Handling and Preventing Stress: A 3-Step Approach
Feeling stressed out?
Well, you can learn to manage your stress through techniques like meditation or deep breathing exercises, but before you expend a lot of effort to manage your stress – maybe you’d be wise to spend a little time working on identifying exactly what stresses you out… maybe instead of managing some of that stress you can prevent it before it gets a foothold!
Most of us take a reactive approach to stress control - letting stress build and then taking steps to mitigate its effects.
But while stress mitigation is important, it is only the last of 3 steps in a 3-pronged strategy to reduce the impact of life stress.
To really reduce the impact of stress in your life, you need to:
- Work on identifying exactly what types of situations make you feel stressed - and then modify your behaviors when possible to reduce this stress.
- Develop a lifestyle that raises your stress tolerance threshold - while you will never be able to eliminate all stressful situations from your life you can reduce their impact by increasing your stress resilience. You do this through changes to diet, physical activity levels, sleep and other lifestyle modifications.
- Learn to manage your reaction to stressful events that do occur.
Too many of us skip steps 1 and 2 and take a reactive-only approach to stress management with step 3 as our only go-to strategy.
If this describes your approach, try increasing your focus on steps 1 and 2 and see what a difference that might make to your quality of life.
Here are some ideas on how to get started…
Step One: Identify Your Stress Sources
What stresses you out most?
Is it that twice a day commute? Caring for elderly relatives?... That stack of bills on the kitchen table?
Stressors are a part of life and you probably can’t eliminate all, or even most, from your daily routine - that being said, if you focus carefully on exactly what causes you stress in any given situation, you may find that small changes to your routines, behaviors or expectations can do a lot to reduce their impact.
Keep a Stress Diary
To find out what small changes you might make to reduce the stress in your life, consider keeping a stress diary.
For a few weeks, carry a small notebook with you at all times. Whenever you find yourself feeling stressed (or soon afterward) write down:1
- What you’re doing
- Where you are
- Who you’re with
- The time
- How you’re feeling emotionally
- The kinds of thoughts you’re having
- What you’re doing to cope with the stress
- How you’re feeling physically
After a few weeks, take a close look at your diary and search for stress patterns:
- Notice you often feel physically tired before your stress level spikes? ...maybe you need a little more sleep.
- Notice you’re often with a certain person before or during stress episodes? ...maybe you could make some changes that would reduce that person’s stress building impact.
- Notice it’s when running late on commutes that your heart really gets pumping? ...maybe giving yourself an extra 15 minutes in the morning is all you’d need to do.
- Notice that your thoughts are always very pessimistic during episodes of stress? ...maybe learning a few positive self-talk techniques could really help a lot.
- Notice you feel stressed at work when some aspect of your job conflicts with your values or beliefs? ...maybe it’s time to make a significant change at work.
By focusing closely on situations that cause you stress you may find unexpected patterns. Once you can identify what exactly causes your stress you may find that making small changes to your daily routine yields big stress reduction dividends.
Step Two: Make Lifestyle Changes to Reduce Your Stress Vulnerability
You can’t prepare for everything; many stressors are simply beyond your control.
What you can do though, is increase your resilience to stressors. They’ll still come at you - but if you’re resilient, they won’t have as much of an impact on your health and well being.
To increase your resilience to stressors, try:2
- Getting sufficient sleep each night
- Minimizing your use of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and illicit drugs
- Getting some physical exercise most days
- Eating a healthy diet to keep your energy levels stable
- Not over-committing yourself (learn to say "No")
- Making time for yourself a priority, everyday (give yourself 20 minutes a day to do something relaxing that you enjoy)
Step Three: Get Better at Handling Stress
No matter how you try to eliminate the sources of stress from your life and no matter how you improve your stress resilience you’re still only human and so you’re still going to have to deal with unpredictable stress on occasion.
But while you can’t eliminate stress you can control your reaction to it - and with smarter stress handling you can really do a lot to minimize its negative impact.
So the next time you feel your blood pressure spiking at some frustration or other - don’t let stress run rampage, find your way back to tranquility with one of the following commonly recommended stress management techniques:
1. Walk away or count to 10 -- With a little self-control you can choose not to dive into angry situations sure to amp your stress levels. When you feel yourself getting tense take a moment to calm down before responding to the situation. Try actually walking away for a moment until you feel calmer or counting slowly to 10 before responding.3
2. Try deep breathing exercises -- At a primal level, stress signals the body to get ready to fight or run. Your heart and respiration rate increase and your blood pressure rises and a host of other processes kick into gear to get you ready to move with strength and speed if needed.
However, not many of today’s stressful situations call for physical confrontation or running away…!
Fortunately, you can wrest control from your evolutionary self through conscious efforts, like deep breathing exercises, which signal an end to the stressful situation and result in a calming of physical processes which only serve to heighten our perception of tension and stress.
Try taking a number of deep breaths, making an effort to inhale and exhale for to a slow count of 5 each.
3. Try progressive muscle relaxation techniques -- just as deep breathing exercises signal the body to curtail its stress response, so to do muscle relaxation exercises like progressive muscle relaxation; during which you make a conscious effort to relax all of the muscles of your body – one muscle group at a time.
4. Practice mindfulness techniques -- the present reality of a stressful situation is rarely as bad as we perceive it to be as we intertwine it with all our worries for the future and memories of the past. If you can learn to just focus on the here and now what’s stressing you out often gets a lot less worrisome.
5. Burn off the stress -- Stress gets the body ready to fight or to flee - so give your body what it wants and try 10 minutes of brisk walking or stair climbing or any other form aerobic exercise. After a few minutes of exercise what seemed impossibly stressful can transform into something reasonably manageable.
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