How to Help Manage Chronic Stress, Do Our Best, and Let Go of the Rest.
By Nina Radcliff, MD
What is stress?
Stress is the trash of modern life. We all generate it. But if we don’t dispose of it properly, it will pile up and overtake our lives.
Think of it in two parts: the perception of the situation and the automatic physiological response resulting from the release of stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol). Known as “fight or flight,” this response served to protect our ancestors from predators. By making our heart pound faster, muscles tighten, breathing speed up, and senses sharpen, our ancestors had increased strength and stamina, faster reaction time, and enhanced focus to defend against or escape from their predators.
Our stress response served to keep us alive. Although today we are no longer running from dinosaurs or lions, in some instances, acute stress can serve as a productive mechanism to push us to optimal levels of alertness, behavioral, and cognitive performance.
What are long-term effects of stress?
The continuous outpouring of stress hormones, known as chronic stress, can result in physical and mental consequences: immune system suppression, headaches, digestive disorders, infertility, muscle tension, short-term memory loss, heart disease, depression, panic attacks, and premature death. It can make us ‘worried sick’ and affect us from head-to-toe.
How can we use “mind-over-matter” to help us deal with stress?
One popular method is The 4 A’s: Avoid, Alter, Adapt, and Accept.
- Avoid unnecessary stress. The concept is similar to placing certain people and situations on a “do not call” list. Some people are emotional vampires—they suck our energy and happiness in order to survive while exsanguinating us. Try to create and maintain healthy boundaries with these people.
- Alter the way we communicate and make decisions. Communicating our concerns in a constructive manner can help avoid resentment and possibly improve the problem. In other words, do not bottle up our feelings!
- Adapt to the stressor. Changing our attitude and expectations can help the way we perceive an issue. For example, a glass that is half empty is really just half full. And let’s reassure ourselves that “This too shalt pass;”
- Accept the things you cannot change. Often, we cannot choose the circumstances we are dealing with—the end of a relationship, death of a loved one, serious illness, or paying taxes. But we can certainly choose to accept it, in order to regain control and move on. On a similar note, forgiveness does not mean we are condoning someone’s inappropriate actions; it means we are ready to find peace for ourselves.
What else can I do to manage stress? Having a positive attitude can significantly curb our stress. But we also need time to shut down and reboot. This can include setting aside relaxation time (going for a walk, meditating, reading, savoring a cup of coffee, or listening to music); connecting with others; and, of course, keeping a sense of humor.