The Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) has worked with many employees who feel under stress in their home and work lives. We have seen people individually, and in large groups, and many complain they feel their lives are out of control, and filled with stress. Although there are many things we cannot control, we are in charge of how we respond to stress, and how we have the ability to feel more relaxed, competent, and productive.
Stress has been examined scientifically for the past twenty years, and there are several things that have become evident. Of most concern is the fact that stress is implicated in the six leading causes of death in this country. This makes stress one of the most toxic of the preventable contributors to illness. Managing stress may entail adjusting your attitude and behavior, but this is one of the best investments that you will ever make. You can feel more relaxed, more competent and productive by learning how to manage stress in your life.
Most people have heard of the "fight or flight" responses. It is the basis of the biochemical damage that is inflicted on the mind and body during periods of prolonged stress. At times of perceived threat, there is an outpouring of adrenaline, a stimulant hormone, into the body. Adrenaline and other stress hormones have a protective intent, because they prepare our body to either fight or run away from the perceived threat. The body prepares by having increased heart rate and blood pressure (to get more blood to the muscles, brain, and heart) faster breathing (to get more oxygen), general tensing of the muscles (for quick reaction), and increased mental and sensory awareness. Most of us can relate these biochemical changes to feeling "shaky", "nervous", or "tense".
Stress is a fact of life. But too much stress can cause problems. It can affect your mental and physical health and damage relationships with friends and family. Unless you take steps to reduce or control stress, tension can build up inside. You'll be better able to manage your stress if you recognize some of the symptoms:
change in appetite
being late to work
lack of direction
poor job performance
constipation or diarrhea
feelings of helplessness
loss of appetite
If you recognize you have a number of these symptoms consider contacting your Health-Care Provider, your Clergy or your Faculty Staff Assistance Program Counselor (FSAP) for referrals and recommendations.
We have found there a several components to successful stress management programs, but since each person has his or her own individual stresses and styles, a stress management program that is tailored to your own personal needs will be most successful for you. Consider the following ideas on managing your stress.
Components of Stress Management
Good Solid Emotional Support
Talking to a confidante about your life has tremendous beneficial effects. Several studies have recently shown that having good solid support is one of nature's best medicines. You can develop a support system of personal acquaintances, co-workers, or a professional counselor. You just need to have a few people to share your inner life with, whom you trust. We at FSAP see many people who do not have a support system and we try to help them put one in place. For further information about the link between emotional support and physical health see Robert Sapolsky's book "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers". (Freeman, 1994). Have regular check ups and talk to your health provider about stress and how it effects you or call the FSAP @ 301-314-8170.
Since part of the stress response is internal hormonal changes and a build up of tension. It only makes sense that regular exercise can act a release valve, to allow you to vent off some of that energy. During times of high stress we can benefit from this regular steam venting. Choose a form of exercise that is fun for you so that you'll be able to keep with it. Walking, jogging, swimming, bicycling, racket sports, and aerobic classes all are effective ways to get your exercise and keep the stress responses at bay. Recent standards suggest that one should aim for 30 minutes of exercise every day, or every other day. It may be practical for you to park your car a little further from your destination, or get off the bus a stop away from your normal stop. The important thing is that you make regular exercise a part of your overall stress management program. You might look into the Wellness Research Lab for a fitness assessment, and guidance by calling 301-405-2446.
Getting adequate sleep is another very simple but effective way to manage stress. We all have our own ideal amount of sleep, and if we don't get it, our performance and resilience suffers. People generally know their optimum amount of sleep. The key is to awake feeling refreshed. Most people need about 6-9 hours of sleep per night. Try going to bed a half hour earlier for a week, and see if that increases your energy. If you suffer from insomnia, you may want to avoid napping, since that seems to throw off the body's rhythms and perpetuate insomnia. Allowing yourself adequate sleep can be a powerful part of your stress management program. If you find yourself having trouble sleeping, exercise during the day, don't drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages, go to bed the same time every night and take a warm bath before retiring.
Feeding Yourself Well
The interaction between your diet and stress level is very important. We know that the hormone Cortisol seems to have the effect of clumping fat molecules together. So if you have a high fat diet, and are under stress, you are priming the pump for arteriosclerosis. Since your diet is another thing you do control, it makes sense that you eat a healthy, balanced diet, low in fat and high in fruits and vegetables. If you are under stress, pay attention to what you eat; don't skip breakfast, don't drink too much caffeine, don't eat too much sugar . Stick to a regular meal schedule, and eat more complex carbohydrates. University employees can talk to a Nutritionist at the University Health Center by calling 301-314-8140.
Relaxation and Meditation
Another method of managing stress is through relaxation and meditation. There are many ways to relax, such as sitting quietly near a lake, listening to soothing music, or petting your cat. More concentrated relaxation and meditation can be learned in class or through any number of books or videos. The relaxation response, so named by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard, is actually the opposite of the physiological experience of stress. Your heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, and blood flow, is increased to the extremities. If you need help you may want to consider calling the Health and Wellbeing Center @301-314-1493 or the FSAP @ 301-314-8099 for coaching to help you perfect your relaxation techniques.
Positive Self Talk
People who seem to be able to cope with stress usually have helpful and more positive outlook in life. For many of us, our mental conversations or "tapes" consist of negative self talk. During these mental conversations, turning a minor fault or problem into a big one in not unusual. These tapes replay themselves in our heads, reinforcing negative beliefs. It's our self talk that can help determine how we respond to any situation. By learning to identify, challenge, and change negative messages, you can reduce your stress. Every time you a hear a negative message play in your mind, erase it and record a new positive one in its place. Over time, your mind will automatically play a new, positive message, making it easier to manage stress. You may want to look at "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy" by Dr. David Burns for more detailed information on how to reframe your negative thinking.
Relieving stress takes time. It's an ever changing process with some stress reducing techniques working better than others. Start today and develop your own Stress Management Plan by:
Individual Stress Management Plan
Setting a Goal
Your goal should be specific with a plan of action and a target date.
Tell family, friends, and co-workers about your stress plans. Have them offer encouragement.
Keep a Journal or Log
Write daily about what made you feel stressed and how you responded to the situation. What made you smile, anxious, or frustrated. You will be surprised to discover solutions to problems or to find ways to change your stressful situation by writing in your journal.
Do something special just for you as you come closer to your goal. Send yourself flowers, take yourself to the movies, or plan a weekend getaway. Don't forget to set an end date for your goals.