While stress management is a term that can mean many things, it is my hope that I can boil it all down and present easy to follow methods that you can try out in your own life.
Within these pages we will look at what stress is and how we can better manage stress to reach goals or just plain relax. You might wonder how stress can be “managed”, don’t we just want to rid ourselves of stress and be done with it? Well the simple answer is…Yes…..and…NO. While stress is often seen as something bad we just want to get rid of, we also need stress in our lives to help motivate us to reach our goals. That’s right stress–in the right amounts– can actually help us! But overdo it and you can be stressed out and your productivity will suffer.
You may have dropped by because you are overwhelmed with stress and wanting to find a way to decrease the stress in your life so you can be more productive and happier. Or you may just have been intreaged by the name. Whatever the reason, WELCOME!
Prepare for a journey that just may change your life for the better.
Why should you listen to me? Good question.
For the past 15 years I have been helping people to look at their lives and make changes that actually improve their lives. As a nurse practitioner in the mental health field I have years of experience in helping people to identify what is stressing them and set goals to address those areas and alleviate the negative impacts of stress while holding on to the beneficial aspects.
Take some time to look around. I’m glad you decided to come by.
I plan to provide new content weekly since I am still working a regular job. I am hoping to tailor material based on feedback so please feel free to leave comments.
Resilience is a part of dealing with day to day stress. Resilience when cultivated can turn daily stress into mere challenge. I’m currently reading The Resilience Advantage: Stop Managing Stress and Find Your Resilience by Richard Citrin and Alan Weiss PhD. Both of the authors are business consultants (not exactly my wheelhouse, but the title intrigued me). While the focus is primarily on business, many of the concepts are applicable to personal use as well.
So, what is Resilience?
As defined by Miriam Webster resilience is — “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”
Because we can’t control everything in our lives (or the world) misfortune and change are apt to find us at some point. So, cultivating resilience can help us bounce back when things change.
How do we cultivate resilience?
Recognizing that we are already fairly good at managing stressors. This is an aspect I see in my office routinely. Many times individuals negate how far they’ve come and discount the positive coping skills they possess because the current state of affairs is difficult. Recognizing that you’ve had difficult times before and that you came through those them is a helpful first step. It’s hard to improve things if you are busy beating yourself up.
Recognizing that the human brain is a fairly old piece of equipment that functions much like it did for our ancestors hundreds, maybe even thousands of years ago. Our biology is stacked to look at stress and do one of three things: Fight–Flee–Freeze. The adversity our distant ancestors faced were often life or death. Our bodies today function in the same way even though the stimulus has changed. Instead of being chased down by lions, tigers, or bears our current society treats us to stressors like traffic, crowding, and insult. If you go into attack mode every time you get cut off in traffic, stress will have a severe impact on you.
Embracing that we hold a key to impacting stress by changing our thinking. By changing the way that we think about our stress we can impact the whole process in a more positive way. While the initial response to stress is biological we can develop ways to challenge those reactions to create more adaptive responses. That’s not to say that negative stress will never find us, but when we teach ourselves to think differently about stress, we can often change the dynamic from tragedy to challenge.
Cultivating confidence in your abilities is key to helping you become more resilient. How have you handled challenges in the past? What parts of those successes may you be ignoring in the present difficulty? According to Citrin and Weiss, “The best performers use stress to improve themselves.” Think of people who perform as a part of their work (musicians, actors, sporting celebs). In each of the cases individuals study where they have been successful and where they have fallen flat and they adjust their course accordingly. Some do this very quickly while others take time to look at the whole picture. How can you make changes to better address how you look at stressful challenges?
Change Your Thinking
Stress is a part of living. According to Citrin and Weiss, “Stress is a reaction to stimuli (an event of some sort), but that stimuli needn’t automatically cause a negative reaction. Our Reaction–and however we control or don’t control it–causes the stress.” (Page 38) I like to further refine this as the difference between a reaction and a response. A reaction is automatic while a response requires some reflection on the problem as a whole.
Can you transform your stress into empowerment? By weighing risk and reward we move toward empowering ourselves to move through our stresses and become stronger. Citrin and Weiss provide a model on a 10 point scale which may be useful (page 43).
