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Stress Less

Reduce Stress

Think of what situations cause you the most stress. Why do those situations trigger your stress reaction? Could you handle those same situations without feeling stress?

After giving this some thought, read on below.

Top Causes of Stress

Somewhat surprisingly, stress can come from both negative and positive situations. These situations usually contain a degree of novelty and unpredictability. They threaten your sense of competency as a person and your ability to control the outcome. This is why the joyous experience of having a baby or acquiring a new pet is also highly stressful.

There are two types of stressors which cause your body to release stress hormones. 

Physiological or physical stressors put a strain on your body from pain, injury, illness or environmental factors such as very hot or cold temperatures.

Psychological stressors come in two categories.

Absolute stressors affect everyone. They include life-threatening situations such as earthquakes, pandemics, or even witnessing a horrible accident. 

Relative stressors are personal and subjective. You will likely find some of these stressful and others not so much. They include:

  • Public speaking
  • Conflict and disagreements among friends, family or co-workers
  • Caring for those who are sick, injured or unwell
  • Getting a promotion at work
  • Insufficient skill and training to complete a task you consider important
  • Procrastinating, knowing you should be doing something more important with your life
  • Time pressure to finish
  • Driving in traffic on unfamiliar roads
  • Paying taxes or taking an exam 
  • Expecting the worst possible outcome from an upcoming event
  • Watching a scary or suspenseful movie or your favorite sports team in a playoff game
  • Caring about success in your endeavors and the perceptions of those around you

Relative stress is, quite frankly, what you make of it. You can learn to control and minimize it with the right skills and training. With the right mindset and preparation, all of these activities can be handled without triggering your stress reaction. Before we get to that, you should be aware of the physical symptoms of stress.

Top Symptoms of Chronic Stress

Stress and tension can impact your body, your mood and your behavior. People interpret and respond to situations differently.

Your body may experience:

  • Eye twitching
  • Headaches
  • Tension and pain in your chest and shoulders
  • Elevated pressure in your neck
  • Fatigue
  • Upset stomach
  • Lack of sex drive
  • Difficulty sleeping

You may feel more emotional:

  • Irritability and anger
  • Sadness and depression
  • Restless and anxious
  • Overwhelmed and unable to focus

You may seek coping mechanisms:

  • Over or under-eating and ceasing to exercise
  • Angry outbursts / physical violence
  • Substance abuse
  • Social withdrawal

None of these are good for you. Frequent stress can lead to major health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and an impaired immune system; which then reduce your happiness, healthspan and longevity.

Top 10 Stress Management Techniques

  1. Sleep well by getting consistent, high quality sleep so you have the mental energy to cope with tomorrow’s issues. To sleep well during stressful times, create a relaxation routine to allow your mind to unwind and stop thinking about the potentially stressful situation(s). This can be hard to do. Focus on thinking happy thoughts. Imagine walking around in a favorite place until you fall asleep.
  2. Practice 5-10 minutes of meditation or deep breathing relaxation techniques, either as your first activity in the morning or last before you go to bed. 
  3. Get a regular massage, practice yoga or stretch out with your favorite flexibility and pliability routine.
  4. Understand your stress. Since relative stressors are self-inflicted, can you evaluate the situation, recognize it and come up with a mindset of not allowing it to stress you out? 
    1. Much of self-inflicted stress comes from caring about people and outcomes. Caring is a good quality. Stress is not. How can you keep caring and let the stress reaction go away?
    2. Reassure yourself that you are doing the best you can with the situation. You may still fail or not achieve the outcome you desire. What can you do differently?
  5. Share your experience and confide in those you trust or at least write them down. Explain how you feel stressed because of the aspects of novelty, unpredictability, threat to your competence and lack of control.
  6. Is the situation causing your stress something worth doing? Is it something where, with your best effort, you can be successful? If not, why are you pushing that boulder up a hill? Find something else you care about with a better chance of success that fits with your skill set.
  7. If it is worth doing, but you don’t have the right skills or training and/or are under time pressure, ask those in charge for assistance or to re-allocate some of your tasks so the project can be successful. You are one person and can only accomplish so much. Be comfortable with that.
  8. Take frequent breaks from high pressure activity. Go for scenic walks or runs, lift weights, watch funny video clips, take a nap, read a book, listen to the brain.fm channel to get your mind right.
  9. Slow down and take back control of your breathing. Stand up straight. Raise your arms so your elbows are bent outside your body at shoulder height forming a 90 degree angle from your hands to your shoulders. Gradually bring your elbows backward until they create tension in your shoulders and back. Hold for 60 seconds, then release for 15 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times to reduce muscle tension.
  10. Smile, then smile even bigger. Yes, it turns out that smiling actually reduces stress. Find ways to appreciate the experience that would normally cause you stress. Emerge from it a stronger and more resilient person.

Of note, drinking more than one glass of alcohol followed by consuming a bag of chips and a pint of ice cream is not on this list. Tip #11: A balanced, nutritious, healthy diet is a much better way to avoid feeling stressed, but it can be very difficult to do make that good decision unless you follow tip #1 and get enough sleep.

Importance of Preventing Illness

Dr. Michael Roizen serves as the Chief Wellness Officer at the Cleveland Clinic. He leads the Clinic’s work in preventing illness and helping people live longer, healthier lives. As he notes, “We give people more time. Keeping people well, and enabling them to live their best lives, is not just my professional goal, it is my passion, my life’s work, and the passion of the Cleveland Clinic.”

Dr. Roizen notes that 84 percent of all healthcare costs are due to chronic disease and 75 percent of chronic diseases are driven by six measurable factors. In 2008, the Cleveland Clinic surveyed their 100,000 employees and dependents to see how they were doing on the six most important health factors;

  1. Blood pressure < 115/76 is optimal for longevity
  2. Body Mass Index < 25
  3. Fasting blood sugar < 104 mg/dl
  4. LDL cholesterol level < 100
  5. Not smoking, as measured by urine cotinine levels
  6. Unmanaged stress

Less than 5% of their employees and their families were doing well. In response, they instituted a voluntary healthy choice program with financial incentives to encourage positive behaviors on the six factors, plus seeing a primary care provider annually and staying up-to-date on immunizations. In under 10 years, after adjusting for the incentive payments, they saved $250 million dollars in healthcare costs and dramatically improved the lives of many employees and dependents. As an added bonus, the 62 percent of Clinic employees who voluntarily participate in the program have seen their healthcare costs and premiums decrease by $600 for individuals and $2,000 annually for families hitting these targets. Further, their improved health led to substantial reductions in unscheduled sick leave.

Conclusion

Thanks for reading. At the beginning of this article, we asked you to think through some situations which cause you stress. Can you now train yourself to think differently about them and avoid the tension? In new, unpredictable and uncontrollable situations, especially those which threaten your competency as a person, will you now recognize the increase in your stress level and flash your biggest smile? Then, laugh a bit with your understanding of why it might be a wee bit stressful before applying your favorite stress reduction techniques.

As your reward for focusing on your health and once you are safely vaccinated from COVID-19, treat yourself to a relaxing therapeutic massage.

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