Author Norman Mailer once said stress is the curse of the twentieth century man. Robert Frost noted that the reason why worry kills more people than work is because more people worry than they do work. Benjamin Franklin warned his constituents to expect not trouble or worry about what may never happen. James Russel Lowell, a known worry wart, said it best when he said, “the misfortunes hardest to bare are those which never came.”
Are you so stressed and frustrated that there aren’t enough hours in a day for you to take care of all your work, family and social responsibilities and there is no time left over? You keep working harder, but accomplish less? You know that if you exercised and ate healthy you would feel better, but you just cannot find the time, and when you do, you are so fatigued that you just want to sleep.
It is important to try and understand how stress may rule your life. Psychologists define stress as “a particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and threatening his or her well-being.”
Stress accounts for an enormous amount of personal dissatisfaction, ill health, and billions of dollars lost annually in productivity and medical bills. Physicians claim that 85 per cent of all medical complaints and problems are stress-related.
The department of Health considers stress to be a mental-health issue, and according to a 2001 survey from the Health and Safety executive of Canada, stress is the cause of 3.5 million days being taken as sick leave every year, and it is increasing. One in five consider themselves to be “very” or “extremely” stressed, and at any one time there is an estimated 500,000 students suffering from work-related stress or depression. Up to 150,000 workers have taken a month or more off work for stress related illnesses. The 21-44 age group are the worst hit by stress.
Bill is a graduate student. He has just been informed that he must make an important presentation in front of high-level department heads in a few minutes. His cognitive interpretation of this event is that if he screws up, he will be the joke of the program, and may fail, something that would set him back several years. He has a sudden upsurge in adrenaline, his breathing is rapid and shallow, his heart is pumping faster, and his abdominal muscles tense up. As a result of both his negative thoughts and physical symptoms of discomfort, Bill’s behaviour changes. He begins stuttering, has difficulty in organizing his thoughts, and bites his nails compulsively.
In this example, the situation of having to prepare for a presentation in a short time-span is fundamentally a neutral event. In fact, any life event that we experience is always neutral. It is only after you attribute a judgement to the situation does it become positive or negative. As a result, your interpretation of the situation determines how stressed you are.
It follows to say the way in which you cope with stress is based on how you perceive your situation, and your ability to handle your physical symptoms.
However, there is a simpler explanation in vogue these days-you create the fear and then you believe it.
The human nervous system is primitive in that it is trained to react to an event as if it were a life or death situation. It creates what is known as the ‘fight-or-flight syndrome’.
In this alarm state, the body readies itself for battle against a potential prey or enemy, or for escape from a potential aggressor.
This was adaptive for our caveman ancestors running from killer raptors, but today we are rarely placed in situations in which we have to fight or flee.
As a result, any situation that your mind perceives as being stressful, whether imagined or real will generate the same alarm reaction.
Living in a chronic alarm state will increase the vulnerability of the body and allow opportunistic infections and disease to set in.
Understanding your response to stress is the first step towards overcoming its destructive affects, and to living a more satisfying quality of life.
A popular way to help you analyze your response to stress, is to keep a journal of the stressful situations you experience, how you feel, and what you are saying to yourself.
With some practice, you will be able to recognize the association between the way you think and the way you feel.
Emotions are always created by a preceding thought or image. After you recognize your automatic stressful thoughts in various situations, you might want to experiment with challenging these thoughts and replacing them with more realistic statements. If your countering thoughts are strong enough, you will notice that your emotions also change as a result.
“There is nothing better to me than a fresh notebook and a new pen,” says Meaghan Myers. Myers was in her third year at Concordia when a counselor at counseling services suggested keeping a journal as a way to reduce her stress.
“I was at my wits end with writing papers, studying and working. It [keeping a journal] is a new beginning of sorts and just having it gives me hope. The pages are blank and just waiting for me to put down my thoughts, ideas, joys and woes.”
Another way to combat stress is to promote the relaxation response. In this response, the body restores itself to a state of profound rest. Cultivating the relaxation response has been shown to counter the physiological affects of stress and promote many changes related to physical and mental well being.
Successful coping is the art of finding a balance between acceptance and action, of letting go and taking control. Believing that you can cope in a stressful situation lowers your stress levels.
Stress management programs have helped individuals develop more effective coping strategies. Investing time into a stress management program is therefore very productive in the long run. You can no longer afford to let stress dominate your life!