Stress! Probably one of the few common threads that crosses cultures and impacts all species. In our society we often use the word to mean a feeling. In reality, stress is a physiological response to a situation. It is how our brain keeps us safe and alive. We perceive a threat and our body responds in a specific way, primarily by releasing stress hormones. Our body also prepares for response with either fight, flight or freeze. This requires that energy stores be sent to parts of the body that will need the extra energy, such as legs, heart, lungs etc. As a result that energy store leaves the brain, leaving us slightly intoxicated.
The Centre for Studies of Human Stress credits various researchers from between 1920 and the 50’s for determining the common ingredients of stress. Surprisingly what they came up with was N.U.T.S.
Novelty - something new to you that you have not experienced before
Unpredictability - something you had no way of knowing about
Threat to the ego - something that threatens your competence as a person
Sense of control - something you have little or no control over.
Stress can be grouped into two broad categories; physical stress and psychological stress. It is the psychological stress we will look at. Physical stress is a direct stress on the body, such as running a marathon without training. Further classification of stress is broken into absolute stress, something that would stress everyone regardless of preparation or coping skills, think looking for a new job. The other is relative stress, something that effects some people and not others.
Knowing these categories can help you deal with your stress effectively. By understanding it is an absolute stress you gain a sense of bonding, knowing you are not alone. Relative stressors can be managed with learning resiliency skills, mindfulness, or other such skills.
Strategies for coping with stress also fall into two categories; problem-focussed and emotion-focussed. Both categories have their strengths and their weaknesses. Problem-focussed strategies are great as long as the situation is within your control to manage. As soon as it is outside of your control, there is no understanding of the situation that will help. A combination of both types and knowing when to use them effectively is the best strategy for stress management. Plan your tool kit and learn how each tool works so you can use it when you need it.
Structure your plan around the knowledge that there is no easy solution and there is no one size fits all solution for stress management. Stress is complex and based solely on individual perception. The body will only go into stress response if you PERCEIVE a situation to be N.U.T.S in one way or another. Our stress response system is a very primal system which has not caught up to our development. It has no way of knowing the difference between a picture of a bear about to attack and the reality of the hot bear breath in your face.
Here are some tips to build effective tools to use as needed:
1. Be positive, every failure has a lesson in it. Very few situations are bad at every step. Look for the positive, the things you have done well. This will build your confidence and allow you to see clearer what you can use during stressful situations.
2. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Stress is the same. Don’t blow it out of proportion. Look at it objectively or get an outside view so you can see how to break it down into steps that don’t stress you as much.
3. Talk, talk and talk. Communicate with people over what you are feeling stressed by and possible solutions. Don’t bottle it up or ignore it. Remember the elephant from above. Sooner or later it will either explode or start to smell. Better deal with it now and be done with it.
4. Connect with people. Science has proven that connecting with people directly impacts how people deal with stress in a positive way. Of course, don’t stick with people who stress you out.
5. Nobody is perfect. Be kind to yourself and other’s. Not everyone has the mad skills you do and there are things you can still learn. Perfection is not the goal. Effort matters more.
6. Practice, no one ever became an expert from reading a quiz. Find what you like and works for you and practice it over and over again.
Although there are no universal solutions to stress management there are some tips you can try:
1. Use the energy your body is building for fight or flight. Do something physical, exert that energy.
2. Have fun. Laughter reduces stress hormones.
3. Do something kind for someone. The act of kindness decreases the sense of threat and increases the feel-good hormones.
4. Use your brain against itself; think back to a happy memory. Focus on the details of the memory. Remember that stress is caused by our perception of a situation. Remembering happy times takes that perception away.
For lots of great information on stress, visit The Centre for Study of Human Stress.