Place your stressor on the risk scale
-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 +1 +2 +3 +4 +5
+5= Transformational shift in my life like winning the lottery
+4= Dramatic improvement that creates notable success at work/home
+3= Successful gain that brings me praise and appreciation
+2= Success that is short lived but enjoyable
+1= Creates a good feeling but not much beyond it
-1= Minor setback, does not affect me much
-2= Problematic event but easily managed within my immediate world
-3= A public setback, one that impacts my reputation
-4= A major defeat in an areas that I have devoted much energy
-5= Major blow to finances, reputation, or health
Answer the following questions
What can I do to prevent the likelihood of a negative event occurring?
What can I do to mitigate the effects if it does occur?
What can I do to create a positive outcome?
How do I build momentum to make that happen?
They go on to state “This model enables us to focus on the positives and potential wins by acknowledging and managing the negatives and potential losses.” And “Resilience changes our perspective on stress in that it moves us from a state of pain to a state of gain.
To review more on thoughts, feelings, a behaviors look here.
This blog post was adapted from the first part of the book The Resilience Advantage: Stop Managing Stress and Find Your Resilience by Richard Citrin and Alan Weiss PhD.
Burnout risk may be around the next corner. What is the risk that at any given moment you will experience burnout? The answer depends on a number of factors you face in the day to day. Some of those things are beyond your control and others that are within your power to change. The issue to to find the factors that you can change.
The type of environment in which you live and work can push you toward burnout or protect you from burnout’s grasp. Your job is more than just a list of tasks and may extend beyond the workday. Your work environment is comprised of:
Interpersonal Relationships at work
The number of hours you work
And the setting in which you do your work
Working from home.
The demands of the job also have an impact. As more people are forging into the digital arena job stress is often on location at home as well. Setting poor boundaries around work can mean always being at work and never really being home.
The people with whom you work can make the job seem easy or like drudgery. Looking at the ways in which you interact with co-workers can tell you a lot about this area. Having a group of people who respect one another and work together makes the job much easier and likely more efficient as well. The only aspect of this area you can control is your own part in those relationships. Do you tend to be uplifting or a drag at work? Are you a complainer or an optimistic problem solver? Looking at your part can improve the whole if you are not happy with your work relationships.
The number of hours you work has a big effect on whether you will experience burnout. One study showed that there was a 12%-15% increase in the odds of burnout for every 5 hours per week worked OVER 40 hours (McMurray et al. 2000). So keeping yourself to 40 hours (or less) can go a long way to helping prevent your chances of burnout. Again this is more challenging in a digital work environment where work may occur at the dining room table. Setting clear boundaries around the work and sticking to those boundaries will help limit your risk.
Location, Location, Location
Work setting is becoming more and more difficult to define. When I was growing up my father went to a job in a certain location and returned home at the end of the day. Forty some years later my brother works from home from his laptop and rarely goes to an office setting. It’s very important for my brother to set limits with his work and define what a workday means for him. If he sets poor limits he can find himself working more than is healthy for him.
Time, Time, Time
There are many jobs in which shift work is a part of the setting. Those who work in factories, healthcare workers, and as well as retail workers are working shifts. This can mean working two or three shifts over the course of a month making home life much more difficult to manage. Another aspect of time, is rotating schedules in which each week there are different days you may have off from work. Trucking can be like this. All of these can work for you if you pay close attention to your personal needs. For me when I was working shifts it was most important for me to know which days I would work and which I would have off and when ever possible that those work days all occurred on the same shift rather than in rotation.
Recharging, Rebooting, Recovering
Take the time to notice what stresses you out. Look at what gives you a boost and helps you to recover from work. Look at what is meaningful for you in your day to day life —interacting with your children, spouse, friends; honing some kind of talent that has nothing to do with work; learning a new skill; taking up a new hobby or developing one. These are all methods toward warding off burnout in the day to day. If we are workers only we are set up for burnout in ways that often sneak up on us. Having a broad range of interests that you make time and space for in your life goes a long way to decrease your burnout risk. Partly because there are other things you find meaningful, but you will also be more likely have others who can clue you into what’s going on with you if you begin to show signs of burnout.
So what’s the take-home?
You have to be willing to make change where it is possible (within yourself) even if it is scary to do so. Having confidence that you can manage whatever the results of your efforts will be helpful. Take a long look at what may be burning you out in your work and make some tough decisions.
Often just asking a few questions will create a space in which you can look at things more objectively and make some meaningful change for yourself.
