Last year was a stressful year for me—both good stress and bad stress. For instance, my husband, who has been struggling with his vision since an accident in 2019, finally started driving once more late last year. I am so excited that he has that independence back, but at the same time, I am terrified because our traffic is quite a bit different than it was a few years ago. My dad, over the holidays, made the decision to move back to the Permian Basin, which I am thrilled about, but at the same time, there is the stress of getting his house sold and getting him moved. Those are just two examples of the stresses I’ve encountered lately. When I speak to others, I find so many people in the same boat as me; they’ve been struggling with stress, both good and bad. So, today, I am going to talk about adding stress management to our “One Change at a Time” list in hopes that it will help us all cope with stress a bit better.
Stress is a normal reaction to the demands of life, and in some situations, it can be a good thing. Stress is hard-wired into our brains so that we can deal effectively with threats. It is our mental and physical alarm system. For instance, if a person is mugged, that alarm system in the brain speeds up the heart rate and respiratory rate. It floods the body with hormones like adrenaline, which also increase heart rate and blood pressure. That increase in heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure makes sure there is an abundance of oxygen available to tissues. Those hormones also trigger a system to move blood away from your digestive system and more towards the muscles and brain. The brain narrows its focus to the threat and nothing else. All these changes allow you to run from the threat or fight the threat. This alarm system, however, is meant to be a short-term response. A threat like a mugger is generally over quickly. Unfortunately, it’s hard for that alarm system to distinguish between the short-term threat of a mugger and the long-term threat of something like losing a home because of a job loss. The body still reacts the same, and the brain still maintains that narrow focus. In the long term, those reactions can cause damage. In addition to the effects of the hormones coursing through the system, this damage also includes physical damage caused by an elevated heart rate and blood pressure. Additional harm includes mental and relationship damages caused by focusing solely on the threat, often causing other important matters and relationships to be ignored.
Stress management is comprised of two parts: deliberate actions and healthy habits. The first part of stress management is taking deliberate action to address your stressors. Think about the things that make you feel angry, tense, worried, or irritable. Look for physical signs too, like headaches or an upset stomach with no medical cause. Things like job losses, relationship problems, or financial worries are easy to identify as stressors, but often it’s the small things that add up, like traffic jams, being late to meetings, or getting the children to school every day. Even positive events like marriages and engagements, promotions, and being able to finally buy something you have been saving for can cause significant stress.
Once you have identified your triggers, the next step is to identify what you can control with those triggers. One good strategy is to change your focus on the stressor. Often, the things that stress us the most are things that we have little control over. Deliberate action in these situations is to focus on your choices in the situation rather than the situation itself. These choices generally fall into one of three categories: you can change the situation, you can change your perspective on the situation, or you can accept the situation. For instance, you have a thousand things on your to-do list today, and one of those is the grocery store. You quickly grab the items you need, and you get in line to check out. If your luck is like mine, you always seem to find the line that looks the shortest but ends up taking what seems like forever. At that point, instead of getting stressed, look at your choices. You could change the situation by getting in another line, or even by doing curbside or delivery so you don’t have the line at all. You can change your perception by looking at the wait as a much-needed break in a busy day, or you can accept the situation and commiserate with the person in line behind you about how you always seem to pick the slowest line.
The second part of stress management is developing healthy habits in your daily routine. Nutritious eating, regular exercise, and plenty of sleep will help you not just with stress but with your overall health. Other habits to consider are things like relaxation techniques and regular self-care.
Finally, remember that it’s okay to ask for help when dealing with stress. Each of us has moments in our lives when stress can become overwhelming. Speak to your primary health care provider about the stress in your life if techniques like those I’ve shared above aren’t helping. Remember, it’s okay to take medications, speak to a professional counselor, or both, and your primary health care provider can help you make decisions about what is best for you. Often, people think that asking for help is a sign of weakness, but it is not. The people who find ways, including seeking help, to not let things overwhelm them and continue to move forward and support their families and others are the ones who are strong.
Managing stress is a change you can make in your life that has great benefits, not just for your physical health but also for your mental health and even your relationships. It’s one change from which you can reap major rewards, and I hope you add it to your “One Change at a Time” list to improve your well-being.
By: Carol A. Cates, MSN, MBA, RN
Chief Nursing Officer
Odessa Regional Medical Center
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