What is Stress?
Looming deadlines, a relationship crisis, a dead battery and the fuse gets shorter and shorter. We think of stress as something which is coming from out there, and that the best response we can make is to grit our teeth and carry on. The word "stress,” however, actually refers to our response, in mind, body, and spirit, to what is buffeting us--and there's a lot we can do about that!
You might be able to chill when the dog eats your term paper. But then, when you go to reprint it, you find that the printer is out of ink. By the time you leave the house to replace the ribbon, your shoulders are tense. You slide into the car and turn the ignition. The engine won’t start! Now you’re feeling seriously stressed. Your fingers squeeze the steering wheel. Your stomach is clenched in a knot. Maybe you scream or cry.
This example reveals that stress is cumulative. Perhaps you can handle each particular stressor no sweat, but when they start to pile up, that’s when your engine overheats. Picture the stress response as a thermometer. You begin the day at some baseline level of stress. (The baseline approaches zero perhaps only when we’re in dreamless sleep or have attained enlightenment.) Then when the toaster burns your bagel, your stress begins to rise. Ideally, you then undergo a recovery period, and your stress goes back to baseline.
Very often, however, we don’t take the time to recover. So each additional stressor is stacked on top of the previous one until the last stressor, even if it’s a relatively minor one, causes us to blow our tops. That’s when our body-mind forces us to recover, say by making us depressed or sending us to bed with a headache.
What is Stress Made Of?
Stress actually has four components:
- the precipitating event or condition
- the set of assumptions and the belief systems we carry, which determine
- our perceptions of the event or situation, and
- our responses - physiological, behavioral and emotional
Different Types of Stress
It’s important to distinguish between Type I stress and Type II. Type I refers to discrete events that have a readily identifiable solution. Most of the examples above are Type I, e.g., the burned bagel, the inkless printer. When you solve the problem, say by replacing the ink cartridge, your stress has a chance to fall back to baseline. Type II stressors are more vaguely defined, tend to persist over time, and are not easily resolved. Examples include ongoing conflict with your parents, persistent financial distress or a bad relationship. While Type II stressors are not as readily resolved, they are amenable to mind and body techniques, which underscores the fact that stress is not an external event but our physiological and psychological response to events.
Lowering Your Stress Level
Since stress is both physical and mental, we can lower our stress through physical and psychological means. Typically, it’s not the small stuff that wears us down – but the cumulative impact of small stressors or major events like a serious accident or losing a relationship. Following are some reliable strategies for both lowering your baseline stress and recovering from stress that arises:
- Sensory Nurturing such as warmth, good food, hot tub or bubble bath, finger painting
- Relaxation and Imagery Practices
- Meditation and Yoga
- Sleep gives your mind and body a chance to recover
- Laughter – watch a comedy, tickle with a friend
- Set priorities and learn to say ‘no’ to reduce the sense of being overwhelmed
- Music, dance or other expressive, creative activity
- Assertiveness Training – when we can’t assert ourselves, needs go unmet, feelings get hurt, and stress rises
- Reward yourself for work accomplished or hurdles crossed
- Express your emotions to a friend or loved one – bottled up feelings are a ticket to increased baseline stress
- Avoid using drugs to lower your stress, since they can lead to other problems and limit your opportunity to grow and learn new skills
Together these strategies can be summarized as Create More Balance in your life. The result will not only lower your stress but will enhance your quality of life. If you were given a brand new sports car, you wouldn’t run the tires down below the tread, spill ketchup and mustard over the fine upholstery, drive it 16 or 18 hours a day without refueling or an oil change. So why treat your mind and body this way?
What to do When You Feel Overwhelmed
Ideally, we catch our stress before it catches us. However, if you notice yourself snapping at your roommates, unable to concentrate for any length of time, feeling exhausted, emotionally numb or perhaps unusually vulnerable – it’s probably time to slow down and give yourself a break.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re juggling the demands of four or more classes along with a job and other commitments. Even students who sailed through high school, may enter the university without ever having developed good study habits or time management skills. Academic Learning Services in the basement of PLC offers workshops, classes and individual consultation to help students develop the skills they need to thrive academically.