Can I change any part of the work environment which will in turn decrease my stress?
What can I do?
What is beyond my control to change?
If I don’t stay at this job, what then?
Another burnout risk is your thinking style. Are you a glass half empty or a glass half full person? What kind of thoughts do you find yourself having most in relation to work? People who are less flexible in their thinking are more likely to develop burnout than people who are more flexible in the way they think about things. For a great Youtube presentation on thinking style and stress check out Doc Mike Evans here. For more on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and how they relate to stress check out the June post here.
Thanks for dropping by the stress nest.
Have you experienced burnout? What strategies worked for you to manage/eliminate it?
Burnout prevention is a topic that seems to go unnoticed. If we want to be healthy then preventing burnout is key. The question is how best to go about burnout prevention.
Well, like most things related to health, the answer is–it’s different for everyone. The study of stress shows that we all respond to stress differently. Knowing more about how you respond to stress will carry you closer to knowing your own best strategy or strategies.First let’s look at the different levels of prevention: primary, secondary and tertiary.
Primary Burnout Prevention
Primary prevention occurs prior to the onset of any burnout symptoms. This kind of prevention comes in the form of counseling about coping with stress and considering what stresses uplift you versus those that are more difficult for you. Think public service announcements.
Secondary Burnout Prevention
Secondary prevention comes when an individual arrives at some awareness of symptoms by happenstance. This is what happened when I visited my healthcare providers for usual check ups and found that I had several stress related issues. I was completely unaware of these symptoms until being seen by my healthcare providers. They were able to pick up on these symptoms and inform me. Think a kind of stress surprise.
Tertiary Burnout Prevention
Tertiary prevention is a process of keeping known illness from causing lasting damage through rehabilitation and prevention of relapse. I was engaging in this type of prevention when I made decisions concerning my work/life balance that subsequently addressed the symptoms that came to light in secondary prevention. Think total behavior change at this stage.
Role of Emotions
Looking at your emotion management can help you look at your burnout potential. One of the most beneficial emotions when addressing stress is confidence. Feeling confident that you can effect change in your environment cognitively, physically, and socially can go along way toward inoculating you against stress.
How can this be? Because, when stress arrives (as it always will), feeling confident within yourself that you can make meaningful change will serve to decrease the stress you feel. On the flip side if you are certain that nothing you do will effect change or help you will be left in despair.
Challenging your thinking helps you build new skills. Building new skills helps you address all kinds of stress more effectively. This process is not one we enjoy, but at some point we need to do something different. One of my mentors used to repeat the adage, “If you want something different to happen, you have to do something different.” You can review challenging your thinking here.
Questioning Around Stress
How do you find that different? Sometimes asking yourself a few questions can be helpful. Questioning the situation and your part in it will help you to shift your stress. Here are a few questions to get you started.
Which of my needs have been neglected?
Which of my abilities remain underdeveloped?
Which of my objectives are unrealistic?
Which of my thinking patterns are dysfunctional?
What in my environment is a burden?
Are there things I don’t know about the things I find stressful?
What parts are missing?
What am I not seeing?
Are there areas that I am avoiding?
What one thing can I change which will result in the best outcome?
Is there a way to reclaim a portion of my freedom/autonomy?
What must I resolve to move forward?
Often simply answering the questions above will cause some movement in areas that may have had you stuck.
Give it a try and let me know what you think. Have a great week. Thanks for dropping by The Stress Nest.
I have been making my way through a book on burnout–Burnout for Experts: Prevention in the Context of Living and Working–a compilation edited by S. Bahrer-Kohler. A hefty tome which is taking me some time to move through. Here at the first of the year–a new year, and (depending on who you ask) a new decade I thought it would be fitting to do a few posts on the phenomenon of burnout. What it is, how it manifests, and what we can do about it. I myself have been visited by the burnout bug. It’s one of the reasons I decided to make some changes in my work/life balance, but more about that later. Burnout is a classic consequence of unregulated stress.
In my work I talk regularly with individuals who are experiencing burnout. Many people are caught off guard by symptoms of burnout. I know I was, after all I am supposed to have all my stuff together right? Burnout can affect anyone and it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for it. Framing burnout as a consequence of unregulated stress helps people to better understand what they are dealing with.
What is Burnout?
According to Mirriam-Webster, one definition of burnout is “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” You can find the full definition here. I also consider burnout a consequence of unregulated stress.
