Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Manage Your Stress

Stress is a natural part of life. Some types of stress are good while others are not.

Most people think of stress as being caused by an external event in their lives but in reality, it’s the way we react to the external events that produces stress. Each person’s tolerance level is different so situations that are highly stressful for one person may not be so for another.

It’s very common for people to feel stress around the holidays.

This article looks at how to deal with unhealthy stress. Part I gives some helpful tips while Part II gives specific ways to use deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation for stress relief.

First, you must be able to identify when unhealthy stress is occurring. Signs of stress fall into four categories: cognitive (thoughts), emotional (feelings), physical and behavioral.

When stressed you may experience cognitive changes such as the inability to concentrate, poor judgment, forgetfulness or mental disorganization, self criticism and a fear of failure; emotional changes such as irritability, feeling overwhelmed, tense, anxious or moody; physical changes such as headache, weight gain or loss, insomnia, back or neck problems, fatigue, more colds & infections than usual; or behavioral changes such as eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little, teeth grinding, procrastination, increased alcohol use or acting impulsively.

So how do you successfully manage stress? Here are several proven stress management strategies:

1. Have a strong social support network
A support network can be family or friends with whom you can share your feelings, discuss problems and seek advice. Your support network must be individuals who you trust and who genuinely care about you. Not all relationships are supportive and those that are not can create more stress in your life.

2. Identify unnecessary stress
Know how much you’re able to handle at any given time and learn to say ‘no’ when another work project, chore or errand will push you beyond your limit.

Avoid people who bring stress into your life. Limit the amount of time you spend with those who are not supportive or continually cause you stress.

Avoid situations that make you anxious or tense. Find alternative ways to handle them.

Look at all the things you do during the day and re-evaluate them. If you’re stressed because you have too much on your plate, eliminate those tasks that aren’t absolutely essential.

3. Manage Your Thoughts
Often, without realizing it, we give ourselves messages that are inaccurate and those can increase our stress levels. When you can identify your self-defeating thoughts & messages, you can consciously change your cognitive (thought) patterns & lessen the stress.

For example, many of us feel we ‘should’ accomplish certain things during the holiday season. This type of thought creates unrealistic expectations and sets us up for failure.

Other times we give more importance to an event than it warrants. For example, if ‘the Christmas tree isn't completely decorated’, we tell ourselves the entire holiday will be ruined.

And sometimes we generalize one problem to the rest of our lives. For example, if we don’t do well on a project, we feel we’re a failure at everything in life.

When you have negative thoughts about yourself, your body responds as if it’s in a stressful situation. When you think good things about yourself, you’re more likely to feel good. Once you realize the negative messages you give yourself, you can begin to change your thought process by reframing those thoughts, refuting them or stopping them.

To reframe a thought, try to find something positive in a negative event. To refute a thought, look for evidence that proves it incorrect. To stop a negative thought, yell ‘STOP’ (in your mind) as soon as you realize it’s occurring.

Try to be positive and give yourself messages about how well you can cope rather than telling yourself how horrible things are. Think of your stressors as challenges you can handle instead of obstacles that can’t be overcome. With practice and repetition you’ll begin to give yourself more positive messages and that will, in turn, decrease your stress.

People who manage their stress well tend to have an optimistic view of situations. For example, stress-resistant individuals focus on immediate issues rather than the big picture, they assume a problem is temporary, they credit themselves when things go right and they don’t take blame personally when things go wrong.

4. Manage the Situation
Poor time management causes stress. Try to plan ahead and be realistic about how long a project will take. Most projects take longer than you expect so allow extra time.

Express your feelings instead of keeping them to yourself. Keeping feelings inside creates anger, frustration & resentment which results in more stress.

Be willing to compromise. Not everything has to be perfect – not people, jobs or projects. If you’re willing to compromise, stress levels will decrease and the end result will be just as satisfactory as if you tried to make it perfect.

Try to find a balance between work, family life, social activities, daily responsibilities and doing something for yourself. Be sure to have some down time in your daily schedule even if you have to schedule it in.

Prioritize your ‘to do’ list. Put the most important things at the top of your list and work on those first. If there’s something you don’t like to do, do it first and get it out of the way so you don’t end up procrastinating. You’ll enjoy the rest of the day as well!

Break large projects into small, manageable tasks. It can be overwhelming to tackle a large project and you may feel you’ll never have enough uninterrupted time to work on it. By breaking the project into smaller, time-limited tasks, you’ll be able to meet your goals and feel a sense of accomplishment.

Don’t micro-manage. See if there is any work you currently do that can be delegated to others. There are only so many hours in the day. Your time should be spent on those things that only you can do. If others are able to help out, delegate the task. Each project that you delegate will reduce your stress level.

5. Adjust Your Attitude
It’s important to accept that there are some things in life that will not change and some that you cannot control. While being unable to change or control an event, you can change the way you think about the events & the way you respond to them.

Instead of stressing out over situations you can’t control, realize that you can change the way you think about them. Look for the upside. A major obstacle or challenge in life can present you with an opportunity for personal growth.

Learn to forgive. No one is perfect and neither are you. If you can accept that people make mistakes, you can learn to forgive & that will allow you to move on leaving negativity behind.

If you demand perfection, you’re setting yourself up for failure and stress. Try to adjust your standards so they’re reasonable. Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to be ‘good enough.’

If you’re able to change your attitude or expectations you’ll be able to take charge of the situation and lessen the stress. Look at the big picture and ask yourself if the stress you’re feeling now will matter next week, next month or next year. If not, you can focus your energy elsewhere.

6. Diet and Exercise
Junk food and refined sugars leave you feeling sluggish and low on energy so keep them out of your diet as much as possible. This is especially important during the holiday season when sweet goodies are everywhere you turn. A healthy diet promotes health and reduces stress.

Exercise also plays a key role in reducing the effects of stress. Exercise is known to increase the body’s production of endorphins while improving the brain’s oxygen supply and releasing tension from muscles. Physical activity can relieve that uptight feeling and leave you relaxed and energized.

7. Relaxation Techniques
There are a number of relaxation techniques reduce stress. These include deep breathing, muscle relaxation exercises, guided imagery, massage, yoga & tai chi.

Deep Breathing
Stress can cause your breathing to become shallow. Shallow breathing causes less oxygen to get into your bloodstream which makes you feel tense, short of breath and anxious. Deep breathing encourages oxygen intake and helps you relax.

Sit and place your hands on your lower stomach. Inhale deeply through your nose letting your abdomen expand. Hold your breath for a few seconds then exhale slowly through your mouth. As you exhale, feel your abdomen flattening.

To be Continued!
Part II is coming ….

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