Stress management is essential for our daily life. We face stress every day. It can be from study, work, relationship, family, finance or even catching the train on time every morning.
When there is a change, our mind will naturally assess whether it is an opportunity, a challenge, a neutral event, or a threat. Stress kicks in when we classify the change (the stressor) as a threat. Interestingly, even for the same event, different people can have different assessments. For example, when we are asked to make a presentation in front of our boss, some find it exciting as it is an opportunity to present their work and get promoted, while some find it stressful fearing they may get challenged.
As Hans Selye, the “father of stress” said, “stress is not necessarily bad for you. It is also the spice of life.” Optimal stress is conducive to productivity. Yet, excessive stress can cause us a lot of physical, mental, and social problems. Therefore, we must deal with stress squarely.
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Test yourself: Are you excessively stressed?
If you have some of the below symptoms for some time, your stress level is alarming and you should deal with it squarely.
- Busy at work on weekdays and exhausted on weekends.
- Suffering from body pain, especially on head, shoulders, chest, stomach, waist, hip, back, and muscles.
- Frequent sickness – typically having digestive problems (e.g. diarrhea, vomiting, etc.) or colds frequently.
- Drastic decrease in sex drive.
- Skin allergy, including getting acne.
- (For women) Irregular menstrual period.
- Craving for comfort food, such as sugary food or salty food.
- Procrastinating for almost everything.
- Having sleep problems, such as insomnia and frequent nightmares.
- Struggling with social life. You wish to stay alone while hoping to be accompanied and listened to.
- Body-focused repetitive behavior, e.g. lip-biting, finger-biting, hair-pulling, etc.
Cognitive and emotional symptoms
- Becoming sensitive and hostile.
- Feeling like everyone is putting the blame or criticizing you.
- Getting moody, unhappy, anxious, and angry easily.
- Becoming pessimistic with many negative thoughts.
- Feeling depressed generally.
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How do we respond to stress?
Before we dive into better stress management techniques, we must know how our body unconsciously responds to stress. Apart from factors surrounding the stressors themselves, such as timing, duration, and frequency, we are also contributing to our stress response in many ways, like age, sex, genotype, childhood, etc.
When there is a stressful event, our body will release stress hormones which lead to increased our heartbeat, quicker breath, abnormal blood pressure, and cause other biological response.
Traditionally, people believe we respond to and manage stress with “fight or flight”. It is the survival mechanism that we can also observe from animals when they respond to physical threats. In the simplest terms, it refers to the immediate changes in hormones and physiology to help to fight against or escape from the threat.
However, Dr. Curtis Reisinger, a clinical psychologist from Zucker Hillside Hospital in New York, observed that this might be an oversimplification. And there should be also the option of “freeze or fawn” response. Contrary to “fight or flight”, blood pressure will go down and you will prefer inaction as if the threat is not happening on you at all. This is similar to giving up and submitting yourself to the threat.
The fight, flight, freeze, and fawn (4Fs) form the spectrum of stress responses.
When you choose to fight under pressure, you focus on strategizing to respond to the source of pressure. You transfer the pressure into energy to win the battle.
For example, when you aboard a challenging project and you feel energized to work from dawn to dusk to complete your tasks flawlessly, you are under the “fight” mode.
Some people may choose to escape in response to stress. Essentially, people focus on coming up with all possible ways to getaway.
A common example is where salespersons choose to resign when their boss makes upward adjustments on their sales targets.
Despite you may see Flight negatively, whether not determined or hardworking enough, it may not be that bad after all in some situations. By escaping, you may be avoiding many more discouraging failures ahead.
Freeze means you prefer inaction over action. This happens when you perceive the stressor both inescapable and undefeatable. More often, you are suffering from a panic attack. Instead of backing down, you simply do nothing, letting the stressor happen and hoping it will go away silently.
Because of the dropping heart rate and blood pressure, you will typically feel tired and sleepy in the face of pressure. Some people may try finding something else to do at their best hoping to draw away their attention to the stressor.
“If you can’t beat them, join them.”
This line best describes what it is all about. In other words, if you know you cannot win or escape from the change, you adapt to it by unconsciously submitting yourself at your own expense. You are doing everything so that you can survive the change safely.
For example, you try to do everything you can to satisfy and please your demanding boss. Another example is you apologize under pressure even if you believe you are not at fault.
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How to better manage stress?
“It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” ~ Hans Selye
If stress has to come anyways, all we can do is to manage its level and consequences. Effective stress management is crucial for our well-being, personal growth, and success.
While there are effective stress management techniques specifically applicable to different types of stress, we will discuss the more general techniques for stress management here in terms of mind, body, and action.
1. Adopt the right stress response consciously
We now know that we will fight, flight, freeze, or fawn in response to stress. To better manage stress, we have to be conscious and flexible as to the choice of our stress response. When stress comes, take a quick moment, think of “fight, flight, freeze or fawn” and strategize around the most suitable mode on a case by case basis.
When we were small, we may choose to freeze by sleeping over stress because there may be someone covering for us, or we simply did not have the strength or courage to fight against or escape from stress.
On the contrary, when we grew up, we often forget we can choose to freeze by taking rest to adjust ourselves.
2. Practice visualization
Taking some time off in a day to practice visualization is a simple yet powerful self-healing stress management technique. This technique requires you, in short, to focus on creatively visualizing some serene and happy scenes. The goal is to relax and get a more peaceful state of mind.
Here are the basic steps you can follow to practice visualization:
- Set aside 5-15 minutes.
- Get yourself into a peaceful setting. It should be comfortable and undisturbed.
- Sit down, close your eyes, and take deep breaths.
- Recall a very relaxing scene – for examples, it can be a beautiful garden or a soft sand beach facing a calm ocean.
- Imagine the senses in this heavenly place – what you hear, smell, taste, and how your body feels.
- Enjoy the serenity and harmony there.
- When you feel much relaxed, slowly return from the scene.
- Open your eyes gently.
3. Do aerobic exercises daily
If you are busy, squeeze a short time for aerobic exercises, such as running and spinning. Research found that regular aerobic exercises can relieve stress, cause a better mood, and improve sleep. Even a five-minute aerobic exercise helps!
4. Have intimate behavior with your partner
Having penile-vaginal sex helps to relieve stress. A study by Professor Stuart Brody found having penile-vaginal intercourse results better than other forms of sex in lowering blood pressure and dealing with stress.
Various researches reported by CNN also highlighted the effect of intimacy induces oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress. Massaging, hugging, and holding hands help to relieve us from stress.
5. Eat healthily
A good diet can induce positive hormonal changes that facilitate stress management. Here is a suggested list of food that is proven to ease stress:
- Dark chocolates
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole-grain carbohydrates, such as whole-grain bread, quinoa, brown rice, and steel-cut or old-fashioned oats
- Fatty fish
- Vitamin C–rich fruits, such as oranges
- Leafly-green vegetables
Stress creates a desire for fatty and sugary comfort food, such as cookies, cakes, and chips, which needless to say has a significant impact on your weight and health. Stress also effectively shuts down your appetite for healthier food. Therefore, put away comfort food.
Also, avoid over-consuming caffeine and alcohol. Excessive consumption of caffeine can make you feel jittery and even more tensed while overdoing alcohol can get you depressed and even more stressed. If possible, just stay away from them.
6. Take deep breaths
When we face acute stress, i.e. short-term stress, such as the moment we have to do public speaking, taking deep breaths slowly can keep yourself calm.
7. Remind yourself with some relevant quotes
Sometimes, quotes can serve as good reminders on cheering ourselves up from stress. You can check out some powerful stress relief quotes here.