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A Complete Guide to Stress Management

Introduction

Just imagine a world without stress!

Impossible, right?

Well, maybe a more realistic idea would be to effectively manage the stress we encounter…

Remember back in medical school, we thought stress was defined as passing the next exam, then the next, the next… will it ever end? Nope! It just gets worse (or do we get worse at managing it?).

Unfortunately, it’s a part of our everyday lives.

In this article, I’ll define stress, discuss the different types, look at the signs, explore some of the health effects, and reveal some effective stress management strategies.

Let’s get started!

What is Stress?

So, what exactly is stress?

It is your body’s response to any demand placed on it. When you perceive a threat, your body releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.

These hormones increase your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure to give you more energy and strength to deal with the perceived threat.

This response is known as the “fight-or-flight” response, and it’s a natural, evolutionary mechanism that has helped us survive as a species.

However, in today’s world, we’re often faced with stressors that are not life-threatening, yet our bodies still respond in the same way.

This can have several negative effects on our health.

It’s the feeling that we experience when we are overwhelmed or feeling pressure.

The symptoms can vary from person to person, but more on that shortly.

What Are the Different Types of Stress?

Stress can be short-term (acute stress) or long-term (chronic stress).

Acute is when the body is responding to a sudden, emergency or any sudden stressful situation.

Acute stress can cause an immediate health crisis. For example, a heart attack.

Chronic is when the body has been suffering from prolonged stress that can last for weeks, months, or even years.

It is chronic stress that can have negative effects on our health long-term if we do not manage it effectively.

We need to be able to recognize the signs to employ tools for management.

What Are the Symptoms?

The symptoms are physical, emotional, and behavioral responses to challenging or threatening situations. Here is a short list of the most common:

Physical Symptoms

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain or discomfort/palpitations
  • Stomach upset/changes in bowel habits
  • Sleep disturbances (i. e., nightmares, insomnia)
  • Weight changes
  • Lack of energy/fatigue

Emotional Symptoms

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Hopelessness
  • Depression
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Eating more or less
  • Alcohol use starts or increases
  • Smoking use starts or increases
  • Withdrawing from usual activities/hobbies
  • Withdrawing from friends/family

Whether it is you experiencing symptoms, a patient, family member, or friend, you should recognize these signs and employ coping skills for stress management (strategies you can start using today coming up shortly) or seek professional help.

What Are the Main Causes?

There are many causes and effects of stress.

The most common causes are personal and work-related relationships, family situations, financial situations, job burnout, or health problems.

The common issue with stress that is relationship-based is a problem with communication. If this is the case, then improving communication may be an opportunity for prevention!

Let’s look at how stress affects our physical health…

How Stress Affects Your Heart (and Vascular System)

When stress becomes overwhelming, it can take a toll on our physical health, including our heart health.

It has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attacks, acute heart failure, and chronic heart failure (CHF).

In fact, stress is one of the most common triggers for cardiac events, such as heart attacks and arrhythmias.

If you have a heart condition, a stress management plan should be at the top of your “to do” list!

How Stress Affects Your Brain

One of the most important ways stress affects our health is by impacting our brains.

When the stress responses are constantly activated, they collectively can lead to problems like headaches, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and sleep disturbances which we can easily detect, but that’s not all . . .

Stress can also impact the brain in other ways that we can’t detect.

It can damage neurons and lead to changes in brain structure! This can result in problems with memory and learning.

IF THIS DOESN’T GET YOUR ATTENTION – NOTHING WILL!

How Stress Affects Your Gastrointestinal and Immune Systems

Stress can have a serious impact on gastrointestinal and immune health.

As earlier mentioned, stress hormones are released and these can cause your stomach to produce more acid, which can lead to heartburn and indigestion.

It can also lead to diarrhea or constipation.

This cascade of hormone effects can also weaken the body’s immune system resulting in increased susceptibility to infections.

Alright, so we get it!

Let’s look at some skills we can incorporate to cope with stress . . .

9 Strategies for Stress Management

When stress becomes a regular part of our lives, it can be difficult to manage.

However, there are many effective stress management techniques that can help us manage stress and improve our overall well-being.

Most are merely relaxation techniques used specifically for stress reduction. Others are beneficial due to the release of endorphins.

The following are some techniques you can incorporate into your daily routine to help with stress relief.

#1: Using Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is one of the relaxation techniques used for stress management that involves systematically tensing and relaxing the muscles.

It is a simple, easy-to-learn technique that can be done almost anywhere. PMR can help to relieve stress, tension headaches, and muscle aches and pain. It can also promote feelings of calmness.

To do PMR, start by tense a group of muscles for 5 to 10 seconds, then quickly relax the muscles for 30 seconds.

Repeat this process several times for each muscle group. Some people find it helpful to focus on one muscle group at a time, while others prefer to work their way down from the head to the toes.

PMR is an effective stress management technique that can be used to reduce stress and promote relaxation.

It is easy to learn and can be done almost anywhere.

Give it a try the next time you are feeling stressed!

#2: How to Use Deep Breathing

Deep breathing is a simple and effective way to reduce stress. When we are stressed, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid.

This technique involves taking a deep breath in through the nose and slowly exhaling through the mouth. It helps to relax the body and mind, and can be done anywhere, at any time.

