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5 Critical Strategies for Managing Stress

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Did you know most Americans are suffering from moderate to high levels of stress and 44% of adults surveyed disclosed that their stress levels have increased over the last 5 years?

In 2010, Norman Anderson, CEO of American Psychological Association said:

America is at a critical crossroads when it comes to stress and our health.

Managing stress is crucial more than ever for our survival.

We are living in a Covid-19 world and it has caused chaos.

I worked in the financial services industry for over 10 years before changing my career to becoming a health coach.

My last year of employment was incredibly stressful, took a physical toll on me and I lost 10 pounds.

The morning commute left me in a state of nervousness and I dreaded taking the elevator up to the office.

I couldn’t wait until my lunch hour arrived so I could get out of that toxic environment, even if it was a short break.

The pay was good but not worth my sanity, so I resigned.

I wish I knew back then what I know now about stress and ways for managing stress effectively.

Researchers have said for years that stress is bad for us and we must reduce it for the good of our health.

I agree with the latter. 

I’m not saying that stress isn’t bad because it’s dangerous if left unchecked. But what if we could change this narrative and turn stress around to our advantage instead?

Are you stressed out right now?

Coronavirus is a major stressor for most of us.

But what if you could manage stress, turn it around and experience it as a challenge and not be fearful of it?

You definitely can!

But first, let’s talk about what stress is, some causes and the 3 stage process your body goes through when encountered with stress.

What is stress?

Stress can be defined as a response to a physical, emotional or mental pressure that results in chemical changes in your body that can increase your heart rate and blood pressure.

What causes stress?

Situations or events such as relationship problems with your bae, death of a parent or a nasty divorce can cause a negative stress response.

Stress can also trigger a response to a positive event such as planning for a wedding with your soon to be mother-in-law, a job promotion with bigger responsibilities, or a new baby that continues to cry on and off all night.

What are the 3 stages of general adaptation syndrome?

In 1956, Dr. Hans Selye, a world-renowned endocrinologist who studied stress on the human body and regarded as the ‘father’ in stress research, concluded stress is a defensive mechanism with three stages and if prolonged can cause disease.

He called this general adaptation syndrome (GAS) which is the three-stage process that describes the physiological changes the body goes through when under stress.

Alarm Stage

alarm clock,

Alarm is the first stage in GAS. When you’re in a stressful situation, your body enters the fight-or-flight response. Your brain senses something is wrong or there’s a perceived threat. Your heartbeat increases and the cortisol in your body goes off the charts.

Resistance Stage

At the resistance stage, your body slowly repairs itself by lowering levels of cortisol, your heart rate and your blood pressure. But your body stays on high alert for a while.

If you deescalate the stress, your body then continues to further decrease your blood pressure and heart rate and returns to normal pre stress levels.

But a situation may occur where you can’t overcome the stress. Your body stays on high alert and it adapts to this higher stress level. As a result, your body will do things you’re not aware of to cope. If this stage goes on for too long, it can lead to the exhaustion stage.

GAS stress model
Google image

Exhaustion Stage

The last stage of GAS is chronic stress draining most of the strength in your body to the point you no longer have the energy to fight stress.

Some symptoms in this stage are:

  • fatigue
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • burnout
  • irritable
  • frustrated
  • poor concentration

As a result, some of these effects can severely compromise your immune system.

Stress and pain perception

A 2015 study showed that stress can strengthen pain perception which results in either stress-induced analgesia (inability to feel pain) or stress-induced hyperalgesia (abnormally heightened sensitivity to pain).

We have built in mechanisms to deal with stress and we can either respond positively or negatively to it.

But how you internalize stress can not only determine a negative or positive response, but your coping strategies and how well you can adapt to it.

Psychological pain is another factor that influences the direction of pain perception (ability to see, hear or be more aware of the pain).

What are the effects of stress on the body?

girl looking out window

Chronic stress is constant over-activation of the stress response over a long period.

Some effects of long-term stress on your body:

Stress affects your heart

Elevated blood sugar levels and blood pressure are two contributing factors in developing heart disease.

When constantly under stress, some people deal with it in unhealthy ways such as smoking, excessive drinking, and eating junk food.

All of this can add up to damage to your heart because stress hormones increase your heart rate, constrict your blood vessels and damage your artery wall resulting in your poor heart working harder than a racehorse.

Stress can increase your weight

If you find yourself in a stressful situation, you may overeat. You do so because your body goes into the fight-or-flight response (like those castaways on the show Survivor).

You’ll overeat because your body thinks you’ve used calories to deal with your stress, but you haven’t.

Cortisol (the stress hormone) levels increase and can turn overeating into a habit.

Higher cortisol levels lead to higher insulin levels, your blood sugar level drops, and you crave sugary and fatty food.

Stress can cause disease

Stress can have disastrous effects on your body. 

Research conducted at Carnegie Mellon University found that chronic psychological stress contributes to the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response.