Also, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your commitments, maybe you should try dropping something. While in the short run this may feel like a loss, an even greater loss would be getting sick or failing out of school.
Some of us have a more difficult time pulling back when were juggling positive activities. This goes especially for you perfectionists out there, those who pride yourselves on how fast you can climb Mt. Everest, dragging your tents and oxygen bottles.
Feeling overwhelmed invites us to step out of our routines. Consider one or more of the following:
- A long walk in nature
- Calling a close friend with whom you haven’t spoken in a long time
- A spiritual retreat through church, meditation, ritual
- Taking a “mental health” day away from work and school
- A bubble bath or massage
- Losing yourself in a good book or movie
How do We Create Our Own Stress With Our Thoughts?
Recently, I observed a man at the post office complaining about a piece of mail he felt he’d received by mistake. The postal clerk patiently explained to him that the letter in his hand was a piece of junk mail. But the patron would hear none of it. He continued to badger her, insisting that she deliver him to the higher authority who must be responsible for this egregious act of personal invasion.
While most of us do not get spun around the axle over junk mail, like this outraged postal patron we do tend to live in a world of our own making. For instance, if you walk around thinking that it’s good to be alive, everyone around you loves you, and you’re capable of accomplishing whatever you set out to achieve, you likely will feel good and be able to shrug off small stressors.
On the other hand, if your inner monologue is like the following: I’m incapable . . . no one likes me . . . I’m going to blow it . . . the world is a Darwinian rat race . . . people are mean and petty . . . then a negative cloud will likely follow you. Each small stressor confirms your bleak view of yourself and of the world.
Thought patterns that contribute to stress often take the form of:
- All or Nothing Thinking - “I have to get an A or I’m a total failure.”
- Tunnel Vision – Focusing exclusively on what could go wrong or some minor fault rather than seeing the larger picture.
- Shoulds – Everyone should like me. If they don’t, then something must be wrong with me.
- Labeling – When you make a mistake, you call yourself “stupid” or a “loser.”
- Catastrophizing – turning a small bump in the road into a life or death matter.
How Can We Change Thoughts That Underlie Our Stress?
Chronic thought patterns are like tapes that play constantly in the background, sort of like dispiriting Musak – or like a virus-infected computer operating system. One way to tackle stress-inducing thoughts is by replacing them with more uplifting thoughts. For instance, if you dread an upcoming event, instead of thinking about everything that could wrong, steer your mind toward thinking about everything that could go right.
Another example might be - instead of dwelling on all the qualities and material possessions that you lack, take time to consciously appreciate all that you have. You might even make this into a meditation. Once you have developed this ability to shift your focus to the positive, you can apply it in other situations, say to the way you look at your friends, your classes or your family.
The point is not to be pollyanish about life, but rather to take charge of your own outlook. Also, it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes we do need to change our outer circumstance in order to find fulfillment and happiness.
As a great spiritual teacher once said: “Most people want what they don’t have and have what they don’t want. Why not simply reverse this?” The method we’re suggesting here is
- first become aware of background thoughts that shape your mood and experience,
- challenge these thoughts, turning the inner monologue into an inner dialogue,
- employ uplifting thoughts to refocus your awareness and transform your mood.
To foster this inner dialogue you might find it helpful to think of people who inspire you and imagine what they might say or think about the stressful situation.
For instance, what would Gandhi, Jesus or the Buddha say about this flat tire, burned pizza or unfinished term paper? By calling up the image of someone who embodies a wise, compassionate outlook, you can learn to tap into your own inner wisdom.
Tackling the Deeper Sources of Stress
Chronic stress may reflect deeper issues such as poor self-esteem, a sense of inadequacy or social anxiety. While these can be addressed by the methods described above, sometimes a “healing relationship” with a therapist, mentor or trusted friend is what brings about a fundamental shift in one’s view of oneself and the world.
Remember, while we can’t control all the events around us, we can take charge of our response to them by noticing our reactions, cultivating a sense of inner balance, and redirecting our thoughts toward that which nourishes and inspires us.
Said a wise teacher: “It’s easier to build a good pair of shoes than to carpet the world.”