Here are some strategies to try:

  • Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed.
  • Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, allowing your stomach to expand.
  • Exhale slowly and evenly through your mouth.
  • Repeat this process for 10-15 minutes.

This is a great way to reduce stress and is relaxing!

It can be done anywhere, at any time, and doesn’t require any special equipment.

#3: How to Use Exercise

When stress hits, it can be difficult to know how to manage it. Exercise is a great way to reduce stress and improve your mood.

It can help to increase endorphins, which are hormones that produce feelings of happiness and well-being. Exercise can also help to reduce cortisol levels.

If you are feeling stressed, go for a walk, run, or bike ride. If you need something less repetitive for the joints, try exercises such as yoga or tai chi.

These exercise activities will help you to feel calmer and more relaxed.

Make sure to take care of yourself and your stress will start to improve.

#4: How to Use Meditation

Stress is a natural response to events that make us feel overwhelmed or threatened.

But when it persists, it can have negative effects on our health and well-being. Fortunately, there are many stress management techniques available, including meditation.

Meditation is a mind-body practice that involves focusing your attention on a particular object or activity and letting go of other thoughts and concerns.

There are many different types of meditation, but all involve paying attention to your breathing and letting go of distractions.

There is no right or wrong way to meditate, and it can be done anywhere and at any time. There are also many different apps and resources available to help you get started.

If you’re new to meditation, start with just a few minutes a day and gradually increase the amount of time you meditate each day. You may also want to try different types of meditation to find what works best for you.

Regular meditation can help to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

If you’re feeling stressed, give meditation a try and see how it can help you to find inner peace and calm.

#5: How to Use Aromatherapy

Stress can be a major problem in our lives, but thankfully, there are many ways to manage it effectively. One of the most enjoyable and stress-relieving methods is aromatherapy.

Aromatherapy involves using the scent of essential oils to improve mood and promote a positive attitude by removing negative thoughts.

There are many different essential oils that can be used for stress relief. Some of the most popular options include lavender, chamomile, and ylang-ylang.

These oils can be used in a diffuser or added to a bathtub or massage oil. Try out different essential oils to see which ones work best for you.

#6: How Getting Enough Sleep Can Help with Stress Management

People who sleep well through the night routinely report feeling less stress during the day.

This is likely because adequate sleep allows the body to regenerate and repair itself, which reduces stress levels.

In addition, people who are well-rested are more able to cope with stressors effectively because they have the energy and clarity of mind to do so.

How much sleep is required? That can depend on your age. Adults require 7-9 hours per night of uninterrupted sleep!

Finally, getting enough sleep can help to improve mood, which can also reduce stress levels.

There are several things that people can do to ensure that they get enough sleep, including setting a regular sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed, and creating a relaxing bedtime routine.

If you’re struggling to get enough sleep, talk to your doctor about possible solutions.

#7: How to Improve Time Management

Improving your time management often results in improving many stressful situations. Much of the stress in our lives can be directly related to the number of tasks we MUST complete in a seemingly tiny amount of time.

This “time crunch” adds to our daily stress levels. If you’re like me, the fact that I often fall behind is in and of itself stressful.

Let’s look at a few tips to help manage stress directly related to time management.

  • Start by identifying your priorities and what’s important to you.
  • Make a schedule and stick to it as best you can.
  • Set deadlines for yourself and try to meet them.
  • Delegate tasks whenever possible.
  • Take breaks when needed, but don’t overdo it.
  • Learn how to say “no” when necessary.

Practice with different ways to make a “to do” list and employ these tips.

There are also digital products that can help organize time and increase productivity which will help in managing stress.

#8: How to Use Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a stress management technique that uses technology to help learn how to control stress responses.

It is a process that teaches us how to recognize and change the physical responses that occur when stressed. For example, using biofeedback, we can learn to control our heart rate, breathing, and muscle tension.

Biofeedback is a non-invasive and drug-free way to manage stress.

It is safe for people of all ages, including children and pregnant women.

There are different types of biofeedback devices available, such as:

  • Heart rate monitors
  • Breathing sensors
  • Skin conductance devices
  • Brainwave sensors

By using biofeedback devices, we can see how our stress response is affecting our body in real-time.

Biofeedback helps us to break the stress cycle by teaching us how to control our stress response.

#9: Use Favorite Hobbies for Stress Reduction

I kept the best for last! There are likely many things you already do that you enjoy, and these can be used to relieve stress.

For example, you love music – take time out and go to a place where you can be alone and listen to your favorite music. It picks up your spirit!

The caveat here is making time for yourself to enjoy these presents of joy.

If what you enjoy takes hours of time, then you may have to settle for something more readily available.

What about trying something new? Take up a new hobby you always wanted to do but never had time for – maybe that time is now!

Conclusion

Stress affects all of us and how we manage stress will differ from one person to another.

What is important is that all of us take measures to manage stress effectively for the overall benefit of our health.

As physicians, we chose this unique profession to help make others healthy. Yet, we are now experiencing increasingly more stress of doing this job.

We have to make ourselves healthier to be able to take excellent care of our patients!

My hope is that this article has helped you to better understand stress and the different ways in which it can affect our health.

Remember, everyone experiences stress differently, so find what works best and stick with it!

I hope you find this blog on Stress Management helpful and if you have any questions, leave them in the comments below or send me an email.

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-Kelly Thurmon

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