Stress is rarely something experienced as enjoyable, even if some people thrive on it. Unfortunately, stress is nearly inevitable, especially in today’s world. What people often don’t realize is that we have all the resources we need to be able to reduce stress. The challenge is to learn how to identify and use these resources.
Before being able to implement stress reduction techniques, we have to be able to recognize signs of stress. Some symptoms are more obvious than others. The more specifically we can understand our triggers — for example, not just knowing that work causes stress, but knowing what specifically in our work causes stress — the more we can do to prepare for stress, and ultimately reduce or prevent it altogether.
What do signs and symptoms of stress look like?Symptoms of stress vary from person to person, but here are some common signs that we are being pushed beyond our relaxation perimeter.
- Repeated bouts of anger
- Skipping Meals or Overeating
- Craving sleep, regularly
- Rapid breathing
- Difficulty getting a full, deep breath
- Headaches/Migraines, Stomachaches, Backaches, GI issues, and other physical symptoms
- Drinking, smoking, or other substance use
- Frustrated regularly, or feeling ready to “explode”
- Passive-aggressive behaviors (late to work, avoidance, withholding sex, etc.)
- Lack of sex drive
- Lack of motivation
What do stress triggers look like?Stress triggers can come in many different forms. People tend to notice the more abstract environmental triggers of stress, such as:
- Arguments with your partner
- Overwhelming workload
- Difficulty with decision-making
- Inability to effectively organize and prioritize (both at home and work)
- Particular points of parenting
- Parents invading your personal space
- Financial concerns (not making enough money, or spending too much money)
- Tough commute to/from work
How to Reduce and Prevent StressNow that we have an idea of what to look for with stress — symptoms and triggers — we can more effectively reduce stress. Fortunately, many of the resources we need for this are built right into our bodies. The task is to learn how to use what we have available to us. Here are a few suggestions:
1) Deep Breathing. This basically requires learning to control how we breathe — learning to regulate how much air we take in, how much we let out, and how quickly or slowly we do this. A significant part of this is also learning to control how deeply (or shallowly) we breathe. When we are stressed (or anxious), our breathing becomes more shallow, which can lead to physical and emotional symptoms. Learning to offset stress with engaged and controlled deep-breathing helps relax our physical and emotional response to stress as a whole.
2) Meditation. There are many ways to practice meditation. It generally involves using controlled breathing (whether deep or relaxed), with a mental, and sometimes physical, focus. Meditation can be done with emotive imagery, or progressive muscle relaxation, or be simply breathing-focused, or otherwise. While meditation can be used acutely with some benefit, a much greater benefit is achieved with regular practice. With daily meditation, for example, a person can see their overall level of stress greatly diminish. Consistent meditation can also significantly reduce the initial stress response, so even if we are triggered, the resulting amount of stress that we experience is less than before.
3) Yoga. Any type of focused body work combined with controlled breathing serves as regulating mechanism for stress relief and prevention, if practiced regularly.
4) Talking. This sides along the concept of “talk therapy”, where taking time to process aloud and understand stressors can in itself relieve stress. Sometimes talking will lead ourselves to solutions or understanding; or externalizing an issue can normalize it away from the magnification or catastrophizing that can occur with rumination and hyper-focus. Whether it’s with a friend, or getting stress reduction help with a therapist, utilizing our voices can be quite helpful in reducing stress.
5) Screaming. The difficult part of this one is finding a place to do this. Letting out a connected, emotional scream from the depths of ourselves can be momentarily cathartic. It may not resolve stress as a whole, but it can decrease stress hormones, and also release endorphins.
6) Exercising. Running, walking, swimming, push-ups, jumping jacks, and all other forms of aerobic exercise are stress-relieving activities. I usually recommend to combine exercise with a mental focus activity. While some forms of exercise are physically relieving, not all forms of exercise engage the mind (e.g. it’s easy to daydream while running, which doesn’t allow for mental stress relief). See #7.
7) Other Sports (physical and mental). This can range from soccer, softball, and racquetball all the way to Karate, Kung Fu, and anything other form of physical activity that requires mental focus as part of the activity. Taking cognitive focus away from the stressors while also physically engaging relives both mind and body from building stress or previously stored stress. As with all of the above, consistency with practice provides greater stress relief and prevention.
8) Planning Ahead. Knowing what triggers stress for you can enable you to plan ahead in various ways. Hopefully, the identified stressor is something you can remove, or in some other way adjust in order to prevent stress. For those less changeable stressors, mental preparation, or setting the surrounding environment can be effective for reducing the impact of stress. For example, if you know you’re working a 12-hour shift the next day, removing significant responsibilities outside of work that day can help ease the overall impact; or, mentally preparing to take one hour at a time, or one responsibility at a time at work may ease the stress of a long day.
9) Psychotherapy. While talking is cited above, psychotherapy involves a more in-depth look at ourselves and our stress mechanism. Therapy also provides a deeper understanding of how our stress response was formed in the first place (and therefore how to treat it). Therapists who are trained in mind-body, and relaxation techniques can also be helpful here (though not fully necessary for stress-related therapy to be effective).
It is worth noting that there are many different types of breathing, deep-breathing, meditation, imagery, and other exercises. Some may work better for you than others, but there isn’t only one way to do each type of exercise. Learning a method (or several) that works for you is essential to the process. If you can build an effective bag of tricks that works for your mind and body, you’ll be able to gain control over stress as a whole, and be able to experience relaxation and tranquility on a consistent basis, even during situations that used to be stressful.