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Stress Management

This topic covers information about Stress Management.

What is Stress

Stress is defined as demands that are considered personally important but taxing or exceeding ones capacities and resources. Thus, stress is a reaction to a demanding situation or any change that occurs in our life. The demanding situations and changes can be either positive (e.g., marriage, promotion, winning a lottery) or negative (e.g., loss of any kind, illnesses). Both kinds of stressors increase demands for readjustment and adaptation. Positive events such as marriage and birth of child also cause changes, but these changes are welcoming and therefore called ‘eustress’. The word ‘stress’ is primarily used for the changes that are unpleasant for the individual.

Causes of Stress

Various things can cause stress in our life. However, whether or not a factor will lead to stress depends on many factors. That is why instead of considering various factors as definitive causes of stress, they are considered risk factors for stress; that is, exposure to these factors increases the risk of stress in people. The stressors could be continuous or episodic. Examples of continuous stressors are - poverty, malnutrition, prolonged illnesses, migration and chronic strain. Examples of episodic stressors are - major life events (e.g., job loss) and catastrophic events (e.g., earthquake, floods), which do not occur regularly but are beyond our control.

There is nothing like severe stressor and mild stressor. Rather a seemingly milder event or situation can have severe impact (e.g., mood disturbances) because of its continuous presence. For example, daily hassles such as traffic jam, power cut, noise and pollution can be significant source of stress.

Further, whether or not an event or situation will be a source of stress depends on our perception (i.e., our outlook) and appraisal (i.e., our evaluations) of the situation also. The perception and appraisal of an event can be determined by many factors such as our past experiences, personality and so on. Thus, a seemingly simple event may be stressful for some people if not for all. Also, a situation that has the likelihood of causing stress for most of the people can be enjoyed by some. For example, frequent job changes can be stressful for most of us but an individual who likes novelty can enjoy it.

However, some situations are stressful for everyone. For example, loud noise at traffic, pollution, a work place with faulty management, peer conflicts, and situations that restrict our choices are unwelcoming for everyone and cause stress.

Effects of Stress

Works of two prominent psychologists Walter Canon and Hans Selye have provided important insights into the effects of stress and the underlying mechanisms. Canon proposed that stress forces us to mobilize bodily resources to either fight in the situation or run away. This is known as ‘flight or fight’ reaction. Though the reaction is useful to avoid harmful situations, continuous state of fight or flight is not healthy because it consumes lots of our psychological and physiological resources. Hans Selye conceptualized three stages of stress, which are very important for us to understand in the context of stress management. They are:

  • Alarm stage: The body responds to an emergency or threat (for example, giddiness is a common response when we continuously work without eating or taking adequate breaks. Thus, in this case giddiness indicates a need to 27 take a break as something is happening with us that needs some attention or actions).
  • Adaptive-resistance stage: This involves swinging into action in response to alarm, which happens mostly without our conscious awareness. The body may use its reserves to cope with the situation; that is, the body may mobilize glucose to the brain in the above case to continue working. But after a point this may not work as we definitely need to pause to eat and take rest.
  • Exhaustion stage: Body gets exhausted of resources if the stressor prolongs. There may be a complete breakdown of the system and various illnesses develop. For example, diabetes, hypertension, substance use, depression, anxiety etc. could be a likely consequence when person cannot deal with prolonged stress. On the other hand, if one uses adaptive methods to manage stress, it will lead to healthy adjustment to the situation.

To sum up, in the first stage organism’s body responds to the stressful situation, and in the second stage the body returns to the calm stage when the stressor is no longer present. However, if the stressor is prolonged, the third stage ensues in which due to the long term effects of the stressor the individual becomes exhausted. All these are indicative of arousal of our body to fight with the stressor. However, prolonged arousal of our psychophysical system can lead to exhaustion of various systems such as cardiac system, digestive system and nervous system.

How do we know we are stressed?

