We had a hard time choosing April’s blog. Every month of the year has health-focused holidays, but April’s are really good. Autism Awareness, MS Awareness, World Malaria Day, Parkinson’s, Move More Month, Allergy Awareness Week…how on earth could we choose?

Turns out that April is also Stress Awareness Month. For our first April feature, we simply had to pick a topic that affected everyone. So, let’s talk about stress.

What is stress?

First, some stress is normal. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “the human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. When you experience changes or challenges (stressors), your body produces physical and mental responses. That’s stress.”

In other words, a stress response means that your body works. Stress responses help protect us; these physical changes help us handle threats (sometimes. More about that later).

Common stress response symptoms include a racing pulse, aches and pains (often in the chest), dizziness, shakiness, stomach problems such as nausea, muscle tension/cramps, and high blood pressure, among others (view a full list here).

If stress is normal, why worry about it?

During periods of stress, our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause the stress responses we all know, and they work great for us if we need to fight or flee from a threat. If you just turned around a corner on your morning walk and bumped into a bear, those extra hormones could help you outrun that bear. Or wrestle him to the ground, if you felt daring. In situations like that, stress responses rescue us from danger.

The problems happen when our bodies ready us to run or fight a “threat” that isn’t actually dangerous to us. Maybe you have an important report coming up at work, and thinking about it keeps you awake at night. Your body perceives that report exactly as it would a hungry bear, and responds the same way. In other words, you still get the adrenaline and cortisol. You still get the racing heartbeat, the muscle cramps, the dizziness, and all the other side effects of stressors, but this time, you have no way to work with them. You can’t outrun or fight a work assignment.

In situations like this, with “threats” presenting no real danger, stress responses actually make us feel worse. Without a way to release stress hormones through direct action, they stay in our bodies. Long-term exposure to stress causes serious problems. In addition to high blood pressure, digestive problems, racing heartbeat, and pain, longer-term symptoms can emerge such as depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.

How Can We Handle Stress?

The most obvious answer, “avoiding it,” is also probably the least practical. While we should definitely try to avoid unnecessary stress, nobody can manage this completely. Stress comes from challenge and change. A stagnant life without change does prevent stress, but it also prevents positive growth. We have better tools.

Familiar tools include getting plenty of sleep, eating well, fostering healthy relationships, and focusing on work-life balance, but those primarily prevent stress. For today’s blog, we want to focus on some ways to help stress after you’re already experiencing it.

Exercise and Meditation

Exercise helps deal with the physical symptoms of stress. Remember the fight-or-flight response? Physical activity gives the extra adrenaline from stress an outlet. The Mayo Clinic explains that exercise imitates fighting or running from legitimate danger, which relieves physical symptoms of stress. Additionally, exercise produces endorphins. Endorphins majorly boost mood, helping ease the tension and anxiety that comes with stress. Finally, the Mayo Clinic’s post points out that exercise works like meditation. After enough time doing physical activity, you tend to focus on that activity and forget about the stressors worrying you in the first place. It’s a good idea to get some exercise as soon as you recognize that you’re feeling stressed. This can mean quick push-ups in your living room or a walk around your block; those count. You do not have to do a full session in the gym for exercise to ease your stress.

Meditation has some mixed reviews from the health community thanks to some poorly-controlled studies, but this article from Harvard found multiple examples of studies showing that meditation helped alleviate symptoms of anxiety and stress. If nothing else, taking a moment to sit, force deep breaths, and focus on your breathing does wonders for calming what Buddhist monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche calls “the monkey mind.” Our brains like to chatter away, and half the time the thoughts don’t help solve our problems or help us calm down. Taking a few minutes to meditate slows thoughts down, forces our heart rate to slow as well, and makes it more likely for our ideas to help us.

How to meditate? It’s easier than many people think–the most basic meditation is being still, then counting your breaths in and out. That’s it. Contrary to popular belief, the goal of meditation is not to empty your mind of thoughts. It’s to let them be. Mr. Rinpoche compares thoughts to clouds in the sky: they’re there, they happen, and they pass. If you catch an errant thought, acknowledge it, then move on. Don’t waste mental energy trying to make it go away; it will leave on its own.

Thought Stopping and Fact-Checking

Thought stopping is a therapy technique meant to help us sort out helpful thoughts from harmful ones, then respond to them calmly. (Note: We aren’t referring to the outdated method of trying to replace negative thoughts.) You see the basic idea in the acronym STOP:

S-Stop
T-Take a step back
O-Observe
P-Proceed mindfully

Easier said than done, right? However, it’s possible, and easier with practice. A simple cheat is to pretend that you’re Sherlock Holmes. Yes, seriously. Think about a challenging experience you had this week. If thinking about it still makes you feel anxious or upset, now is the perfect time to practice stress management–you still feel the same way, but do not have the pressure of trying to handle it in the moment. You get to analyze what happened with no rush, and practice fact-checking.

Thought Stopping and Fact-Checking Exercise

Think of this challenging situation, take a deep breath, and understand that you do not have to solve things now. You’ve stopped.

Now, take a step back. You are no longer you. Your job now is not to respond to the situation, but to analyze it. Perfectly logically, and rationally, no emotion. AKA, Sherlock Holmes, making a report to that infernal Scotland Yard.

Observe. Remember, feelings are feelings, not facts. Ask questions about what happened. Fact-checking is the most important step in this process, so take your time here. Some example questions:

  • Did I feel threatened?
  • If so, what was the threat? Why did this situation threaten me? (Threats can be serious, such as danger to your life, health, livelihood, or emotional well-being. More often, they are more minor; perhaps you felt that your pride or reputation was threatened. Or an opportunity you were excited for, or a relationship you value).
  • Was I in real danger?
  • What role did other people play in this situation? Ignoring how I feel about their actions, what other explanations might there be for their behavior?
  • How did I respond to this threat? What stress symptoms did I notice?
  • If everything I feel about this situation proves true, what is the worst thing that could actually happen? How likely is it?

Proceed Mindfully. After taking time to review the situation, your feelings about it, and comparing how you felt to the pure facts, make a plan. Usually, we find that things are better than we feared…but there’s always that worst-case scenario we worry about. The final step for you, Sherlock, is devising a clever plan. What if things do go badly wrong, or have gone badly wrong? What can you do about it? Write all ideas down, no matter how odd.

Planning helps you find real answers, but it also helps you remember that you are capable. If you do end up in real trouble, you have written proof that you can help yourself escape it.

Conclusion

We can avoid some stress with good lifestyle decisions, but experiencing stress is part of life. Instead of focusing on avoidance, we should prepare strategies to handle stress once it comes. Some good strategies include meditation, exercise, and thought-stopping exercises.

We hope some of these suggestions will help you have a happier year! Be aware of your stress levels, and work to alleviate it as soon as you notice symptoms. Being preventive and proactive is as important for mental health as it is for our physical health, so don’t put it off. Finally, if things are really bad, reach out to a counselor for professional help handling your stress. Sometimes, problems need extra help to solve, and that’s okay.

Stay well!