In chapter 4 of Burnout for Experts–Burnout Symptoms and Cycles of Burnout– the author reviews burnout. Burnout in terms of work involves three basic components–
Lack of Professional Competence
Emotional exhaustion can sap the life out of anyone. It’s that sense that no matter how hard you work you’ll never get ahead. Recognition for work is a piece of it, but also the match between you and your co-workers. If you are a generation X worker surrounded by baby boomers (or vice versa) there may be a mismatch in the way you and your coworkers approach work that can increase your chances of burnout.
Cynicism can also wreak havoc on your life in general including your work life. Again according to our friends at Merriam-Webster Cynicism is: “1. The doctrine of the Cynics and 2. Cynical attitude or quality.” Anyone in the dark? That leads us to look up Cynic which–drum roll please– is “a faultfinding captious critic.” Captious is “marked by an often ill-natured inclination to stress faults and raise objections.” Well enough said, this kind of attitude is likely not to make you any friends on the job, but when you start to notice cynicism in yourself or others, it may be a sign of BURNOUT.
Lack of Professional Competence
Lack of professional competence is a difficult one. Because the author did not tease out her intended meaning. I see this as both a potential symptom of being a new on the job and of burnout. These of course can overlap and the author does suggest that young people are more prone to burnout because of not having a lot of experience and expertise on the job. We older workers have likely seen a number cycles of the job and tend to be less influenced by the ebb and flow of these cycles. Competence to my mind is another matter and can increase or decrease based on your stress levels. You’ve probably had an experience at least once in your life when you had prepared for some event or challenge and then came up blank. That can happen more often when we experience unchecked stress.
What causes Burnout?
Any overly stressful situation or conglomeration of situations can cause burnout, but the author also notes that burnout is influenced by the following:
Lack of control over decisions
Undermining of Teamwork
Lack of fairness
Conflict between core personal values and job.
Workload is not just about the amount of work, but also about the amount of time allotted to do that work. Business continues to press workers to “do more with less” and grind out the product. Whether that product is a thing or a service being pressed to do more in the same amount of time is a recipe for burnout.
Long hours can cause issues as well. I also believe that the advent of smart phones and internet have increased burnout because many workers are in essence “always available.” These devices have blurred the lines of what it means to be at work. I have counseled many people on being available after hours and working to set limits on work where possible. Setting limits with managers who want to regularly contact you after work hours can be difficult because we want to show that we are ready and able to take on the work. But being over zealous in this can lead to a cycle of never having down time which of course can then lead to burnout.
Lack of Control over Decisions
This is a big one. It’s one of the biggest factors I think that leads to burnout. The sense of being stuck in the middle with no power. Few of us want to be in this position. Often it is not the stress of the work that leads to burnout, but the situation of having little to no autonomy as to when various parts of the job get carried out and how. We can’t all be the decision makers at work, but if we can find some part of our work that we control this can be protective against burnout. Also having the confidence that you can change jobs if you wanted to. Feeling stuck is never a good feeling and can push us to burnout if not addressed.
Working for an institution that does not value teamwork can be stressful. I’ve had managers that seemed to actively work at squashing teams. Teams that work well together can really crank out work which can leave others looking bad by comparison. Feeling undermined can push workers toward burnout which then tends to show up as missed work days. Sometimes because of illness and sometimes because of just plain feeling fed up. All of this can be avoided if managers value teams and encourage them to flourish.
Lack of Fairness
Lack of fairness affects workers at every level of business. From factory workers to physicians each sees when he/she is not being treated fairly. While we often can’t control this as workers, we may be able to control where we work. On an organizational level businesses can ferret out where fairness is an issue by looking at where turnover is high. Departments that have difficulties retaining workers are often areas where a lack of fairness is high.
Conflict Between Personal Values and Job
The conflict that can arise between one’s personal values and how you must perform on the job can push workers toward burnout. Finding a job that better represents your values can go a long way to avoiding this.
Other issues that can influence burnout are the state of your personal relationships, how you are sleeping, and how well you are caring for yourself away from work. Look at previous posts on sleep, eating, and relationships. We will continue to look at various aspects of these in coming weeks.
Let me know what you think about your experience here at the Stress Nest. Leave a comment or drop an email. Whatever works for you. Your feedback will help me to tailor the content such that you are finding what you need here.
