Address Your Stress: Understanding Stress and Learning Positive Methods for Reducing It
By Philip R. Taft, Psy.D., Licensed Psychologist – Special to the Navarro County Gazette
Life brings stress which we all know too well having shared endless stressors in 2020 and 2021 with COVID-19, politics and Snowmageddon! This article will equip you with tools and knowledge for reducing your stress and the consequences associated with it.
Sources of Stress
Stress may come in acute or chronic forms from one or both of these sources: External and Internal. External stressors include marriage, divorce, pregnancy, new baby, relocation, job promotion, job loss, conflict in relationships, overloaded schedule, work demands, family needs, illness, death of a loved-one, financial loss and a global pandemic to name a few.
Internal stressors are more subtle, and few realize their pernicious presence and impact. They involve pre-programming from your family of origin resulting in life roles and beliefs that are false and interfere with genuine life satisfaction (These roles preserved the parent-child or sibling-sibling bond but were not meant for adult living). Self-doubting or self-defeating messages ignite, and unhealthy boundaries and immature defenses result from your preprogramming. In the case of internal stressors, the actual event does not cause stress it is what you think or believe about the event that determines the amount of stress.
Learned Roles/Deep Beliefs
To portray just one example of many possibilities, think of a firstborn child taught by well-meaning parents that they MUST have excellent behavior and accomplishments (which is a typical firstborn role since the parents do not have any basis for comparison and they want to give their child “the best”). So, they begin reading all the latest books on having the best bonding experiencing during pregnancy with their child, how to stimulate and discipline their child and how to help their child learn academics from an early age of development. Imagine if this same child had several younger siblings. The parents, following the typical response to this scenario, would expect the eldest child to “parent” the younger children in the family. How deeply entrenched this message would be over the course of 18 years of development?
As this young adult entered college and then the workforce their internal-demands from this deeply developed role would levy huge expectations of responsibility and achievement on them. Imagine the stress this internal role would place upon them throughout academics, extracurricular activities, work-roles, and community involvement. What if they had several friends who were in a different role that looked to “mooch” off people just like her? What if she was attracted to men that were immature and irresponsible as well? By the time she was in her mid- to late-20s her internal and external swath of responsibilities could be massive…and therefore so could her stress level!
Stress and Gender Impacts
Newsflash! Men and Women are DIFFERENT and as such they differ in their reaction to stress and how it impacts them. One of the most important reasons why men and women react differently to stress is hormones. Three play a crucial role: cortisol, epinephrine, and oxytocin. When stress strikes, cortisol and epinephrine work together to raise a person’s blood pressure and circulating blood sugar level, and cortisol alone lowers the effectiveness of the immune system.
We are all familiar with the idea of “fight or flight” in response to stress. But recent research has taught us that males tend to respond to stress in that manner, but females are more likely to deal with stress by “tending and befriending” (nurturing those around them and reaching out to others). Tending involves “nurturing” activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress; befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process.
So, why do women tend and befriend instead of fight or flight? The reason, in large part, is that third hormone mentioned above: oxytocin combined with female reproductive hormones. Oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland that seems to be involved in reproductive behavior in both men and women, and apparently triggers “caring” behavior. Oxytocin is also the hormone which allows contractions of the womb during pregnancy and labor. How often do we see women caring for young children on Sunday in the church nursery while “chatting about their week”?
Men, on the other hand, with smaller amounts of oxytocin, tend to act primarily on epinephrine and cortisol, which results in the fight or flight response when it comes to stress — either bottling it up and escaping, or fighting back. How often do we see men “escaping” into their woodshops or the golf course after a long day at work?
Another factor in the differing reactions between genders is that male self-esteem is often built around adequacy of performance, and female self-esteem is often built around adequacy of relationships.
Overdemand and insufficient self-maintenance tend to cause differing reactions for women and for men. A woman is often at risk of letting other people’s needs determine her limits, while her own needs are ignored (see the example at the beginning of this article). Inappropriate self-sacrifice in relationships is how many women enter stress.
Men, on the other hand, are often at risk of letting challenge and competition set the pace. Men tend to let their rival’s efforts or their employer’s agenda set the level of their demand, losing focus on the self to preoccupation with winning or attaining an extrinsic objective. Achieving a winning performance at all costs is how many men enter stress.
What is the greatest stressor for women and for men? Relationship loss for women, performance failure for men, are often the greatest stressors each sex experiences. Whereas it is primarily the quality of her relationships that keeps a woman’s stress levels down, accomplishing objectives and achievements buffers stress for men. Have you ever listened to a woman who lost a deep friendship? Have you ever shouldered the burden of a man who lost his job?
Ah, the good news! Female or male, you were born with a built-in Stress warning system
Warning Signal Phase 1 – Cyclical Negative/Stressful Thoughts: “I am so stressed out!” “I’m too busy” “I can’t handle one more thing!” “I must not upset anyone” “I can’t say no – that’s just the way I am” – Ignore these and you may experience…
Warning Signal Phase 2 – Cyclical Negative Feelings: overwhelmed, frustrated, angry, tense, nervous, sad, etc. – Ignore these and you may experience…
Warning Signal Phase 3 – Persistent or Cyclical Physical Pain: headaches, neck, shoulder or other muscle tension, stomach and back pain – Ignore these and you may experience…
Warning Signal Phase 4 – Physical or Emotional Illness: Remember that prolonged internal and/or external stress lowers your immune system makes you more susceptible to common illnesses due to viruses, allergies and bacteria. Symptoms of depression and anxiety or other emotional illness may also surface. Ignore these and you may experience…
Warning Signal Phase 5 – Chronic Illness or Diseases: physical diseases like heart disease, cancer, IBS, ulcers, autoimmune diseases, etc. or emotional diseases such as Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, addiction, etc.
