Stress can reveal itself in many unflattering forms: sweat, acne and possibly weight gain - among others.
Unfortunately, it's inevitable. "If you're not experiencing stress, you're dead," jokes Stephen Fritsch Psy.D., clinical psychologist and program director of the TriHealth Community Outreach Program. However, it is manageable - and even preventable in some cases.
Stress: Where it Comes From
Stress is a normal process that occurs depending on how one perceives and responds to certain events, called stressors, which they peg as either threating or challenging. Stressors may include:
- Major life events (earthquakes or national tragedy)
- Life changes (death of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job or a promotion)
- Daily hassles (rush hour traffic, long lines or job stress)
- Personal appraisal style (the way we interpret events)
"Positive events are stressful, too, because they denote change, and we have to respond and adapt to it," Dr. Fritsch points out.
What Happens to Our Body When We're Stressed?
Our body is pre-programmed to respond to stressors, depending on how significant they are. Stress produces many changes in body systems, including an increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as an altered immune function. Other symptoms of stress include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Changes in appetite
- Difficulty focusing
If channeled appropriately, stress can be beneficial. For example, a singer can guide stress into an energized performance. However, when people don't handle stress well, it increases susceptibility to a variety health defects, ranging from illnesses like the cold or flu, to body aches and pains. Stress can also contribute to more severe conditions like heart disease. "It's a contributor - not pure cause and effect - but a contributor," Dr. Fritsch says.
Contrary to popular belief, daily hassles tend to be more challenging and have a more detrimental effect on health, "than even major life events do," he explains. This is because these sources of stress are chronic.
Ways to Manage Stress: The Coping Model
Tip #1: Change the Way you Perceive Stressors
Most people perceive a stressful event in one of two ways: as a threat or as a challenge.
"It's basically learning to have a more positive or optimistic perspective on stuff that happens," Dr. Fritsch says. "These perspectives can be adopted. One can be a pessimist, but can become a learned optimist." Viewing stressors as a challenge - instead of a threat - and channeling stress into motivation, is one way to develop a more positive outlook on stressful situations.
Tip #2: Find Acceptance
When people experience a stressor, Dr. Fritsch says the first thing to do is ask yourself:
Is there anything I can do about it, or not?
Certain events - like unexpected job loss or the death of a loved one - are out of our control. If that's the case, "You've got to learn to accept that," he points out.
Similarly, he also says having a sense of faith in a higher power can come into play, too. "There's research that shows that people who have some faith … they live longer, their sense of wellbeing - their physical health - is better."
Tip #3: Be Proactive
On the other hand, if you know a potential stressor is looming, prepare an action plan, in order to minimize anxiety down the road. For example, if you know your company will be downsizing and your position will be eliminated, prepare by updating your resume or networking with colleagues in your field.
Dr. Fritsch also emphasizes the importance of applauding yourself for any proactive efforts you make. "If you've done all those things, it doesn't guarantee you'll get the job, but give yourself credit for the process or the effort, not the outcome."
Tip #4: Relax
Because stress arouses our bodies, Dr. Fritsch suggests practicing regular relaxation or meditation techniques for 15 minutes, once or twice a day. "The excitation, arousal effects [of stress] - that's hard on the body. It's wearing it out," he says. "Meditation and yoga - just like sleep - have restorative effects." Other relaxing activities include:
Tip #5: Make Time for the "Wanna Dos"
Participating in leisure activities or "wanna dos," as Dr. Fritsch calls them, not only helps manage stress, but also contributes to one's happiness and sense of wellbeing.
Having a solid social support system falls into this category as well. "A lot of times, fun and affiliation overlap, because we're doing fun stuff with other people," he says.
Stress: When to Seek Medical Help
Whether to seek medical advice depends on the frequency, intensity and duration of symptoms.
If you are experiencing symptoms of stress, like chronic fatigue, insomnia or appetite changes, for a number of months, Dr. Fritsch says to start by making an appointment with your primary care doctor. From there, you may be referred to a psychologist, counselor or social worker who specializes in stress management. "It might be seeking a behavioral health provider, or it might be getting into some organized programs with a combination of social support."