So here it is, summer, which tends to be a more relaxed time of the year. Most people have vacations planned, or at least some long weekends. It’s not the holiday season, it’s not the start or end of a school semester, it’s usually slower at the workplace, we tend to be outside more, and the sun shines more frequently. And yet, so many people still feel stressed out.
Feelings of acute stress are caused by our natural instinct to protect ourselves against some direct threat. We have an involuntary “fight or flight” reaction that helps us to survive. It is what enabled our primitive ancestors to flee from predators or fight for their next meal, and it is what provokes us to jump out of the path of a speeding car or become argumentative when we are insulted.
But what about the non-acute stress that can affect our daily wellbeing? It may be caused by real or imagined threats, and can manifest itself through anxiety, worry, indecisiveness, forgetfulness, and inability to focus, fear, anger, depression, physical pain, illness or a combination of several of these symptoms. This is the kind of stress that can become chronic over time, leading to poor health and unhappiness. Some of the physical signs of stress include back pain, constipation or diarrhea, fatigue, headaches, high blood pressure, insomnia, shortness of breath, stiff neck or jaw, teeth grinding, upset stomach, ulcers, and weight gain or loss. Prolonged occurrence of these symptoms takes their toll on our bodies and can lead to chronic illness.
There are numerous things that cause us to feel stressed. The prospect of change is a big one, because it sparks up a fear of the unknown for many people. Even good change can be stressful: a new house, a promotion at work, a new baby, retirement. Another cause of stress is the feeling of having no control over a situation, another person, or the future, which again leads to a fear of the unknown. Economic instability, layoffs at work, marriage or divorce, a negative medical diagnosis—all of these changes can make us feel out of control over our lives and helpless.
The two most important things about stress is not the stress itself, but the cause of it and our reaction to it. So if you’re feeling stressed out, my first question to you is “Why?” If you know the reason for it and it is truly something beyond your control, good or bad, at least you know it is temporary.
If you don’t know the answer, however, then it’s possible that 1. There is something you can do about it, and 2. You might actually be contributing to it. I see this first-hand through a friend who is always stressed out and complaining about it, but actually causes much of her own stress. The decisions she makes, the situations she puts herself in, and the company she keeps all contribute to her high and constant level of stress. So here is what I would suggest to her and anyone else who may unknowingly be causing some of the stress in their lives.
1. Identify the source of the stress.This is an exercise worth doing: Take just 5 minutes and take a piece of paper, and make three columns on it. In the first column, make a list of everything off the top of your head that you feel any level of stress about. It doesn’t matter what order they are in.
2. Identify the control agent.In the second column, list who or what could change each of your sources of stress—this is the one ultimately in control of the stress, whether or not it feels that way. This could be a person (including yourself!), institution (including your job), or element, such as an event. Sometimes stressful situations are tied to a particular event—a performance review, presentation or speech, wedding, court date, etc. Event-based stress typically ends once that event has passed. If the stress is caused by a decision you made or situation you put yourself into, be sure to put yourself down as the control agent. That doesn’t mean you should or have to change the situation, but it is important to understand how you got into the situation.
3. Identify the solution.In the third column, write one of the following next to each item: time, decision, or external. Time refers to any event or period, such as a divorce or school semester. Decision includes accepting an invitation, promotion, or other “yes” responses that put you in a given situation. Decision can also refer to not following through with an obligation, missing a flight, filing for divorce, or some other “no” decision you made. External refers to something completely out of your control: a medical diagnosis, a major layoff at work, a stock market crash, the death of a loved one, weather, etc. So no matter what the stressful situation is, it can be linked to one of the above three solutions.
Understanding the solutionsTime: Any events or time periods will be naturally resolved or fade over time. Time is actually the only solution to that particular source of stress. So the main action for you in this case is to get yourself through the period of time as well as you can. Part two of this series will have specific suggestions to help you do just that.
Decision: This is the tricky one because it requires that you take an honest look at how the decisions you make actually contribute to or protect you from stress. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have made a certain decision, it just means that ultimately you are the one that can change it if the stress becomes too much. We often have far more power and control than we think we do.
External: These we have absolutely no control over, so like time-based stress, the key is to take the best care of ourselves as we can to get through it.
The first step in reducing stress in your life is to identify the source, control agent and solution of the stress you feel. In Part 2 of this series, “Eliminating Stress from Our Lives”, we will look at practical tips and tricks for preventing, managing and eventually eliminating stress in our daily lives. This will lead to better sleep, better nutrition, more satisfaction and a much higher quality of life.
Until next time, relax…and enjoy your summer.
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