Five Truths About Stress

People talk a lot about stress. They say, “I’m SO STRESSED!” and “This is so stressful!”

When people are overwhelmed by their stress, they lose sleep, they over or under eat, become irritable, feel tired, and even feel sick. In fact, 43% of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress (“The Stress Solution: An Action Plan to Manage the Stress in Your Life”, Lyle H. Miller, Ph.D., and Alma Dell Smith, Ph.D.). Two-thirds of all office visits to family physicians are due to stress-related symptoms (American Academy of Family Physicians). And Stress is linked to the six leading causes of death–heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.

Given these statistics, Truth #1 may come as a surprise.

Truth #1: Stress is neither good nor bad.

Stress has a reputation for being “bad,” but in reality it’s an emotion that serves a purpose. It is only our response to stress that can overwhelm us and cause us to feel irritable, tired, and anxious.

Our emotions serve an important purpose, and we need to feel them. Fear let’s us know there is danger and provides us the motivation to prepare. Sadness let’s us know we care deeply and motivates us to tend to our relationships. Anger tells us something is unjust and provides us the motivation to stand up for ourselves and others. Stress let’s us know we are facing a problem or series of problems, and provides us the motivation to take action.

Sometimes, however, the emotions we feel are disproportionate to the situation. At times, we may not feel strongly enough and other times we may feel so much it’s overwhelming. Fortunately, as you will see with Truth #5, feelings can be managed effectively.

Truth #2: Stress is different for each of us.

I see this in my practice all the time. What is stressful for one person, doesn’t even register on another person’s radar as warranting attention, and visa versa. This is actually a very good thing–can you imagine a world in which we all worried about exactly the same things!?!

Not only do each of us feel varying degrees of stress in response to different situations, but we also experience the symptoms of stress differently. Headaches, stomach aches, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, mood swings, pain, and irritability are all examples of symptoms people can feel when they are overwhelmed by stress. Poorly managed stress is also linked to weakened immune systems, heart disease, anxiety, and depression.

Given that we are each stressed by different situations, and feel stress differently, it’s no surprise that what relieves stress is also different for each of us. This is a particularly important truth to realize, since what is popular may not actually be what works best for you specifically. It can be easy to fall into the trap of getting down on yourself about that, but it’s far more helpful to do different things and tweaking them to suit you, until you find the things that restore you best.

Truth #3: Even “minor” signs and symptoms of stress are important.

Stress is easiest to managed before we are overwhelmed by it. By listening to your body’s soft cues, you can respond early and in healthy ways. Doing so allows you to be resilient in the face of life’s challenges. And when you teach your child to do this, you build their resilience as well.

Truth #4: Your kids DO know when you are stressed…And they are stressed too!

While the majority of parents don’t think their children are strongly affected by their stress, children report otherwise. Nearly three-quarters (69 percent) of parents say that their stress has only a slight or no impact on their children, yet 91 percent of children report they know their parent is stressed because they observe a multitude of behaviors, such as yelling, arguing and complaining.

And consider this:

  • One in five children (20%) report they worry a lot or a great deal about things in their lives BUT only 8% of parents reported that their child is experiencing a great deal of stress (8, 9, or 10 on a 1 to 10 scale)
  • Nearly a third of children indicated in the past month that they experienced physical health symptoms that are often associated with stress
    • 38% reported trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night
    • 33% experienced headaches
    • 31% reported having an upset stomach in the past month

If you were unconvinced of the importance of Truth #3, think again. Listening to your body’s cues and to your child’s worry opens the door for healthy coping and stronger relationships.

Truth #5: You can manage your stress in healthy and effective ways.

There is no “one size fits all” approach to stress management. There are, however, a wide range of healthy choices you can start doing and tweaking to learn what suits you. Don’t be surprised if what suits you is totally differently that what suits you spouse or child.

Consider these Healthy Coping Strategies:

  • Taking care of your biology.
    • Get the sleep you body needs–adults generally need about 8 hours of sleep each night. Some adults tolerate sleep deprivation better than others, so if your one of those people who functions on less hours of sleep–think about the fact that you are still sleep deprived, and look for ways to get more Zs.
    • Eat the food your body needs–our nutritional needs are not the same. Age, gender, level of fitness, occupation, food sensitivities, and genetic predispositions are just some of the factors that influence what our bodies actually need in terms of nutrition and calories. You may find it helpful to learn what your body needs and begin looking for ways to ensure it’s getting it.
    • Move your body–here again, people vary with respect to what works best for them. Watch out for the all-or-nothing approach to exercise, and instead think to yourself, “any movement is helpful,” then go ahead and start moving!
  • Practicing mindfulness. I am using a lose definition of mindfulness here, and am meaning that you hit the pause button, turn your attention to your breath, slowing it down and bringing in all the way into your lungs and releasing it easily. Many people notice when they do this that they have been holding their breath or breathing shallowly. Taking these “mindful moments” to focus on your breath and allowing your muscles to relax and let go your tension can be extremely helpful in clearing your mind and reducing your stress.
  • Doing healthy activities you enjoy. How long has it been since you had fun? What’s been getting in the way? If your having trouble thinking of examples, that’s a pretty good clue you need to start exploring new areas of interest. Experiencing joy and pleasure is vitally important to being resilient.
  • Connecting with others. As human beings, we are wired to need human connection, and when we feel disconnected from others, we are less resilient to stress and adversity. Rather than think, “I should really give Sally a call,” go ahead and make the call!
  • Giving back. Giving back to others and being part of your community shifts your focus away from your own troubles, and helps give you perspective. Most people also find they feel good knowing something they did was helpful to someone else.
  • Solving problems. This sounds obvious, but when people are overwhelmed they sometimes get stuck ruminating about the problem rather than looking for solutions.

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