We need to learn to manage stress differently from our ancestors. It is quite truthfully and literally a matter of life and death!
Know your enemy as you know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat. - Chinese proverb
To manage stress in ourselves, we must first learn to identify what it is and how it makes us feel. Knowing the physiological nature of stress can help to us identify the specific symptoms we may have even if those symptoms are not causing any problems. Know the enemy.
As explained in the previous section, when we are stressed we can expect a number of things to happen almost instantly-within milliseconds:
-The heart beats more quickly to get ready to "fight or flee".
-Blood pressure increases to supply the brain with extra blood.
-Vision changes as the pupils constrict to increase visual acuity.
-The muscles tense to get ready to spring into action.
-Hearing changes to allow you to hear deeper sounds more easily.
-Digestion slows or stops to provide extra blood for the muscles of the body.
-Blood is directed away from the surface of the skin to the body core, sometimes causing people to
-Concentration is narrowed to allow you to focus on the perceived immediate threat.
-The brain begins a faster thinking process involving less logic and more instinct.
Each of the responses above was programmed to increase our survival probability assuming that there would be a physical response. If there is to be no physical response to burn up the energy generated by the stressor then each of the responses above can have negative health consequences.
How can we tell if we are stressed? Check to see if any of these reactions sound familiar. Focus on what is causing the reaction.
-"I feel a pounding pulse in my chest. Sometimes my heart feels like it is beating so loud I think
others might hear it." The heart beats more quickly to get ready to "fight or flee"
-"I can feel the veins in my head filling. Sometimes you can see them pulse." Blood pressure
increases to supply the brain with extra blood.
-"It is harder to read without changing the light." Vision changes as the pupils constrict to increase
-"My head aches and my back and neck muscles get sore and stiff." The muscles tense to get
ready to spring into action.
-"I never heard what they said." Hearing changes to allow you to hear deeper sounds more easily.
-"I feel a knot in my stomach. Sometimes I get indigestion." Digestion slows or stops to provide extra
blood for the muscles of the body.
-"I feel cold. Sometimes I shiver." Blood is directed away from the surface of the skin to the body
-"I just can't focus. It seems like I can't think." Concentration is narrowed to allow you to focus more
closely on the perceived immediate threat.
-"I guess I just didn't think before I acted." The brain begins a faster thinking process involving less
logic and more instinct.
Each of the symptoms described above can be directly linked to the physiological response of the body to a stressor. It is easy to see how the body's response is linked to a survival response developed over thousands of generations. The first challenge was to recognize stress as an issue. The present challenge is to recognize a stress response in ourselves. There is actually a chain of predictable conditions, behaviors, and consequences of responses that occur in stressful situations.
Conditions are the things causing stress such as the environment, the events, the people, the places, and locations in which we find ourselves-situations and circumstances as they occur around us. These stressful conditions inspire certain behaviors.
Behaviors are the response we have to our stressors. Behaviors include the biochemical and physiological changes we discussed above. They can also include our general perception and awareness, the emotions we feel, the way we sit or stand, the manner in which we convey feelings through body language or behavior. Some other behaviors, which can be identified as responses to stress stimuli include things like a change in the intake of food, alcohol or other drugs. Any and all of these behaviors result in consequences.
Consequences of the response can be healthy or not depending on the appropriateness of the behavior. When the response is appropriate it is helpful and healthful. An inappropriate response is not helpful of healthful. An inappropriate but perfectly natural stress response can lead to stress related disorders, illness and even death.
Written as a formula the equation might look like this:
Conditions + Behaviors = Consequences
Our goal for health and happiness for long life, and success in whatever way we are going to define happiness and health will require us to change the condition, the behaviors or the consequences. All three are possible to change. The trick is how to do it. Often the best part of a trick, is knowing the trick!
I can decide to reduce the amount of stress in my life by changing those conditions I find stressful.
I can decide to reduce the amount of stress in my life by changing my behavior in response to those conditions. I can do this by changing my perception of stressful events, by changing my attitude, or by altering my patterns of behavior, and by learning about managing stress.
Finally, I can reduce the amount of stress in my life by managing the consequences of my behaviors by better understanding what my response to stress looks like. In that way I can recognize that the consequences are symptoms of stress. This understanding will lead to my changing conditions or behaviors.
Once we know what our personal reactions to stress look like, we learn how to manage it by:
1. Avoiding situations that stress us.
2. Managing stress in situations we can't avoid.
3. Managing the consequences of stress we can't avoid.
If we are able to avoid stressful situations, we will have then avoided the resultant stress. Good Job! We need to do nothing else. If, on the other hand, we are not able to avoid stressful situations, we will need to learn to manage the stress. To this end we offer three stress management strategies. They are :
1. Stress busters - for the immediate alleviation of temporary and perhaps necessary or important feelings of stress.
2. Long Term Preventative - The appropriate long-range preventative and curative interventions to minimize or reduce levels of stress.
3. Interventions - When all else fails!