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Helpful Hints - Changing the Mind-Set of Stress

Stress is an unavoidable experience in general day-to-day living. For the past two decades, it has received increased media and societal attention, especially relative to the world of work. According to a Statistics Canada survey, 1 in 12 Canadians (1.3 million) are dissatisfied with their jobs. “High strain” jobs tend to be the most stressful – jobs that are high in psychological demands but low in decision-making and skill application.

Stress can be defined as the body’s emotional and physical reaction to an experience that is perceived as disturbing or threatening to self. Stress is not something tangible or something that happens to us, but rather it is a response to internal and/or external stressors. How we perceive these stressors and deal with them determines how much stress we will experience.

The “flight or fight” response is the body’s immediate reaction to a threatening situation. Physiologically, we experience an increase in adrenaline, respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, sugar production, stomach acidity, and blood flow to muscles (“butterflies in stomach”). The “flight or fight” response was critical to survival during early human evolution but somehow it has now become activated by non-life threatening events, such as overwork, deadlines, and social or relationship difficulties. Some symptoms of prolonged stress include the following:

  • Physical: increased heart rate & blood pressure, irritated bowels, rashes, insomnia, headaches, ulcers, sexual dysfunction
  • Emotional: anxiety/worry/fear, confusion, insecurity, anger/frustration/impatience, apathy, withdrawal, helplessness/hopelessness, distrust
  • Cognitive: memory lapses, poor concentration, negativity/cynicism/pessimism, low self-confidence, confusion, poor problem solving
  • Behavioural: little risk-taking, decreased motivation/performance, absenteeism, conflicts
  • Interpersonal: blaming, nagging, defensiveness, competitive, manipulative, argumentative, aggressive, critical, selfish
  • Intrapersonal: loss of purpose/meaning, inability to forgive, loss of identity, uncertain future, fear of the unknown, belief in an unjust world

In an effort to cope with stress, we sometimes choose negative or unhealthy strategies that create other problems and that ultimately lead to further stress: 

  • Denial: pretending that nothing has changed
  • Making Impulsive Changes: job, home, partner, friends
  • Indulgence: shopping, eating, smoking, internet, gambling, self-medicating (alcohol/drugs)
  • Passivity: procrastinate; keep silent; withdraw
  • Aggressiveness: being demanding, profanity
  • Passive-Aggressiveness: sarcasm, apathy

Again, while being confronted by stressors in our life is largely unavoidable and outside our control, how we choose to deal with these stressors is mostly in our control:

  • Step 1: Reflect on & raise to awareness your particular internal self-talk when strong emotions are triggered in the moment – What was going through my mind just before I started to feel this way?”
  • Step 2: Evaluate & challenge the thought rationally with what you know to be true
  • Step 3: Identify beliefs you may have about yourself and/or others that feed the negative thoughts (e.g., “I am incompetent”, “people are untrustworthy”)
  • Step 4: Generate alternative ways of thinking about the situation that are just as possible but not as self-defeating
  • Step5: Develop new goals and plan of action that will empower you – What is in my control?

Some positive or healthy ways of coping with stress include the following:

  • Physical: exercise, nutrition, sleep, relaxation (e.g., deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga)
  • Interpersonal: assertiveness, affirmation, social support, socializing/networking, communication skills, cooperation/compromise, flexibility
  • Psychological: problem-solving, time management, goal-setting, reflection, mindfulness, use of imagery
  • Distractions: leisure activity (e.g., music, hobby)
  • Spiritual: meditate, worship/prayer, volunteer

Cultivate a more mindful way of living – be aware of what is happening while it is happening. Awareness allows us to exert control over and influence the process of the stress experience at exactly that moment when we usually react automatically and plunge into hyperarousal and negative coping strategies. Just by bringing awareness to what is going on in the moment, we can change the situation dramatically. In general, awareness will either reduce our arousal or it will help us to recover from it more quickly.

Some important questions to ask yourself:

  • In a typical day/week, what kinds of life experiences nourish me and what kinds of life experiences deplete me?
  • What life experiences do I tend to perceive as particularly stressful?
  • How do I typically react to these stressors?
  • What are some of the ways that I currently use to cope with my stress?
  • Which are positive and healthy and which are negative and destructive?

If you are interested in reading further about ways to deal with stress, I would suggest the following literature: 

  • Burns, D. (1990). Feeling good handbook. New York: NAL/Dutton.
  • Carlson, R. (1997). Don’t sweat the small stuff. New York: Hyperion.
  • Covey, S. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Free Press.
  • Davis, M., Eshelman, E., & McKay, M. (2000). The relaxation & stress reduction workbook (5th ed). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
  • Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living. New York: Random House.

© 2015 Angelo Caputo, Ph.D., C.Psych.