as long as he went to school clean and decent and learned while he was there.
Having realistic expectations of yourself, shifting your focus to looking at what is really important and taking care of yourself emotionally and physically will also increase your confidence to deal with stressors. Sometimes, taking a deep breath, meditating, relaxing or taking time to smell the roses allows you to appreciate the little things so that you don't overreact over the big things.