Stress is a poison that can kill you both metaphorically and literally. For example, one recent study conducted by Dr Elizabeth Mostofsky of Harvard Medical School found that the first 24 hours following the loss of a spouse are associated with a staggering 21-fold increased risk of a heart attack.
Stress is often related to life events, that is, important events such as losing a loved one, going through a divorce, losing a job, or falling ill. Life events can certainly be very stressful, but most of the stress that a person experiences on a daily basis comes from seemingly smaller ‘background’ stressors such as constant deadlines, tense relationships, painful memories (especially memories of childhood physical or sexual abuse, loss, or abandonment), isolation, discrimination, poor housing, or unpaid bills.
The amount of stress that a person can handle is largely related to his or her thinking and coping styles and to his or her social skills. People with positive coping and thinking styles and good social skills are better able to diffuse stressful situations—for example, by doing something about them, putting them into their proper context, or simply talking about them and ‘sharing the pain’.
The first step in dealing with stress is to be able to recognize its warning signs.
Emotional symptoms: Anxiety, fear, irritability, anger, resentment, loss of confidence
Cognitive symptoms: Difficulty concentrating or making decisions, confusion, repetitive or circular thoughts
Physical symptoms: Dry mouth, tremor, sweatiness, pounding or racing heartbeat, chest tightness, difficulty breathing, muscle tension, headache, dizziness
Behavioural symptoms: Nervous habits such as nail biting or pacing, drinking more coffee or alcohol, eating too much or too little, sleeping poorly, acting brashly or unreasonably, losing your temper, being inconsiderate to others, neglecting your responsibilities
It can be a good idea to write down how you feel when you become stressed. Next, make a list of situations in which you feel that way. For each situation on your list, think about one or more strategies that you can use to avoid it or make it less stressful. For example, if one of your stressful situations is arguing with a friend (let us call her Jane), some of your strategies might include
1. Talk to Jane about how I am feeling and try to resolve matters
2. See Jane less often
3. Avoid bringing up certain subjects with Jane
4. Walk away from arguments with Jane
5. Use deep breathing
There are also some more general strategies that you can use for reducing stress. One common and effective strategy, called ‘deep breathing’, involves modifying and regulating your breathing:
—Breathe in through your nose and hold the air in for several seconds.
—Then purse your lips and gradually let the air out, making sure that you let out as much air as you can.
—Continue doing this until you are feeling more relaxed.
A second strategy that is often used together with deep breathing involves relaxation exercises:
—Lying on your back, tighten the muscles in your toes for 10 seconds and then relax them completely.
—Do the same for your feet, ankles, and calves, gradually working your way up your body until you reach your head and neck.
Other general strategies that you can use for reducing stress include listening to classical music (for example, Bach or Chopin), taking a hot bath, reading a book or surfing the internet, calling up or meeting a friend, practising yoga or meditation, and playing sports.
Lifestyle changes can help both to reduce stress and to increase your ability to cope with stress. Lifestyle changes to consider include:
—Simplifying your life, even if this means doing less or doing only one thing at a time.
—Having a schedule and keeping to it.
—Getting enough sleep.
—Exercising regularly (for example, walking, swimming, yoga).
—Going for a weekly massage.
—Eating a balanced diet.
—Restricting your intake of coffee or alcohol.
—Taking time out to do the things that you enjoy.
—Connecting with others and sharing your thoughts and feelings with them.
—Changing your thinking style: having realistic expectations, reframing problems, expressing your thoughts and feelings, maintain a sense of humour.
These lifestyle changes are not only useful for managing stress, but also for improving your physical health and overall quality of life. Though individually small and simple, their cumulative effect can make a big difference to your wellbeing.
If reducing stress continues to be a problem for you, discuss the issue with a healthcare professional and be sure to ask about relaxation training.
Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.
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