Stress Management

 

MODULE GOAL: To provide students with basic knowledge of stress, symptoms of stress, and healthy alternatives for stress management.

OBJECTIVES:
  1. To understand stress: what it is, how it manifests itself, and what causes it.
  2. To establish the importance of stress management in a potentially stressful environment and season of life.
  3. To explain the effects of stress on one’s emotional, physical, and mental well being.
  4. To examine data and to provide information on the adverse effects which stress can have on an individual.
  5. To offer self-help suggestions for possible outlets to manage stress, and their benefits.
  6. To provide external resources for stress management.
 
INTRODUCTION:
 
With new life experiences, family crises, increased responsibility, unexpected changes, and the transition from high school to college comes the feeling with which we are all acquainted: stress. What causes stress in one person may have a lesser effect on another, but the feelings of being overwhelmed, afraid, or incompetent are all very real. People experience feelings of stress when they perceive the demands of a particular job, responsibility, or family needs to be too heavy to carry, but they might also experience stress when up against seemingly small concerns. Whether an extreme event, or a subtle pressure, stress is the body’s warning sign, and is not always negative. Many people find that with increased stress comes an increase in performance, as well as efficiency (Glanz and Schwartz, 2008, p. 211). However, stress becomes detrimental when it affects one’s emotional and physical well-being (Glanz and Schwartz, 2008, p. 210). According to The Patient Education Institute, “Stress has positive effects when it makes us deal constructively with daily problems and meet the challenges. Stress has negative effects when it becomes continuous. Such negative effects can lead to depression and heart disease” (2010, para. 2).

Stress manifests itself in several ways; the manifestation depends upon the individual. Headaches, teeth grinding, overeating, under eating, anger, impatience, hopelessness, and depression are common results of stress (Rogge, 2011).  In their article on Stress and Anxiety in the Disabled Patient, Ramsden and Taylor write, “Anxiety is a common emotional response to feeling threatened or endangered. Fear is a reaction to a specific danger, and anxiety is a response to something unspecific, diffuse, vague, and objectless” (1988, p. 1). Both fear of specific dangers and anxiety regarding vague concerns of the unknown can cause increased stress in a person and, left undealt with, can profoundly affect a person’s quality of life. In a culture where finances are precarious, jobs are scarce, and the pace of life is increased, many Americans overlook the indicators that reflect the deep level of stress under which they live (American Psychological Association, 2013). For more information about signs of stress, go to http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-signs.aspx.

KEY QUESTIONS
  1. What are the facts?
  2. How do I know if I am stressed?
  3. Why am I stressed?
  4. What are the negative effects of stress?
  5. How can I manage my stress in a healthy way?

What are the facts?

According to facts gathered by the American Psychological Association (2012), the number one source of stress in Americans is job pressure, followed by money, health, and relationships.

  • 77%  Regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress
  • 73%  Regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress
  • 33%  Feel they are living with extreme stress
  • 48%  Feel their stress has increased over the past five years
  • 76%  Cite money and work as the leading cause of their stress
  • 48%  Report lying awake at night due to stress



How do I know if I’m stressed?

The connection between stress and the overall health of a person is strong (Piazza, Charles, Sliwinski, Mogle, & Almeida, 2013). One cannot live for long under stressful pressures without eventually experiencing symptoms of difficulty from such a demanding lifestyle. The consequences of stress are alarming, affecting both the physical body, as well as the emotional and mental state of an individual. Though common indicators of stress, such as those listed below, may be apparent, it is also possible to experience subtle, ongoing stress without immediate symptoms. The effects, however, are the same, and negatively affect the body’s make up, and can cause long-term damage. Alzheimer’s disease has been linked to long-term stress (Fillet, 2010). Researchers with the Alzheimer's Association suggest that long-term stress stimulates the growth of the proteins that might cause Alzheimer's, which leads to memory loss.