As explained in Hans Selye’s model, the stress may manifest differently at different stages. Initially it may manifest as changes in sleeping and eating pattern, and mood changes (e.g., not feeling well, irritability, anxiety or sadness, palpitations). If stress persists, eventually we may witness problems related to various bodily functions as well as significant behavioural and mood changes (e.g., not interested in meeting people, highly dependent on or avoidant of others, not interested in pleasurable activities).

Dealing with Stress

All of us have our own ways of dealing with stresses. How an individual manages his/her stress is known as coping. Coping can take several forms, such as, problem-focused and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping refers to problem solving approach to a given issue. Emotion-focused coping refers to the efforts to deal with emotional distress arising from a frustrating situation. Both problem- and emotion-focused coping can be adaptive or maladaptive. For example, an individual can approach a situation with problem-focused approach but his interpretation of the problem and the determination of solutions can be unrealistic which may compound the stress. On the other hand, if an individual follows the acceptable problem-solving approach (defining the problem, identifying options, choosing best possible option, applying the option, monitoring and so on), the likelihood of solving the problem effectively and getting rid of the stress related to that problem increases. Likewise, an individual can use denial as emotion-focused strategy which will be ineffective. On the other hand, if someone interprets his emotional reactions to a stressful situation and works on reinterpretation of events, correcting maladaptive behavioural patterns and tailoring emotions accordingly, emotion-focused strategy can be effective.

Moreover, some methods may work better in one situation than the other. Likewise, a method that suits one person in reducing his/her stress may be ineffective for another person. Thus, it is important to understand what works for whom. Here a list of stress management techniques has been given. You may find many of these techniques familiar even if you do not know them by specific terms. However, before listing the scientifically accepted stress reduction techniques, it is also important to highlight some of the faulty steps people take to ward off their stress.

Faulty ways/methods people use to reduce stress

  • Consumption of alcohol and other substances : Sometimes, people start consuming alcohol and other substances to decrease their stress. However, it can never decrease stress. For the time being it may give some relief from the outgrowths of stress, such as anxiety, but ultimately it will increase the stress. In fact, it can bring other sources of stress in life such as financial problems, severe physical illnesses and so on. People may also become dependent on substances and it can develop into an additional problem before they realize.
  • Avoiding situations : Though sometimes avoiding a stress arising situation can be effective, most of the times it increases stress. For example, avoidance of going to workplace because of the tensions does not solve problem. Rather use of proper methods to deal with such situations (which have been described in the next section) will be useful.
  • Remaining aloof : Remaining aloof, not sharing feelings with others and decreased interpersonal interactions compound the effects of stress. It may also lead to feeling lonely and eventually isolated.
  • Wishful thinking : A student who is not studying well may simply wish if he were a bright student so that he would not fail the examination or hoping that the question paper was easy. But it is any body’s guess that this may only help the student to relieve his stress temporarily and cannot be a long term solution.
  • Blame : A person who resorted to alcohol or smoking may blame his boss or spouse for the troubles. In some cases, people may blame God, fate or any other external force. However, it does not solve the problem.
  • Aggression and Self-harm : Instead of dealing with stress, people may vent their frustration on self or others in the form of aggression and self-harm. All such acts will have negative consequences instead of alleviating the stress.

Healthy ways of coping with stress

Cognitive efforts/ changes in thought processes

Stress can be output of faulty interpretation of events. For example, we may interpret something in extremely negative manner or become worried by imagining the worst possible outcome of an event. These interpretations, instead of the event, may make us worried. We may feel that imagining the extreme negative consequence will help us in remaining prepared for worst possible, but we forget that such things seldom happen. Therefore, a realistic evaluation of an event helps in reducing stress. For example, we can simply tell ourselves that we should behave in a manner most of the people behave in a given situation.

Likewise, we may pay attention to only the negative aspects of an event/situation (or even magnify the negatives) and overlook the positives. It creates distress. Sometimes we may feel stressed only because we predicted harm whereas there is none indicated (or very remotely possible) or we were unnecessarily blaming ourselves for everything that was either remotely or least connected to us. Again a realistic evaluation of the situation combining both positive and negative is important.