Thanks for dropping by and Have a Wonderful day~ Lynda
Going green, so to speak, is one way of decreasing your stress. I am not talking about the green revolution in which you reuse and recycle, but rather something that is starting to get more recognition in city planning across the United States. Namely having ready access to green spaces as a means to help increase social cohesion and decrease overall stress levels in populations.
Hopefully we can all appreciate how stress relieving it can be to spend time in nature. What has been a hunch of those providing care is now being born out scientifically. If you are a person who has access to nature (i.e. trees, wild animals, grasses, water expanses, etc) bravo. One way to help decrease your stress is to get out and take a walk in the great outdoors.
Location, Location, Location
One aspect the article mentioned is having tested two locations or conditions. Walking along either a busy street OR walking in a forest preserve. They were able to show over the course of the study that those who walked in the forest had lower perceived stress levels. So while walking in general helps lower stress levels as discussed in previous posts (here and here) we now finding that the location of the walk can amplify the effect.
Make it Meaningful
So what does this mean for the average person like you and me? Well, to my mind this represents a very low cost means of accessing stress reduction. Finding a place to walk in nature near you could be the biggest contribution you can make to your overall stress in 2020. If you live in a large city this may be more challenging. Many larger cities have started incorporating green spaces within walking or commuting distance.
If you can take the time to get to a green space once a week or more to take a walk (some studies suggest that you can even sit and just be in the green space) for 30-50 minutes, you will go a long way to helping reduce your stress. As we’ve discussed previously intention makes the meaning. Setting aside/planning a time when you will spend time in nature will make it more likely to happen.
What Constitutes a Green Space?
ANY location of relatively unspoiled nature. It can be a small park at the end of the block or a large forest preserve. It can be a location with a large expanse of water with unobstructed view. A beach can be a green space. A mountain, a large field of grass with a path, a fitness path.
Whatever is available near you. I find it much easier to go green and decrease my stress when access is relatively close. There are several in my community less than a 20 minute drive from my home.
Find It and Use It
Once you find your local green space be sure to use it. Also by linking other stress reducing habits you’ve built you can increase your overall effect. For example, you could make it a part of your DIY stress kit as discussed in a previous post. You may even decide to make it a part of “unplugging” from technology if only for the time you are spending in nature. I once walked several sections of the Appalachian Trail and found no need for music or distraction. Nature had me completely enveloped. And while not every aspect of that adventure was stress free (let’s just say there were tears) I did find that I slept very well while out in nature. Since striking out into the back country is not everyone’s idea of “stress relieving” take a moment to consider simply going to a local park and sitting or walking for 30-50 minutes. You may find that your stress levels go way down.
Give it a try making an effort to go green and decrease stress may work so well you can relinquish your gym membership. Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Try it out and let me know how it works for you.
Thanks for dropping by The Stress Nest.
I hope your 2020 is filled with much more fun and much less stress.
Attitude and stress have an interesting interaction. We often feel justified in feeling upset or resentful when stress is high, but research suggests that cultivating a more positive attitude may be more beneficial to our physical and mental health.
Bad-itude or Gr-attitude?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary resentment is “an indignant sense of injury or insult received or perceived, a sense of grievance; (a feeling of) ill will, bitterness, or anger against a person or thing.” It defines gratitude as “the quality or condition of being grateful or thankful; the appreciation of an inclination to return kindness; gratefulness.” Choosing gratitude over resentment is a choice that leads to more benefit both for you and those around you.
Okay so what’s the point?
When we cultivate gratitude our bodies respond by increasing our subjective sense of well-being likely through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that induces calm). When we are grateful we have lower heart rate, better immune response, and a higher sense of positive well-being. Conversely when we are resentful our heart rate increases, our immune system struggles, and we have higher tension which in turn increases our feelings of anger or bitterness toward the world. Check out this article in psychology today which talks about the benefits of gratitude.
Can I really choose?
Yes, you really can choose gratitude over resentment. There will always be situations that increase our stress, but we can choose to get mired in the negative aspects or focus more on the positive parts of our lives. This may mean letting go of hurt and identifying where things are going right in our lives. While the driver that cut you off in traffic this morning can increase your resentment in the moment, holding on to that is a choice. When you look at the whole of your life that momentary hurt doesn’t amount to much, but when you hold on to that throughout the day you are doing damage to yourself and possibly those around you.
