Stress Management, Part One - Introduction

“Of Course I’m Stressed… What’s Your Point?”
Stress has been a hot topic in the media and in general conversation for years now.  It is often couched in the question of why we are all so stressed when the logistics of life are supposed to be easier than at any other time in human history.  In the crush of trying to keep all the balls in the air, it can be easy to brush off the issue of stress, saying there just isn’t time to deal with it.  This article is one in a series on stress management, in which it is hoped that you may become more aware of the negative impact of stress in your life, and gain some new tools for managing it more effectively.
It’s a no-brainer to acknowledge that excessive stress is a bad thing.  It’s obvious because when we are overstressed, we are more prone to irritability, depression, feeling overwhelmed, and feeling like life is a gigantic, impossible to-do list.  You may also have heard or read that chronic stress overload is associated with a variety of physical ailments, from increased susceptibility to the common cold to outright heart attacks.  What we don’t hear as much about, however, is the cost of stress in terms of one’s overall life experience, especially the parts involving relationships with others.
Every moment spent feeling overstressed is a moment lost from the only shot at this life experience that you will ever have; our time here is an absolutely finite resource.  The satisfaction we feel about this life when we look back on it in the end will be based on how much of the time we spent feeling contentment, connection, and purpose.  Believe it or not, some level of stress is required for you to attain and appreciate all these things, but since there are so few people with inadequate stress in their lives, we won’t go there right now.  If you are like most of us, stress is present in abundance and if left unchecked, will destroy contentment, fray connections, and make you lose sight of your real purpose.
Obviously, feeling overwhelmed and irritable is the antithesis of contentment.  But consider how it changes you in your relationships.  When you feel this way, are you your best loving self with the people you care about?  Are you always able to think carefully before speaking rather than blurting out something hurtful and destructive?  Are you able to fully enjoy being with your loved ones?  Do you think you are enjoyable to be with?  When you feel over-stressed, are you able to keep your eye on the goals that really make your life matter, or do you get lost in just trying to keep it all together for one more day?  Do you regularly notice entire days (or weeks) going by when you can’t remember any moment of inner peace?  If your answers to any of these questions disturb you, maybe now you are beginning to see why you need to actively manage the stress in your life.
Perhaps you’re now thinking, “Great, now I have to manage my stress, on top of everything else I have to do!”  Take a slow, deep breath, and please keep reading.  No, life satisfaction does not require perfect control of stress.  The best any of us can do is to do the best we can, regardless of how it may stack up next to some perceived ideal standard.  Focussing on what is wrong will probably leave you feeling guilty or helpless about being stressed.  You will feel more positive and hopeful if you start looking for small, manageable changes you can make that will reduce the stress you have, and increase your tolerance for the stress you cannot avoid.  You can’t make it perfect, but you can make it better than it is right now, and that’s a win.
What follow are some practical, real-world strategies for making your life a healthier place for you to be.  It all boils down to two critical ideas.  First, you need to take the best care you can of your whole self, physical and psychological.  Second, it is essential to maintain some semblance of balance in your life. 
Taking Care of Your Physical Self
You probably know all the basics regarding physical wellness: balanced nutrition, regular exercise, adequate sleep and rest.  In fact, if you are a parent or caregiver, you probably make sure that the people you care for are as physically healthy as possible.  Do you practice what you preach?  If you don’t, do you make the excuse that you don’t have the time?  Well guess what?  Stress is a very demanding physical experience, and if you don’t take care of your physical self, you could eventually break down, become ill and be unable to keep up with everything anyway. 
If you have responsibility for the care of children or other relatives, you may be something of a role model in this regard.  If the people you care for see your prioritizing of physical wellness in yourself, they are more likely to cooperate with your attempts to protect their health.  Okay, so you can’t sit down to three perfectly balanced meals each day, but maybe you can try to at least eat something from each of the four food groups during the course of the day.  No time or money to go to the gym five times a week?  No problem; if you simply get out for a 15-20 minute walk on most days, you will be way ahead.  You probably don’t have time for yoga, but maybe you can find 10-15 minutes per day to do some deep breathing for relaxation. 
The idea is that there are many relatively small, free changes you can make, any of which will help you deal more effectively with stress.  The more you do, the better off you will be.  If you feel like there isn't much wiggle room in your life, then start small, but do something.  If you make only one or two small changes and maintain them consistently, you will still be healthier and stronger than you are now.
Taking Care of The Rest of You
We started with physical wellness strategies for two reasons: first, it’s the most important place to start because your body is where you live, and second, everybody -- yes, even you -- can make healthy changes in this area right now.  When it comes to maintaining your psychological health, the changes usually involve more time, and perhaps even a reorganization of how you live.  Yes, these changes take more of a commitment, but they pay off many times over.
One of the most potent stress relievers is to maintain contact with someone you can trust and really talk to (and, hopefully, do fun things with sometimes).  It also helps to keep yourself connected to the outside world through a community or social group.  It is very helpful to have at least one interest or activity that allows you to just be yourself, experience yourself, and experience the activity.  This could be anything at all: exercise, a sport, a hobby, art, whatever.  The only requirements are that you enjoy it, it’s accessible to you enough of the time, and it helps you get your mind off your responsibilities for a while.  A healthy activity will leave you feeling stronger, more relaxed, recharged, more focussed, and more able to manage the daily juggling act.   
Keeping Your Life Balanced
Remember the concept of balance when it comes to keeping yourself healthy.  Picture how a chair stands up on a number of legs.  If it has only one or two legs, it won’t stand at all, and if it has only three or four legs, it falls as soon as one leg breaks.  Now think of your life, with each major area of your life as one leg of a chair.  Possible "legs" include job, family relationships, friendships, hobbies, spirituality, religious involvement, community involvement, pets, health, etc.   The idea is to get a number of “legs” in place so that your “chair” is good and stable, and so that, when something is wrong with one or two of the legs, there are still enough others in place to support the chair. 
It's also important to balance your energy flow.  Like a checking account that fails if you don’t make deposits, or a car that quits if you never put gas in it, you can only keep doing what is important to you (and enjoying it) if you regularly replenish yourself.  You can do this through connections and activity that allow you to experience joy, peace, rest, and emotional space.
There are many, many ways to reduce the stress of your life, and this article is meant to provide some general ideas for getting started.  If you are interested in more specifics, be sure to check out the other two articles in this series, It’s All in Your Head, and Creating Better Connections with Your Loved Ones

Copyright © 1998, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.

Related articles:

Self-Help for Intense Anxiety

Sleep Well -- Self-Help for Insomnia

Stress Management Series, Part Two: Creating Better Connections With Your Loved Ones

Stress Management Series, Part Three:  It's All In Your Head


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