Stress is a mind-body response to external pressure. Stress can have positive and negative effects. We all have an optimal level of stress that allows us to perform our best. However, we all have our limits as well.
When we are faced with stressors that we feel less capable to handle at the time, we may feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or discouraged. We can use strategies to address physical, mental, and emotional symptoms of stress.
Use the following steps to understand manage your stress.
Often, our body will show signs of stress before we are even mentally aware. A clenched jaw, frequent colds, or exhaustion can all indicate your stress level is higher than desired. Prolonged stress can contribute to or exacerbate existing conditions like headaches, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Regular medical check-ups can be a point for you to notice indicators of stress. However, you can also check in with yourself daily. A smart watch may notify you of increased heart rate. You can also do a body scan to identify where you are carrying tension--and when! For example, do you notice your aches and pains as you are driving to work or about to see a friend who drains your energy?
It is not the actual external stressor that is stressing you out, but how you feel about it. Your emotions are valid, though the thoughts behind them may be irrational. You are not choosing how you feel, so it is important to try to avoid feeling guilty or ashamed about the emotions, which can increase stress.
Beyond validating your emotions, be curious about them. Are you able to name what you are feeling--anger, loneliness, inadequacy? Your emotions can often point you to (helpful or unhelpful) thoughts and beliefs you may have about your current circumstances, or even deeper core beliefs. How you feel may be a reflection of a negative belief that you aren't good enough. Perhaps you believe you are being treated unfairly in a situation or feel frustrated as a result of recurring negative thoughts.
Between the check in with your mind and body, you may be able to recognize what is contributing to your stress. Stressors are sources of pressure, and they can be positive (eustress) or negative (distress). While a break up, loss of a loved one, or being fired can be overwhelming, so can a new relationship, birth or adoption of a child, or starting a new job.
Common stressors include work and moving. Other stressors may not be as obvious. Notice the timing of when you begin to experience symptoms of stress; you may notice it coincides with your (re)introduction to a stressor. By the way, some day-to-day things like traffic, household errands, or a cluttered environment can also contribute to stress.
Problem-solving is helpful when we have options, but if we continue to exert effort in situations not in our control, we can become frustrated and even powerless. Acceptance is not always easy, but it is a great way to reduce stress. Our power comes from being able to cope with what we cannot change and focusing on our present versus what has happened or will happen.
The tough part is that there is no quick path to acceptance. It is a practice. This does not mean you are giving up or repressing your emotions--remember: we honor those! Acceptance is more focused on awareness. As opposed to ruminating on what you have on your mind and what will happen, acceptance means simply acknowledging the concern and your emotions. Knowing and accepting that stress is a part of life can relieve the pressure to change a situation (that you can't).
When you can't just "let it be" (or don't want to), try to let it go. Acceptance is often a way to build resilience, but we sometimes are better served not by dealing with the stressor, but by managing our relationship to it. Acceptance is one of the four A's for managing stress; the other three are avoid, alter, and adapt. This means that it could be healthiest for you to avoid a stressor (quit the job or relationship), try to change it (move during a time that's less busy), or adapt (use new tools to organize and plan your tasks).
This step also involves releasing stress from your mind and body. Positive affirmations, deep breathing, meditation, physical activity, and adequate sleep are just a few ways to do so.
Disclaimer: Keep in mind that the above article is informational only and not a replacement for therapy or medical advice. You are encouraged to make decisions for your mental health in consultation with a licensed mental health professional.
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