For the most part it’s up to you
I’m not suggesting that you ignore injustice or harm, but much of what stresses us out in the day to day isn’t about world peace or even what’s happening in much of the world. Typically it’s about things in our lives much closer in. What I call “toothpaste issues.” If you are prone to resentment you can choose to make a shift. This won’t happen over night, but as you consciously choose to focus more on the positive over time you will notice a shift. Most of the time making that shift is about looking at what can be done about what irks us and then taking action or choosing to let it go. If you want to take a deeper dive into changing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors check out a previous post here.
Cultivating gratitude creates an attitude that will decrease your stress. Start creating a more positive attitude by:
Taking time to say thank you to those you interact with is a powerful way to step into gratitude.
Thank everyone from the neighbor who shoveled your walk to the cashier at the store.
This helps to cultivate positivity.
I have been amazed at the number of people who are genuinely touched when thanked.
Keeping a journal of gratitude–
Take note of things that you are grateful for , review the list, and add to it regularly.
This activity can help you realize on a difficult day that all is not bleak.
Taking time to let go of old hurt is a great step toward unburdening yourself.
Holding on to hurt is not the same as holding others accountable.
Holding onto hurt only makes you miserable.
Letting it go helps you feel lighter and happier.
How can you start cultivating gratitude today?
Thank you for dropping by.
Please a comment about what you’d like to see more (or less) of as we move into the new year.
Taming holiday stress will help you other times of the year as well. If you tend to feel stressed around the holidays, this post is for you. For many the stress can begin to creep in just after Halloween and builds through the remainder of the year.
What causes this sudden shift into feeling more on edge and maybe even a little queasy? For some onslaught of holiday tunes played on an endless loop amp up the stress. For others there is an uneasy feeling that perhaps they won’t achieve the goals they set earlier in the year.
Whatever the source of your stress it’s time to take stock. Take a few minutes to think about the holidays. When does your stress start to build and where does it come from? Looking at this now helps you to tame it later.
Close your eyes and float back through the years to various holiday experiences. What was your best Holiday? What was the worst? Open your eyes and jot these down.
Next, look at how closely your holiday last year resembled the best of your holiday memories. Did it match up or fall short? Also ask does the worst memory tend to show up and distract you? Taming holiday stress only comes if you look at how you may be acting in ways that increase stress.
The Land of Expectations
Ask yourself what you expect from the holidays.
Do you expect others to behave in a certain way?
Do you expect yourself to provide a certain type of experience for those around you?
Are you holiday central finding it hard set limits?
Do you expect to get better deals than you do an end up broke?
What you most look forward to this time of year.
What you dread.
How much of the holidays you miss by being caught up in your own expectations.
Once you define what stresses you about the holidays you can start to build an action plan to address that stress and start to reduce it.
Plan for Holiday Success
Talk to your loved ones about your expectations. If you are expecting things to be a certain way it’s likely that others in your life do as well. Talk openly about what each expects in the weeks ahead.
Listen to what others have in mind and find a way to negotiate to get to a middle ground. The holidays can be a win/win if we are willing to compromise so that everyone gets at least a part of what they want.
Share the work of the holiday experience. While we can idealize the holidays there is work involved. Preparing our home for visitors, shopping not only for gifts but for the extra groceries etc. we may need when hosting family and friends.
Remember to set limits for yourself and to respect the limits of others during the season. Set a budget and stick to it. Take time to step back and really enjoy the events of the season. Take time to experience all those things you’ve looked forward to.
Holidays are about celebration not competition. You don’t need to outspend or out surprise or over deliver in any way. Just be yourself. Be present. Be part of the celebration and enjoy.
Decreasing stress is often a case of looking at where the stress comes from and then laying a plan for making a change. If you are experiencing stress beyond what this post covers take a few moments to check out some of the earlier posts on stress management here and here.
If you enjoy these posts please take a minute to share with a friend.
We don’t often think of placing our stress level on a continuum, but looking at our stress through the lens of our needs can be helpful. Stress and needs often go hand in hand. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we can begin to map out where our stress levels are on a continuum from less severe to more severe. This also allows us to determine where our stress is coming from. Knowing where our stress comes from helps us to build a plan to address it more effectively.
Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who developed the hierarchy. This was a theory he developed concerning how people are motivated. It is said he preferred to focus on the positive in people rather than just seeing symptoms. He completed his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin and went on to complete more research at Columbia University.
