Stress Management

What is stress?

Stress is any demand placed on your body or change that you must adjust to. Life is full of experiences that involve change - making new friends, leaving high school and entering college, starting a new job, moving to a new state. Having a certain amount of stress means you are involved in life and care about doing your best. Stress can result from both positive and negative events in our lives, such as falling in love or the ending of a relationship. We can't avoid stress completely, but we can learn how to manage it. Let's look at how our bodies respond when we are experiencing a stressful situation.

The Fight-or-Flight Response

Our bodies are equipped with an innate stress alarm that allows us to respond effectively when we are faced with a challenging situation. The body releases hormones that prepare us to either confront the situation or escape from it - fight or flight. In this state you may feel a number of physical changes, including rapidly beating heart, racing mind, tense muscles, clammy hands, and churning stomach. Once the situation has been dealt with, the stress alarm is reversed and our body functions return to normal. In society today, we frequently deal with chronic stressors, such as continual fear or worry about our future. If we don't find ways to shut down the stress alarm and thus these physical changes, our bodies suffer. The accumulated toll on our bodies may come in the form of frequent headaches, menstrual irregularities, recurring diarrhea, high blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, and asthma.

Managing Stress

So how can we protect our bodies from the toll associated with chronic stress? One way is to acknowledge that we are stressed and learn to recognize the signs of stress. Read the following list of symptoms that can be signs of stress.

Headache  Sleeping too much/not enough
Stomachache Overeating/undereating
Tiredness Diminished initiative
Frequent crying  Being prone to accidents
Irritability  Being preoccupied
Forgetfulness Susceptibility to minor illness

If you responded with a "yes" to any of these symptoms, read on!

Chill Out!-Relaxation Skills

What do you do on a daily basis that that calms and quiets your mind and body? Do you enjoy listening to music, an easy jog, yoga stretches, or meditation? All of these activities can shut down the fight-or-flight response and have a positive effect on your health and your handling of life's stressful events. Try these mini relaxation exercises. Just a few minutes of relaxation each day can have a profound effect on your body and your overall health.

Take a deep breath. As you slowly exhale, let your eyes close. To relax a little more, think "calm" with each exhalation.

Have a good stretch. Clasp your hands behind your neck. Gently lean to your left until you feel a gentle stretch up your right side. Hold for a count of five. Repeat with your right side.

Take a deep breath. As you let it out, let your eyes close. Take a few moments to quiet yourself. Then recreate a favorite scene that is associated with calm, peaceful feelings. Go there in your mind for 15 seconds to a minute.

Raise your shoulders as if trying to touch your ears with them. Then, move your shoulders back; then let them drop. Up, back, down, and around. Do this about five times.

Look for the funny and silly things in life and laugh!

Changing the Way You Think About Stress

Sometimes how we think about what is happening to us can make our stress worse. We create stress in our own minds. If you think something is going to be awful, it will be. If you say to yourself, "I'll never get through this," you probably won't. These are called automatic negative thoughts or ANTS. ANTS either totally ignore reality or distort what is really happening. How can you get rid of your ANTS? Try to look at reality by asking yourself, "where is the evidence for my negative thought?" Then shift your thinking over to something more positive, more based on reality. So rather than saying, "This is awful" try saying, "This is a problem, and let's see what I can do about it." Rather than an attitude of, "I'll never get through this," replace your thought with, "This is going to take some time, but I'll make it."

Look for a Solution

Another way to cope with stress is to view the stressor as a problem to be solved, rather than a personal threat. Problem-solving consists of several steps. Here are some tips for becoming a better problem solver.
Define the problem you want to solve.
Distinguish between the changeable and unchangeable aspects of the situation.
Set realistic, concrete goals.
Generate a wide range of alternatives.
Imagine and consider how others might deal with this problem.
Evaluate the pros and cons of each alternative.
Try out the most acceptable solution.
Expect some failures, but reward yourself for having tried.
Reconsider the original problem in light of the attempt at problem-solving.
Does the problem look different?
Can you see anything positive about the situation?

Take care of yourself

Let's not forget the basics. In order to cope well with stress you need to take care of your health. Eating a nutritious diet, getting a good night's sleep, and exercising regularly are all very important for maintaining a healthy body and a positive outlook on life. Having a good support network of family and friends also helps you in managing life's stressful events. Starting these healthy patterns now will serve you well throughout life as you pursue your goals.

Amy Anderson, Counselor
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos, New Mexico