Chances are, you know a thing or two about stress.
Modern life has many of us feeling increasingly stressed over time, and the consequences of that stress are real, starting with its impact on our bodies. An estimated 70-90% of doctor’s visits are linked to stress-related problems, and up to 60% of human disease is caused, in large part, by — you guessed it! — ongoing, chronic stress.
Although the impact of stress on physical health may not be news, how it influences our ability to learn, grow, and stay emotionally well often gets less attention!
So, let’s talk about it.
How Much Actual Stress Is in Your Life?
Stress experts worry that our society is exhausted, always in “go mode,” and “stretched to the max.” The human brain is designed to deal with moments of acute stress, but it can be pushed into a depressive or anxious state when flooded with too much of the stress hormone, cortisol, for long periods.
Whether it’s political and economic struggles, work, school, health, or relationships, a seemingly never-ending assortment of things can cause you stress.
So, how can we deal with our stressors?
For starters, we could probably all do with a little slowing down, taking time to enjoy the moment as well as taking on less.
Doing less, of course, isn’t always the key to less stress. Stress can also arise from not doing what you need to.
Reducing stress, in that case, is about doing more – or maybe doing things differently – and taking care of what you need to take on. Finishing that task you’ve been putting off can help more than lying in a hammock!
What About the Stress That Doesn’t Go Away?
Thankfully, it’s not necessary to completely eliminate stress to be well! Stress researcher Hans Selye taught “It’s not stress that hurts us; it is our reaction to it.”
Have you ever been stressed out about your stress?
If you get caught up and fixated by moments of stress, you can lose a sense of proportionality and realistic context. Fortunately, you can learn some simple practices to help you cultivate a more useful perspective! These involve taking a step back and watching a heightened emotional state arise, grow, and eventually pass.
Think about one of the more stressful situations in your life recently. Instead of trying to make stressful thoughts or feelings go away, imagine yourself stepping back, taking a breath, and getting some emotional space. Just enough to not take it so personally and calmly observe what’s happening.
Yes, stress might feel overwhelming right now. Life in this modern, changing world can multiply stress for any of us. Be gentle with yourself and stay open. There are many reasons to be hopeful!
Here are a few specific ways to shift your view of stress:
1. Talk about it – with the right people. Often the best way to handle a stressful situation is to openly explore it with someone you trust. Talking, and listening, can help us see a circumstance for what it really is — and isn’t.
2. Lighten things up. Research shows that laughter increases the oxygen supply to our lungs and our brain. It also stimulates more endorphins, the hormones that make us feel great. So, look for excuses to smile and laugh!
3. Exercise. Finding more ways to move around – especially outside – is a fantastic way to shift what’s happening in the body and release more endorphins while we’re at it. Exercise teaches our brain that our behavior matters. Plus, medical research confirms that regular exercise can decrease stress and anxiety by as much as 20%!
4. Connect to your values. Identify a few values that are personally meaningful to you and reflect on how you express these values in your daily life. This simple exercise can help you feel empowered and find a sense of meaning, enabling you to respond in healthy ways to stress and grow from it.
5. Stop going to war with your stress. A final suggestion might be the most revolutionary. Stress is often viewed as an “enemy” to fight and conquer, but that sort of mindset can end up generating a lot more stress!
Dr. Kelly McGonigal describes working for years to help people reduce stress, before realizing ways this might be compounding the problem. So, she tried something else instead: helping people embrace the fact that stress is an inescapable part of life, and not necessarily something to fear or fight.
The results in her patients were remarkable! As they embraced the reality of stress, their stress levels decreased.
It can take courage to approach stress in a new way – reducing it, responding to it differently, or even embracing it with fresh eyes.
Go for it! Trim back anything causing unnecessary stress, then take a big breath – and consider big or small adjustments that might bring even a little more balance to your life.
When the hard moments happen, hold on, remembering that stress comes and goes, and it will keep changing, if we let it.
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