As you go through your life you may be surprised that stress can accumulate from a variety of areas. Using Maslow’s hierarchy you can develop a map of your stress. By looking at where your needs are not being met you will also find where stresses arise. This will help you to develop action plans that better address those areas and in turn help to decrease your stress.
The model is arranged in the shape of a triangle as shown above. Each portion of the triangle builds one upon the other and ends in a peak. Maslow broke down the human condition into five areas. Our Physiological, Safety, Belonging, Self-Esteem, and Self-Actualization needs.
What the body needs for survival comprises the physiological level of the hierarchy. We all need enough air, water, food, sleep, clothes, shelter, and general health. If any of these areas are compromised in your life your stress levels will rise. Addressing the physiological needs is a good place to begin. Looking at the following areas is helpful. By baseline general health I simply mean are you overall healthy. If you have chronic ailments such as diabetes or heart disease are these in good control? Some of these things will be in your direct control while some may not be–such as quality air. Looking at what you can control can be helpful in reducing your stress levels.
Enough quality air
Plenty of water
Enough clothing for the season
Baseline general health
Next is safety. Looking at your level of personal, emotional, and financial safety and security are key to helping your stress levels. If you are not feeling safe it’s more likely that you will be feeling very stressed. Do what you can to address each of the areas of safety. Health gets a boost in this level as well to health and “well being.” Again in some of these areas you may not have direct or immediate control, but you will likely be able to formulate a plan to address each of these areas over time.
Humans for the most part are social beings. Having a level of social belonging can be a key part of keeping stresses low. Family, friendships, and intimacy are important parts of life. Finding a social group can be difficult, but there are a lot of tools in the modern era that can help. Search engines such as Meetup.com can help you to find a group of like minded people. Being a part of a social group helps us to feel “part of” rather than isolated. This can go a long way to decreasing stress.
Self esteem is the next level in the hierarchy. Beyond feeling good about yourself feeling competent in your work, confident in your friendships and family life, and having a level of expertise somewhere in your life all have a positive effect on reducing stress levels. Many times the more expert we are the more autonomy we have over our lives which can also be stress relieving.
The peak of the hierarchy is self-actualization. Self actualization is living a life that allows you to realize your full potential. Developing a skill or talent in life, parenting, finding a compatible mate. Self actualization is the cherry on top. It allows you to navigate your life as you desire for the most part. And to be sure it requires you to have all the previous levels of the hierarchy locked in.
What is the hierarchy of your personal stress? Take a few moments to look at how your needs and stress stack up. Start looking at what you can do to address your levels of stress in each of the areas. Take a few moments to review some of my earlier blog posts on eating, sleeping, exercise, and finances which may help you to better manage your stress levels. Remember stress is inevitable, but there is something you can do to address what stresses you. It just may be easier than you realize.
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We once thought that changing the brain in adulthood was impossible. Now we now that to be false. The brain is more plastic (able to change) than we previously believed. In less than 15 minutes a day you can begin to change to your brain and decrease your stress.
Mindfulness based meditation has been in the in the mainstream for nearly 30 years now. Jon Kabat-Zinn began using it in western medicine starting in the the 1970’s. He started a stress reduction clinic in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine. The ideas he started with there didn’t gain public popularity until the early 1990’s after he wrote and published the book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Mind and Body to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. This book was embraced and from that point Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) started to spread.
Meditation as a Tool
What does this have to do with meditation and how can you benefit from it? Meditation is a portion of what MBSR teaches in an 8-week course along with different ways of thinking about obstacles.
I often suggest that people give it a try especially in managing anxiety. Because meditation is often affiliated with Buddhism there is often some hesitancy. Sometimes folks believe it will interfere with their religious practice. But meditation is not THE religious part of Buddhism it is simply a tool that Buddhists use to move closer to enlightenment. Meditation also helps with many other aspects of human life and we can benefit from those without becoming Buddhists. You can find a free MBSR course here.
After 8 weeks they found statistically significant differences in the groups. While the study group was small (n=40) they were able to pull some interesting findings.
The Kind of Help
They found improvements in:
Responses to stress
Including improved ability to cope under stress
Importantly they found that the effects were not present at 4 weeks (the mid-point), but required more than 4 weeks to see the changes.