Do we have to speculate on what Phase 6 is???
So, what do we do?
Your goal is to increase your AWARENESS of your Warning Signal Phases and learn to trust it and allow it to guide you toward better self-care. The higher the phase, the more you need to stop doing life in your usual manner and take a retreat to contemplate a new strategy. If you keep doing the same thing, you will keep getting the same results!
There are positive and effective methods of addressing your stress. First, the most important way to address your stress is to be PROACTIVE. Develop a lifestyle that involves stress reducing awareness, activities and skills every day. Design a lifestyle that encourages production of oxytocin and limits production of cortisol and other stress-producing hormones.
Second you must learn to REACT EFFECTIVELY. Acknowledge your negative cyclical thoughts and feelings (Warning Signal Phases 1 and 2) and add activities or utilize skills to reduce stress if you notice them cropping up. See if you can unearth your deep-seating false beliefs learned when you were a child and begin to challenge them.
Several activities that a woman (and of course a man can do these as well) may engage in to increase oxytocin include treating herself to a manicure/pedicure or facial, having a night out with her girlfriends, taking a yoga class or dance class, listening to music, singing in the shower, planting fragrant flowers in the garden, buying fresh-cut flowers, going to a farmer’s market, holding a baby, reading a good book or hiring a handyman.
Men and women might choose to converse with a healthy friend, get a haircut or massage, exercise or meditate while walking, schedule a walk and talk with a friend, work out with a friend or a personal trainer, plan special occasions to look forward, take classes to increase emotional intimacy in your relationship, start a new hobby, work a puzzle, spend time with your pet, research a dream trip, volunteer in the community or church, express yourself through some form of art or music, journal, play a sport by yourself or with a friend and mentor a child or visit an elderly person in a nursing home.
Build your skills
Here are some HEALTHY COPING STRATEGIES/SKILLS that increase your good chemicals (oxytocin, serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine) and address stress. You can start practicing these tips right away. Try one or two until you find a few that work for you and practice these techniques until they become self-care habits you turn to when you feel stress. Stress-relief techniques focus on relaxing your mind and your body.
1. Ways to relax your mind:
a. Write. It may help to write about things that are bothering you. Write for 10 to 15 minutes a day about stressful events and how they made you feel. Or think about starting a stress journal. This helps you find out what is causing your stress and how much stress you feel. After you know, you can find better ways to cope.
b. Let your feelings out. Talk, laugh, cry, and express anger when you need to. Talking with friends, family, a counselor, or a member of the clergy about your feelings is a healthy way to relieve stress.
c. Do something you enjoy. This can be a hobby, such as gardening; a creative activity, such as writing, crafts, or art; playing with and caring for pets; volunteer work. You may feel that you’re too busy to do these things. But making time to do something you enjoy can help you relax. It might also help you get more done in other areas of your life.
d. Focus on the present. Meditation and guided imagery are two ways to focus and relax your mind.
e. Pray or Meditate. When you pray you are lifting your concerns off your shoulders, experiencing gratitude or worshipping. When you meditate, you focus your attention on things that are happening right now. Paying attention to your breathing is one way to focus.
f. Use hypnosis or guided imagery. With hypnosis and/or guided imagery, you imagine yourself in any setting that helps you feel calm and relaxed. You can use audiotapes, books, or a teacher to guide you.
g. Establish boundaries in your life. Keep life simple with fewer obligations, activities and less financial distress.
2. Ways to relax your body
a. Exercise. Regular exercise is one of the best ways to manage stress. Walking is a great way to get started. Even everyday activities such as housecleaning or yard work can reduce stress. Stretching can also relieve muscle tension.
b. Try techniques to relax. Breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, and yoga can help relieve stress.
c. Breathing exercises. Use the 3, 4, 5 technique. Breathe in slowly through your nose for 3 seconds while pushing your belly out like a balloon, hold it for 4 seconds and then breathe out through your mouth slowly for 5 seconds while deflating your belly and pulling it in all the way to your spine. Do this as long as you like but at least 10 times in a row.
d. Progressive muscle relaxation. This technique reduces muscle tension. You do it by relaxing separate groups of muscles one by one.
e. Yoga, tai chi, and qi gong. These techniques combine exercise and meditation. You may need some training at first to learn them. Books and videos are also helpful. You can do all of these techniques at home.
Track your stress level as you build your skills
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
No Stress Worst Stress
To practice anti-stress skill-building complete four steps:
1. pick a skill
2. rate your stress
3. practice the skill
4. re-rate your stress
The more repetitions you complete, the better you will become at it and the more effective the skill will be at increasing “good chemicals” in your brain and body and reducing your stress and tension and increasing your sense of peace, life satisfaction and well-being.
And finally, here are a few helpful resources:
1. To improve your love relationships: Getting the Love you Want by Harville Hendrix, PhD; Making Real Love Happen by Joyce Buckner, PhD; Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs, PhD
2. To improve your ability to address your stress: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff series by Richard and Kristine Carlson (www.dontsweat.com); Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
3. To learn about establishing boundaries: Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life: Henry Cloud, John Townsend
Dr. Taft earned a bachelors, masters and doctorate in psychology from Baylor University. He completed his Clinical Internship at Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1999 where he studied adult forensic assessment and clinical counseling extensively. He has been a licensed psychologist since 2000. He has served the Corsicana community in private practice since 2002 and was the Director of Clinical Services at the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center from 2000-2005. Dr. Taft is an active member of the local community and his church.