Stress is the body's reactions to a mentally or emotionally disruptive or upsetting condition. And your body often reacts to stress long before your mind is conscious of the stressful event. Many of us are so accustomed to stress that we are blind to the effects it has on our bodies.
The first line of defense in stress management is your ability to recognize your body's stress reaction so that you can take stress-reducing action.
Here are a few tips to help you manage your stress and build the resilience skills and attitudes necessary to living a healthier life.
Know your body's stress response. To be in control of our lives, we must be in control of our bodies. When we are under stress, our body sends us signals — our heart beats rapidly, we begin to sweat, our respiration increases, our digestion decreases. What signals do you recognize?
Hear your words. Do you sometimes say things like, "My head feels like it's in a vise," or "My heart is banging out of my chest," or "My blood is boiling?" When we refer to someone as a "pain in the neck," often we are feeling muscle tension in the neck or lower back. So listen to your language. You are telling yourself you are under stress.
Commit to the change process. Change is not easy. Old habits die hard. Change is especially hard when a behavior or attitude is longstanding or involves an addictive substance. (Just ask anyone attempting to quit smoking.) And change is stressful. It requires thinking differently, acting differently and maintaining commitment. To begin the process of change, it's important to recognize your stress triggers.
Keep a stress-awareness journal. By noting your stress triggers and your body's response to them, you'll be more capable of taking action to reduce those stressors.
Strengthen resilience skills and attitudes. How quickly we bounce back from crises is dependent on how resilient we are. People who can deal with their emotions, who are flexible in their thoughts and actions, who are resilient, are able to rebound faster.
Adopt a "where there's a will, there's a way" attitude. Resilient people have a penchant for learning. They have the ability to reflect upon and recognize objectively their strengths and weaknesses, to look at critical situations in a new way, and to find creative approaches toward solving problems.
Hang tough during difficult times. Sometimes things just don't go our way. We anticipate certain outcomes and then life throws us a high-speed curve ball. It's okay to wallow in a little self-pity — temporarily. This allows the negative thoughts and emotions to flush out of your system. How quickly you extricate yourself from the muck and mire of negativity depends on the strength of your resilience skills.
Adopt an attitude of optimism. The No. 1 factor influencing resilience is a positive or optimistic view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities. The optimist takes life as it is, is open to possibilities and has a sense of humor, particularly about one's self. And the optimist is rational — uses reason rather than being led by fears and desires, objectively assesses situations and takes action based on those assessments.
Accept what is not in your control. The frustration or anger that wells inside us from situations not only out of our control, but which have nothing to do with us, chips away at our peace of mind and releases stress hormones.
The capacity to manage strong emotions involves taking action without being impulsive and putting emotions aside when clear thinking is required.
Rita Schiano is resident of Sturbridge and the creator of a stress management and resilience-building program called "Live A Flourishing Life."
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.