Manage Stress for Better Quality of Life
Feeling stressed out? You are hardly alone. According to the American Psychological Association, one-third of Americans feel that they are living with extreme stress, with money and work taking the biggest toll. Nearly half of Americans believe that stress is affecting their work and home life. While some stress is normal, extreme or ongoing stress can become debilitating, contributing to everything from lack of energy and upset stomach to heart disease and family breakups. The good news is that there areeffective ways to deal with all types of stress, from the everyday to the chronic.
Recognizing the different types of stress gives us a clue about how to respond to it. When we encounter something new or face pressure at work, we feel everyday, or acute, stress. Our bodies respond as if we are in danger; we breathe faster, our heart rate speeds up, we are on edge and ready to go into action. Everyday stress prepares us to perform and, in most cases, fades away as soon as the initial challenge, called a stressor, is behind us. But even stress that begins as a response to a problem can become a problem in itself, if it's too severe or happens too frequently. Episodic acute stress interferes with daily life; it lingers and recurs, contributing to headaches and sleeplessness as well as weakening our immune system. This can eventually lead to serious illness and affect job performance, relationships, and certainly quality of life. This stress may require some effort, or even treatment, to address.
If stress continues on an ongoing basis and becomes chronic, it can become debilitating or even deadly. It's often at the root of suicide, domestic violence, serious health problems, and mental breakdowns. A traumatic event, such as child abuse or any other frightening incident, can sometimes trigger chronic stress, even years after the actual incident. Post-traumatic stress disorder, all too common among combat veterans, is a type of chronic stress in which victims repeatedly relive the fear, anxiety, and anger of the initial trauma. PTSD has the potential to ruin lives, but it can be effectively treated, sometimes with the help of psychotherapy or medication.
One of the best ways to handle stress is to address it before it begins to snowball. First, consider the cause. Is it something that you can change? If not, accept that it is out of your hands. If the problem issomething you can change, take a positive step, no matter how small, toward making it better. For example, if you are always late for work, set your clock a half-hour earlier. Making healthy choices, such as a modest change in diet or an exercise program, can also help reduce stress. Also, be sure you are getting enough sleep -- most adults need 7-9 hours each night.
Relaxation techniques (including some that can be done anywhere) can also help reduce stress. Deep breathing is simple and effective. You could also try progressive muscle relaxation (slowly relaxing individual muscle groups while focusing on a peaceful scene), visualization (imagining yourself in a pleasant, peaceful setting), and meditation (quietly concentrating on a calming thought, word, or object).
It is important to recognize when stress is becoming episodic, chronic, or too big a problem to handle. If you find yourself unable to sleep, snapping at others in anger, getting physically ill, or spiraling into depression, do not wait -- reach out for help! Talk to family members or friends about what you are feeling. See your health-care provider, who can offer detailed information about diet, exercise, and relaxation, or refer you to a mental health center for counseling or other services. Remember, there is no shame in seeking help when you have a problem. In fact, getting help is a sign of strength and demonstrates that you are taking control of the situation and that you are working to make it better.