First of all, stress is real. It is not simply in our imagination. Our bodies as well as our emotions are likely to feel its impact. As early as the 1980s, the American Academy of Family Physicians reported that two-thirds of office visits to family doctors were prompted by stress-related symptoms. Stress is known to be a major contributor to six of the leading causes of death in the U.S.: coronary heart disease, cancer, lung diseases, accidental injuries, cirrhosis and suicide. Furthermore, the complexities of modern life in recent years have increased the stress often experienced at home, in the workplace, on the highway and in dealing with the commonplace crises we all experience.
So, what is stress? In response to feeling threatened, as in a near-miss on the highway, our fight-or-flight reaction kicks in, driven by the most primitive part of our brains: the part that is focused on survival. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol prompt us to get ready for action – but then what? In most situations, neither fight nor flight is necessary. We get over the interstate scare in a few minutes, but the automatic stress response to a threat, physical or interpersonal, real or imagined, can begin to wear us down if it is sustained and unrelenting. And many of our stressful work and relationship situations are sustained. If you feel that stress is a problem for you, it is important to take it seriously. Initially, these six steps can be useful:
- Keep focus on the present and what you have control over, namely, yourself.
- Address challenges one at a time. Break them down into manageable pieces.
- Take care of yourself physically: Eat healthy foods (lots of vegetables and fruits). Get regular exercise (3-4 times a week at least). Get enough sleep. The average adult needs at least 8 hours a night.
- Do something that is meaningful for you (not TV).
- Learn and practice relaxation techniques. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response books may be useful.
- Stay in touch with a support network – family, friends, or anyone else you feel understands and accepts you.
If you find you need a more structured place to talk about your stress, seek out a pastor, an organized support group, or a professional counselor. Remember that stress is a very real issue in our lives, more so for some of us than others, but there is a lot we can do to lessen its effects. Take action before developing the serious consequences of ongoing stress. There is no time like the present to take action!
Licensed Professional Counselor
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Samaritan Counseling Centers of Greater Birmingham,