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Stress and Stress Control

exerpt from the

Calgary Wellness Forum

Dr. Bryan Hiebert

Stress is a part of every day living. All people experience stress at some point in their lives. It is no longer a question of whether or not people are stressed, it is a question of how much stress people are willing to tolerate. It is also a matter of learning to do something about stress before it has too much of a negative effect on your life. The beginning point is to understand what stress is and how it develops. Then it is possible to learn how to deal with stress more effectively

Stress is normal

  1. Being stressed is a normal part of everyday life. Look around you. How many people do you see who appear to be stressed? How often have you been stressed in the past 2 weeks? Stress is inevitable when people try to achieve their potential. The question to ask is not "How do I get rid of stress?" The more appropriate question is "How can I keep my stress to a manageable level?" or "How can I reduce the potential health impact of the stress I experience?"
  2. People's stress reactions form a predictable pattern. It is the natural, normal way our bodies respond to perceived threat. It consists of:
    • physiological component
      • heart rate increases
      • breathing rate increases
      • muscle tension increases
      • sweat gland activity increases
      • blood pressure increases
      • hands get cooler because blood is shunted away from the extremities and towards the large muscle groups in preparation for the flight or fight response
      • blood in the brain is channeled away from the rational, creative, problem-solving centers and towards the part of the brain that controls muscle movement. Thus people end up thinking less clearly than they normally would and their muscle activity increases.
    • thinking component
      • exaggeration
      • self-denigration
      • catastrophize
      • self-amplification
      • indecision
    • Behaviour Component Increase in Type A Behaviour "hurry-up syndrome"
      • more "hyper" behaviour
      • walk fast, talk fast, eat fast
      • use frequent and punctuated hand gestures when talking
      • pit themselves against the clock
      • almost every event, even waiting in a super market line up, is a competition
      • generally get impatient with people who are slower than them

The stress response usually is an integrated response. When people are stressed, all systems react in concert. However, often, one component in the response is more exaggerated than the others. The pattern varies across people, but tends to be consistent across stressors for any particular person.

Stress occurs in people, not situations

Current research suggests that the stress response is triggered not so much by the demands people face, but by their beliefs that they will not be able to handle those demands as well as they would like to. When people encounter a demanding situation they tend to evaluate their ability to handle the situation and they speculate about the likely consequences. If the result leaves them confident about handling the situation, then stress levels usually are low. However, if they decide they will not be able to cope with the demand, and especially if not coping is believed to have unpleasant consequences, then stress levels will be high. The intensity of the stressful reaction will depend on the degree of imbalance between the demand and resources for coping coupled with the perceived severity of the consequences. Probably, we all know people who are experiencing pressures or problems, coping with them very well, but feeling stressed because they think they are not doing an adequate job. Conversely, we all know people who are coping very poorly with life's pressures, but think they are doing just fine, and as a result experience very little stress. The important point that has only recently come to light is that people's perceptions of the situations they face and perceptions of their resources for dealing with those situations play a central role in determining how stressed they feel.


Controlling Stress Involves Learning Skills

The goal in stress control is not to eliminate stress, but to reduce ones stressful experiences to the point where they are less interfering. The first questions to ask is "Do I actually want to be less stressed, or do I harbour the believe that stress is necessary in order for me to function?" A few years ago a vice-president in a large corporation approached me with a question "I've made junior vice-president and I have my ulcer, now I'm wondering if I'll make senior vice-president before I have my heart attack?" This person had come to believe that the stress he experienced and the resulting medical symptoms were simply "part of the territory" when he became an executive. It was like an "occupational hazard." Needless to say, he was not a good candidate for a stress control program. He believed that reducing his stress would reduce his performance. In his mind, being less stressed meant that he would not achieve the job promotion that he wanted

I often meet students who believe that they work best when they are stressed. They think they need to be stressed in order to get their term paper finished. They believe that if they are more relaxed they will not do as well on an exam. All of the evidence (research and theoretical writing) on this topic is in agreement that people are more creative, work more efficiently, get more done and it's of higher quality, when they are more relaxed. It is important not to confuse stress with motivation, it is possible for people to be relaxed and still motivated to do something.

In order to experience success with attempts to control stress, as a first step, the answer to the question "Do I want to feel less stress?" must be a definite "Yes!" People need to acknowledge the role they play in the stress they experience and want to reduce their stress.

For people who do want to reduce their stress, the next step is to identify the stressors and decide whether you want to try to do something about the situation or just try to calm your reaction to the situation. In stressor management people try to do something to reduce the imbalance between the demands and coping resources. In stress management people leave the situation alone and focus on remaining more calm in a situation in which they are overtaxed. In practice a combination of both approaches is most beneficial.