Internalized stress from outside pressures can affect both the mind and body. According to the American Psychological Association, stress, which is the “body’s natural reaction to any kind of demand that disrupts life as usual,” manifests itself in a variety of ways as a warning that something is amiss (2013, p. 1). Below are some of these warning signs:

  • Headaches, muscle tension, neck or back pain
  • Upset stomach
  • Dry mouth
  • Chest pains, rapid heartbeat
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite or overeating “comfort foods”
  • Increased frequency of colds
  • Lack of concentration or focus
  • Memory problems or forgetfulness
  • Jitters
  • Irritability
  • Short temper
  • Anxiety

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, take the time to pause and listen to your body. The relationship between these symptoms and stress is often overlooked, but these warning signs can alert you to the level of stress you are experiencing. Each person responds to stress differently, and once you become aware of how your body responds to it, it will become easier to recognize these signs, increasing your chance of managing your stress levels.

Why am I stressed?

As mentioned before, what causes stress in one person may not cause stress in another person. Reactions to stress and manifestations of stress differ from person to person. If you are experiencing manifestations of stress, such as anxiety, sleeplessness, or shortness of breath, it is important to determine what it is in your schedule, personal life, or job situation that is causing these results. Being honest with yourself about what is “too much” is important to your overall health, and identifying what triggers your stress will help you determine how to best address those issues which elicit manifestations of stress.

There are various causal factors which contribute to feelings of stress. Unease can vary from money and the economy to personal relationships and health concerns. Do any of these topics cause you stress?

  • Money—Not having enough of it, having bills to pay, living from paycheck to paycheck, cost of living
  • Work and employment—disliking your jobs, being unemployed, not getting along with your coworkers or boss
  • The economy—concerns about the country’s economy, increases in taxes, job cuts, political concerns
  • Family responsibilities—caretaker burnout, supporting your family, having a sick parent or grandparent
  • Personal relationships with parents, siblings, or significant other—stressful dynamics with family members, arguments, commitment
  • Health problems—health issues, medication, doctor’s appointments, physical symptoms

It is easy to feel like you have to carry these concerns on your own, but each one is weighty in itself, and can cause much stress and anxiety. Try not to be embarrassed by what is causing you stress. It is likely that many people you know are stressed by the same issues, and talking with them may help you feel empowered to face those things which cause you stress.

What are the negative effects of stress?

In addition to causing symptoms such as those mentioned above, unmanaged stress can negatively affect your relationships, your outlook, and your habits. When stress becomes too much to cope with, behavior can change (Mayo Clinic Staff, p.1). Some people become withdrawn; others turn to comfort foods, drug and alcohol abuse, and unhealthy relationships.

How can I manage my stress in a healthy way?

Though a commonly used term, “stress management” is often challenging to implement. For those facing the demands of a busy life, taking time away seems selfish and unrealistic. Time passes quickly and it is easy to live unaware of the effects that the demands of our daily lives take on us. Some stress, of course, is unavoidable. Employers have high demands, the needs of a family are many, and finances are inflexible, and making time for yourself to unwind, relax, and process is essential. Of course stress will always be present, but learning how to address it will make stressors, both great and small, seem less defeating. Everyone manages their stress differently. There are a variety of activities and outlets that may help you to feel less stressed. Be sure that you are choosing healthy options for stress management, and not looking to “quick fixes” that might help momentarily, but will not decrease your stress in the long run. Many people look to the use of drugs and alcohol as viable options for relieving stress, however, the following suggestions for decreasing stress, will be more effective in making projects and responsibilities less daunting.