Problem solving

Use of an effective problem solving strategy can be the crux of stopping an issue to become a stressor. Effective problem solving has following stages:

  • Identification of or defining the problem: It is interesting that often people feel overwhelmed by a problem but they may have vague understanding of what is bothering them. Therefore, it is important that, first of all, the problem is identified (e.g., reaching late to office or school) and then its specific nature (e.g., it is mostly happening on Mondays), and genesis of the problem (e.g., got up late because partying hard on Sunday evening). Hence in this case, instead of labelling Monday as a ‘bad day’ it would be better to take measures to get up in time so as to reach the office or school in time.
  • Generating alternate solutions to the problem: The next stage requires generating as much solutions to the problem as possible. It can involve ‘brain storming’ with others, thinking about all possible solutions (even the weirdest of solutions). The reason for thinking about various solutions is that if we just think about one or two solutions and start working on them, the likelihood of missing more suitable solutions is high.
  • Evaluation and selection of best possible solution: Once all possible solutions have been thought about, the next step is to evaluate all the solutions and find out which solutions are feasible and among them which one has highest gains and least losses. Based on this the best suitable solution is chosen.
  • Implementation of solution: After selecting the best possible solution, it is time to implement the solution. It is important that once a solution is chosen, it should be given sufficient time and resources before evaluating its success or failure.
  • Review: Finally, the applied problem solving should be reviewed and if it is found that the solution did not work then the next possible solution can be evaluated afresh and if it is found suitable at that moment then it should be applied.

Life style changes

Healthy life style can significantly help in preventing and reducing stress. A few things which can be done:

  • Regular physical exercises : Physical exercises such as jogging, swimming etc. rejuvenate us. Physical health and mental health go hand in hand. Therefore, regular physical exercise should be integral part of our daily routine.
  • Managing time for hobbies and interests: Spending time on activities that you like can be quite relaxing and pleasant.
  • Healthy food: Healthy food rejuvenates our body and decreases the effects of stress.
  • Relaxation: Practicing various relaxation methods such as yoga, meditation, swimming, stretching exercises, muscular relaxation and breathing exercises; engaging in calming activities such as listening music, focusing on or remembering pleasant events, imagining positive situations and similar other things help in reducing arousal levels and bring a state of calmness.

Time management

To avoid getting overwhelmed by various tasks, it is important that we manage our time effectively. Effective time management is indispensable for managing stress and following points can be useful:

  • Having a list of activities one has to do and arranging them according to the priority
  • Sticking to the schedule as far as possible and avoiding procrastinations
  • Avoiding clustering too many things at a given time

Professional help

Don’t we see a doctor if we have a physical problem? Similarly, we can approach professionals to deal with our stress. For better results it is important to consult at the beginning of the symptoms (problems with sleep and appetite or mood disturbances are the early indicators of stress and psychological disorders). Definitely consultation is warranted if there are other symptoms such as persistently low mood, suicidal ideas, death wishes, unprovoked aggression etc.

Other things

Many other things (apart from the ones described above) can be crucial for reducing stress. For example,

  • Being assertive when required
  • Identifying own strengths and using them appropriately
  • Seeking help of friends and if required of professionals
  • Developing an attitude that some amount of stress is inevitable but it will go away when we are calm and not rattled by it.

The above techniques are helpful to minimize the stress. But there are certain strategies that are helpful in preventing the stress. For example, seven health habits, commonly referred to as ‘Alameda 7,’ can be effective in preventing stress. These are:

  • Sleeping seven to eight hours a night
  • Not smoking
  • Minimizing the alcohol use
  • Doing regular exercises
  • Not eating between meals
  • Not skipping breakfast
  • Maintaining desirable weight

Source: Living Life Positively (Facilitator Guide)

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