Psychological stress can be:

  • emotional stress such as resentment and fear
  • cognitive stress such as overload, worry and guilt
  • perceptual stress such as beliefs, stories and world views

According to Sheldon Cohen, the lead researcher of the Carnegie Mellon University study:

When under stress, cells of the immune system are unable to respond to hormonal control, and consequently, produce levels of inflammation that promote disease. Because inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders, this model suggests why stress impacts them as well.

How do I know if I’m stressed?

question mark

Stress can affect all areas of life, emotions, behavior and physical health.

Symptoms of stress can fall into 4 categories:

Physical

  • low energy, headaches, insomnia (not a complete list)

Emotional 

  • low self-esteem, feeling overwhelmed and avoiding other people

Cognitive 

  • constant worrying, racing thoughts, inability to focus

Behavioral 

  • changes in appetite and increase in the use of drugs and alcohol

How do you make stress work for you?

Stress is an ugly beast and can cause health and emotional problems.

Using any of these 5 strategies can help with managing stress:

1.Create a future memory with visualization

Visualization is a powerful stress coping strategy.

Does standing up in front of your work colleagues to give a presentation stress you out because you’re hoping your swollen knees won’t mess up your concentration?

When you begin to think about an upcoming stressful situation or event, use a mind based approach by imagining how you want the stressful situation to go. 

1. Visualize the situation. Think about the room. What does it smell like? Who is there with you? What are you wearing? 

2.Visualize the approach. How do you want to start the experience?

3.Visualize yourself in action. What is one thing that you want to do in the meeting? What can you control?

Kelly McGonigal, Stanford University psychologist and author of The Upside to Stress says:

The key to a powerful visualization is to make those opening moments feel as real as possible. Each time you imagine yourself approaching the stressful situation with confidence, you teach your brain and body that this is a situation you can handle.

McGonigal changed her views of stress and shares why she believes stress can be used to our advantage in her highly viewed TedX talk:

 

I highly recommend picking up her book if you’d like to dive deeper into the findings of her research of managing stress.

The Upside to Stress book by Kelly McGonigal

2.Change your mindset about stress

Being constantly stressed can put you into an early grave.

In a study of 30,000 Americans, those that had the highest levels of stress were 43% more likely to die only if they perceived stress was bad for their health.

In contrast, those who experienced high stress but didn’t view it as harmful were the least likely to die compared to any other group in the study — including people who experienced very little stress.

3.Acknowledge your stress

See and acknowledge stress because doing so moves your stress response from your amygdala (your brain center of emotion and fear) to the prefrontal cortex of your brain (executive control and planning). This process takes you from a position of fear to a place of being thoughtful and deliberate.

Being aware of your stress also helps with ironic mental processing. 

When you’re trying not to think about something stressful, such as the stress your upcoming work presentation is causing you, your brain tries to help you not think about the presentation by checking in to see if you’re thinking about the thing that you’re trying not to think about. 

Your brain fires off thoughts like ” are you thinking about the presentation?” and that of course makes you think about the presentation!

By not acknowledging your stressors, it’s creating a process that’s counterproductive and uses up an enormous amount of mental energy because you’re trying to suppress these thoughts.

4.Helping other people may help lower your stress

helping hands, managing stress

A study conducted by Ansell and Co at Yale School of Medicine asked participants to use an app to track stressful experiences and acts of kindness daily over a 2 week period.

Acts of kindness included opening a door for someone, providing directions or holding an elevator. These behaviors are known as “prosocial”.

At the end of the study, researchers concluded that helping people out can actually make you feel better and reduce your stress.

It’s not just whether you’re more altruistic than the next person.., it’s that being more altruistic than usual can change your experience from day to day. It’s all about doing more than your average.

Emily Ansell

5.Create a self care routine

Practicing self care is an amazing strategy for managing stress and one of the easiest things you can do. Unfortunately, few of us do so.

It’s very important to make time for yourself because a self care routine is not only beneficial for your mind but for your body too.

A self care routine can be:

  • cognitive: meditation, mindfulness and reading
  • environmental: music, nature, pets, spa
  • physical: deep breathing, relaxation and yoga

One of my favorite tools for self care is meditation. You can start out with 5 minutes and work your way up to a longer time. Some benefits include:

  • increasing your self awareness
  • focusing on the present moment
  • reducing negative emotions

Try this 7-minute meditation video from one of my favorite yoga Youtube channels to start your day off right.

Conclusion

Stress is necessary for our survival in order to protect us from situations that can harm us. But if stress is not managed and permitted to take over our lives, it becomes a chronic problem that can lead to disease.

Using visualization, mindset, awareness, helping others, and following a self care routine are effective strategies in managing chronic pain.

I hope you found this post useful and and if so, please share it with a friend whose a bit stressed out!

Need some help managing your chronic pain? Book a complimentary discovery call with me to learn how.

Related Post: The Beginner’s Guide to Chronic Pain Management Techniques

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