  • Identify the source: Avoiding, denying, or ignoring the root cause of your stress is unhealthy, and ineffective. Though the temptation might be, for a time, to avoid confronting the cause, in the long run, identifying and addressing the source will make managing it more realistic.
  • Identify how you currently manage your stress: Ask yourself if the way you currently manage your stress is healthy. Using drugs and alcohol to escape stress might temporarily relieve pressure, however, in the long run, these common coping mechanisms can adversely affect your ability to cope with stress.
  • Talk to someone: Whether you confide in a close friend, family member, or a counselor, the benefit of having someone to talk to and process with is great.
  • Make sleep a priority: Getting adequate sleep can help you cope with whatever is on your plate. Sleeplessness causes irritability, affects hormone levels, and makes responsibilities seem daunting. It is commonly known that the body needs sleep in order to repair itself, and the benefits of a good night’s sleep cannot be discounted.
  • Make physical activity a priority: Studies show that exercise, even in small amounts, can reduce stress and improve happiness. It is important to find activities that you enjoy so that they will become priorities. Whether swimming, running, yoga, bike riding, or walking, choose activities that are realistic, enjoyable, and positive outlets.
  • Learn how to say “no”: Know how much you can handle and be realistic with your time and energy. Often times, those people who take on increased responsibilities are those who have difficulty putting up boundaries, and turning down new projects or obligations.
  • Get organized: Regularly making a to-do list, keeping a planner, and organizing paperwork, files, and other items can help you feel more in control of your life. Though a small step, the act of organizing can bring relief to those bigger tasks which cannot be helped.
  • Keep a journal: Identifying the stressors in your life means practicing self-reflection. Keeping a journal can be a fantastic, helpful outlet for self-discovery, self-reflection, and self-expression. Don’t underestimate the potential of processing your thoughts verbally and visually!
  • Practice relaxation: Yoga, breathing techniques, and repetitive actions can bring down stress levels and increase concentration. Find a quiet spot that brings you peace—be it a garden, a window with a pretty view, a restful place in your home. Having a “safe” place where you can escape the pressures of daily life can help, even if you can only visit it for a few minutes a day.
  • Listen to music: Listening to music that you enjoy can help take your mind of those issues which are causing you stress.
  • Try massage therapy: Stress can cause painful knots in the back and shoulders. Seeing a massage therapist can greatly relieve these knots.
  • Spend time with people you care about: Time away from responsibilities with friends and family can have a huge impact on stress. The can be a distraction from your stress, but also a great support system. 

ONLINE RESOURCES:

Though it cannot be substituted for medical attention or professional opinion, there are many resources online that can be used to determine stress levels and origins. The following online resources may prove to be helpful, educational, and interesting.

ASSESSMENT/EVALUATION:
  1. Where can I find information on the effects of stress and stress management?
  2. How prevalent is stress in America?
  3. Are some of the health issues I’m experiencing the result of stress?
  4. How can I manage my stress?
  5. Who can I contact if I have concerns about my ability to manage my own stress?
 
WRAP UP:
 
Stress is an aspect of being human that you will have to learn how to manage, especially as you transition into the “adult world.” There are countless reasons that people experience stress, and many ways to manage that stress. Be patient with yourself if you are feeling overwhelmed or stressed, and seek out the necessary help if needed. As you learn more about yourself and what causes you to feel stress, you can become better equipped to manage that stress, making life more enjoyable, and challenging times less demanding.
 
Melissa Zetts is currently pursuing her M.A. in Special Education and Transition at The George Washington University. In addition to graduate work, she is employed at a Montgomery County high school where she teaches Special Education English. She has worked in the county for four years as a Special Education para educator, and also holds a B.F.A. in Painting and Drawing from The University of the Arts (2009).
 
References:
 
American Psychological Association. (2013). Listening to the warning signs of stress. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-signs.aspx
 
Gardner, A. (2008, July 2). Meditation, Yoga Might Turn Off Stress Genes. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2008-07-02/news/36768266_1_gene-activity-relaxation-response-repetitive-prayer
 
Glanz, K., & Schwartz, M. (2008). Stress, Coping and Health Behavior. 4th ed. In K. Glanz, B. Rimer, & K. Viswanath (Eds.), Health Behavior and Health Education: Theory, Research and Practice (pp. 210-236). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
 
Fillit, H. (2010, March 10). Alzheimer’s: Hope on the Horizon. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/alzheimers-hope-the-horizon/201003/stress-the-brain-aging-and-alzheimers-disease
 
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2013, July 19). Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-symptoms/SR00008_D
 
Piazza, J., Charles, S., Sliwinski, M., Mogle, M., & Almeida D. (2013) Affective reactivity to daily stressors and long-term risk of reporting a chronic physical health condition. Annals of behavioral medicine:A publication of the society of behavioral medicine, 45(1),110–120. doi: 10.1007/s12160-012-9423-0.
 
Ramsden, E., and Taylor, L. (1988). Stress and anxiety in the disabled patient. Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association and Physical Therapy, 68, 992-996. Retrieved from http://ptjournal.apta.org/content/68/6/992.full.pdf
 
Rogge, T. (2011). Stress and anxiety. MedlinePlus: U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003211.htm
 
The Patient Education Institute, Inc. (2010). X-Plain Managing Stress Reference Summary. MedlinePlus: U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/tutorials/managingstress/hp069103.pdf