We all experience stress. Although stress has a bad reputation, we actually need a certain amount of stress to keep us motivated. But when stress takes its toll on health, performance, and even relationships, it’s time to find ways to get rid of it.
The usual advice to get rid of stress is exercise, sleep well, meditate, etc. But the problem with this kind of advice is that it's hard work to take up these habits if you don’t already have them, and that it doesn’t address the main problem: how we actually react to stress.
Let’s take a look at other ways to change how we experience stress, but first let’s understand what happens to us when we stress out.
What causes stress?
When we think about stress, most things that come to mind are work, relationships (including professional ones), being too busy, financial problems, life changes. These are external factors that influence stress.
What many people aren’t aware of is that there are also internal factors that cause stress, for example pessimism, perfectionism, negative self-talk, unrealistic expectations or lack of assertiveness. The good news is that it’s a lot easier to control internal causes of stress than it is to control external ones.
What happens when we experience stress?
When we experience stress, our bodies release a rush of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that increase heart rate and blood pressure and stop digestion and the production of sex hormones. It all comes from our ancestors’ necessary reaction to danger - what we now refer to as the “fight or flight” response. After the release of this hormone cocktail, we can experience symptoms that we are aware of, for example, feeling upset, clenching our teeth, or having headaches.
Although we are aware of how we feel when we’re stressed out, there’s actually a lot going on in our bodies that we’re not aware of and that plays a big role in our health. It’s the long-term exposure to stress that can lead to serious problems, because chronic stress disrupts nearly every bodily system. It raises blood pressure, increases the risk of stroke and heart attack and it speeds up the aging process. It can even rewire the brain, making you more vulnerable to depression and anxiety.
Acute stress vs. chronic stress
Acute stress is short-term stress that is a response to a specific circumstance. Chronic stress is long-term stress that can derive from acute stress that sticks, or from a constant source of stress, an ongoing stressor like work overload, for example.
The thing is, our body doesn’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats. When we stress over the traffic jam, a busy schedule or a misunderstanding with a friend, our bodies react just as strongly as when we are under a life and death situation. And the more we experience acute stress, the more likely it is to turn into chronic stress. Those of us with more worries may have a stress response that is ‘on’ most of the time. The more your stress response is activated, the harder it is to shut it off.
How to handle stress differently
“It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it.”
Stress is the body’s reaction when we feel threatened, unsafe, confused and otherwise unhappy. But for such a commonly experienced and well-understood problem, we are doing a pretty bad job at dealing with it. Usual advice for reducing stress includes exercise, meditation, breathing exercises, etc. But the problem with this advice is that it doesn’t really address the problem of stress (you can exercise in the morning and still feel stressed at work), or that it means taking up a habit which usually takes a long time, and even then it’s not sure it will stick.
A much more efficient way of handling stress is reevaluating our whole relationship with it.
Change how you react
Things that you can’t control should really not even be a reason for you to be stressed. Some would argue that nothing and no one can cause you stress, but only your reaction to that person or situation. When you begin seeing being stressed as a choice, then after your initial reaction to the stressor you can make the conscious choice of returning to calmness.
See challenges as opportunities
The reason we react negatively to stressors is because we feel threatened in one way or another. Seeing stressors as opportunities that help us become better at relationships, at our work, at life in general, can help us turn our usual daily aggravations into wonderfully positive moments of self-improvement.
Do as much of what you love as possible
Ideally, everything you do would be something you love and there wouldn’t be any source of stress. But even when you do have your dream job, there are certain task that you might absolutely dread. If you can’t outsource those tasks, then find comfort in knowing that after finishing those annoying tasks, you will return to things you absolutely love doing! And if your job isn’t that thing that you absolutely love doing (yet), then find some time to enjoy your hobbies.
Perfectionism exacerbates stress. Constantly trying to be mistake-free is exhausting and will definitely fill you with anxiety, because it’s impossible to be perfect, and frankly, not really human. Stop putting pressure on yourself. The world around you is good enough at doing that. That’s not to say that you should be a total slob, either.
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brené Brown writes:
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth.”
Look at the big picture
If you find yourself stressing over every little detail, you might need to reprioritize. You can’t allow the guy cutting you off on the highway to have the same influence on your mood as the deadline that’s hanging over you at work. And even that deadline might not matter so much in the long run. To understand what really matters to you, and what you should allow yourself to stress over, ask yourself:
What will still be important a year from now? Five years from now? Ten years from now?
Taking the time to set priorities will help you change how you react to stress. Take some time in the morning (or the evening, for the next day) to write down a list of things that you must accomplish. That will help you discriminate between tasks that you must do, and tasks that you should do - and shouldn’t stress over if you don’t.
If you're still trying to identify the stressors in your life, try out this quick quiz that shows you where you are on the stress scale.
What are your secrets for dealing with stress effectively? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.