Most writers suggest beginning by exploring ways to reduce the imbalance between demands and coping resources. This is referred to as stressor management.

Begin by examining ways to reduce or alter the demands you face so they fall within our coping ability. Are all of the demands necessary? Which demands could you eliminate or change in order to reduce the load? "If you have a sliver in your finger try to pull it out before you enroll in a pain control course." If it is not possible to alter the demands, the next step is to explore ways for increasing the resources for coping with the demand, by getting assistance or learning better ways to deal with it. Look at the skills that are needed to deal effectively with the demand and then recruit other people with those skills to help out. Alternatively, it may be possible to take some training to develop the skills needed to deal with the demand more effectively.

If stressor management is not possible, then we turn to stress management procedures, where the focus is on controlling the physiological, or cognitive, or behavioural components of the stress response. To control the physiological component of stress, research suggests several ways to help people learn to place themselves in a state of deep relaxation which is incompatible with stress. The list includes: Progressive Relaxation, Autogenic Training, Transcendental Meditation (TM), Yoga meditation, Self-hypnosis, Biofeedback Training. Regular practice with any of these techniques will help to lower stress levels and make you a more calm person. The common theme in cognitive approaches to stress control is to develop some way of teaching people to be more self-accepting and less self-critical. People who are more self-supportive are less stressed. Many people find it beneficial to take a positive break every 2 hours or so. Just stop think about what you have done that was nice and tell yourself "Well, done. It feels good!" To manage the behavioural component of stress it is important to slow down. Stress has sometimes been called "Hurry-Up Syndrome." People can help combat the tendency towards hyper behaviour that is part of the stress response simply by slowing down. Forcing yourself to slow down is especially important on days that are tightly scheduled. Often simply slowing down will help people get more done and get it done with less stress. In a related vein, sometimes it is useful to simply leave a stressful situation briefly in order to regain ones composure and then try again to resolve the situation.

Common SENSS Stress Control

Sleep, Exercise, Nutrition, Social Support (SENSS) are common ways that people can control stress.

Sleep Most people find that on days when they are well rested, they have a greater capacity for dealing with the minor trials and tribulations that occur. Often simply getting enough rest can produce a substantial reduction in stress.

Regular exercise helps to control stress in three ways. First, vigorous exercise helps people reduce the level of stress hormones in the blood stream and return to normal when they are stressed. Second, when people exercise, especially in repetitive activities like swimming and jogging, they often experience a mental tranquillity similar to meditation. This pleasant mental state helps many people regain their equilibrium after being stressed. Third, when people engage in regular exercise that improves their aerobic functioning they experience more rapid recover from stress. They may still get stressed in some situation, but they return to normal more quickly.

Nutrition Caffeine gets people's physiology worked up. Often people feel worked up and jittery simply because they have had too much caffeine. When they reduce their caffeine intake, they find they are more relaxed, and often experience a reduction in stress-related symptoms such as heart palpitations. Vitamin B is utilized in helping people return to normal after they have been stressed. People who experience frequent stressors sometimes have depleted levels of Vitamin B, which means they recover from stress more slowly than they usually would. Refined sugar, tends to slow down the rate at which people recover from stress. A high sugar diet, especially when combined with low levels of Vitamin B, can produce a condition where people take a long time to get over a stressful experience. This increases the chances of them encountering another stressor before they have fully recovered from the previous one. When this happens, people notice their stress levels building over time, so that it takes less and less to get them worked up.

Social Support reduces the impact of stress. The size and composition of the support group and how often or where it meets does not seem to be important. The mere fact that the group is available, serves to reduce stress. People who have a strong social support network are far less likely to be overtaxed by the demands they face.

Related Reading

  1. Ellis, A. (1995). How to stubbornly refuse to make yourself miserable about anything, yes anything. New York: Carol.
  2. Hiebert, B. (1993). Learn to relax: A self-help manual. Toronto, ON: Lugus Publications.
  3. Howard, J., Cunningham, D., & Rechnitzer, P. (1978). Rusting out, burning out, bowing out: Stress and survival on the job. New York: Macmillan.
  4. Malec, C., Young, L., Hiebert, B., Felesky-Hunt, S., & Blackshaw, K. (1997). Stress Mastery: Creating healthy lifestyles. Calgary, AB: LifeLong Wellness and Research Institute.
  5. Newman, M., & Berkowitz, B. (1971). How to be your own best friend. New York: Ballantine.