Interestingly sleep was not found to be improved although a number of other studies have shown improvements in sleep with use of meditation. The authors opined that the time of day that the participants engaged in the activity could have had an impact and urged that future studies control for this.
The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis works to help us manage our stresses and bring our bodies back into homeostasis. When the HPA axis is out of whack we can feel overly anxious or overwhelmed. When stresses occur it works to help us recover.
Meditation seems to help regulate the HPA axis. Over time engaging in meditation appears to help the hippocampus grow and the amygdala reduce in size helping us to better regulate our mood. The amygdala is the part of the brain that jumps into action when emotions emerge. When it is over-activated it can get stuck in sending distress messages to the frontal cortex (the part of the brain that helps us to make a decision on how to act). When the frontal cortex is overwhelmed we can have difficulties making decisions or in extreme cases may even blank out.
Imagine having access to a system that is free, requires less than 15 minutes a day of our direct attention, and has the potential to impact all the above areas of your life. Sounds like a miracle of sorts. We are finding that meditation can change your brain and decrease your stress.
That said, while meditation can provide improvements in a number of areas, it is not a silver bullet. Meditation alone will not solve your problems. But by using meditation you can create an optimal internal environment. One in which you are more likely to best handle your stressors most effectively.
Another activity that can decrease your stress and cause positive brain changes is exercise. Check out the blog post on exercise here and here.
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Sleep is an important part of remaining healthy. According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) one third of the adult population doesn’t get enough sleep. Among the consequences of poor sleep are development of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. Check out the CDC site here. There is an area where you can also look at how your state stacks up in reference to sleep. Improving sleep can decrease stress.
Quality sleep helps with stress levels
There are many good reasons to make sleep a focus of our daily routine. Getting enough sleep and getting good quality sleep are key. Addressing any sleep issues can go a long way to helping you reduce your overall stress levels. Review my previous post on sleep here. There you can review the components of good sleep hygiene to improve your sleep and reduce stress.
Quantity of sleep is also important
Sleep loss impacts us on a variety of levels as detailed above. The CDC recommends 7 or more hours a night for adults. While a single night of poor sleep here and there is not likely to be harmful, if you are consistently getting less sleep than you need you may be suffering the deficit whether you are consciously aware of it or not. Sleep loss impacts:
Short term memory
Cognitive speed and efficiency.
What about sleep aids?
Sleep aids are also a cost to our system. While short term use is likely not harmful taking these products over a number of years can cause issues. They are also pretty expensive and adding in medication side-effects drive that overall “cost” to you up.
Music and Sleep
I recently read an article that looks at how people use music to get better sleep. The article is clear that there is more research to be done and that their sample may be biased toward younger people as well as people who are musically oriented. Still, doing a short cost/benefit analysis shows that giving music a shot is a win/win.
Music has long been used as a means of relaxation and to address mood states. To use this to benefit sleep is not a far leap. This article looks at the benefits of music use. You can read the full article here.
Benefits of Music
Decrease subjective experience of pain
Modulations of sympathetic nervous system activity
Reduce stress hormone cortisol release
Increase oxytocin release which promotes relaxation
The study was an anecdotal survey study done online. 651 individuals took the survey and of those 248 reported using music as a sleep aid. Of the 248 they inquired as to why and how the respondents thought that music helped them with sleep.
The “why” respondents gave for using music
Helps me fall asleep faster
Less time in bed before falling asleep
More satisfaction with sleep
The “how” respondents thought it worked
Helps me mentally relax
Distraction from events of the day
Helps me physically relax.
In the survey 545 musical artists were named. The most named artists were:
Johann Sebastian Bach (15)
Ed Sheeran (13)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (13)
Brian Eno (10)
By these numbers we may be able to deduce that there isn’t one kind of music that is helpful and that it may go more to individual taste. The authors state that self selection of music is the key and that individuals are likely choosing music to address the why’s listed above. In this way music can be chosen for the desired effect (i.e. mood enhancement, distraction, physical relaxation).
Give it a try
Why not give music a try to address any sleep issues you may have?
The cost is relatively low when compared to pharmaceutical sleep aids.
There are no currently determinable side effects.
It is easy to add music as a regular part of your sleep hygiene. For example listening to preferred music for an hour prior to bedtime.
Getting enough sleep and good quality sleep can go a long way to helping reduce stress overall.