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Dealing with stress: a modern day challenge

A typical day for most of us begins at the start line of a Formula 1 car race, and at the sound of the alarm bell, the body just gets on the go, going round and round the lap circuit to finish the daily chores, meet deadlines, etc.
With the constant uncertainties and challenges that are part and parcel of the modern life, understanding and managing stress to keep a mental, emotional and physical balance becomes an important requirement.
Stress is a normal response of the body to everyday life events as well as positive and negative life changes.  Some amount of stress is important as it helps deal and respond to these changes. However if it goes beyond a certain point, it is no longer helpful since it negatively impacts relationships, well being and overall quality of life. Chronic stress may also lead to psychological disorders, heart ailments, digestive problems, obesity and auto immune diseases.

People experience stress either due to one-off major life changes (acute) such as sudden death of a loved one, an accident or due to a number of life changes over a prolonged period of time (chronic) e.g. dissatisfaction, work/relationships, prolonged illness. Life is often not that simple and often cannot be categorised by  these two experiences alone as one can be experiencing one or/and both at the same time.

Some common physical and psychological stress symptoms which all of us may have experienced at one point or another, include aches and pains, stomach problems (diarrhea, constipation, ulcers), pounding heart, skin rashes and allergies, cold sweats, anxiety, depression, forgetfulness, mood swings, problems with relationships, difficulty concentrating, frequent irritability, temper flare-ups, crying spells.

According to the Holmes and Rahe Global Stress Scale, which keeps an account of major stress causing life events, the top ten most stressful events include:

1. death of a spouse
2. divorce
3. marital separation
4. imprisonment
5. death of a close family member
6. personal injury or illness
7. marriage
8. dismissal from work
9. marital reconciliation
10. retirement.

While experiences of stress are greatly influenced by external factors (such as major life changes, the kind of work we do, relationship problems, financial issues), the key to well being is in how one perceives these external factors and their  impact.

People who have difficulty accepting the fact that life is uncertain, have a pessimistic view about life and/or their own selves,  have a need for perfection, or  are unable to communicate assertively, often experience more stress than others.

Psychologist Connie Lillas uses a driving analogy to explain how different people react to stress. She presents three response forms:

o Foot on the gas — where the response to stress is generally filled with anger and agitation and one feels overly heated, emotional and unable to sit still.
o Foot on the brake — where the response to stress is generally withdrawn and one shows very little emotions or energy to go about dealing with the stress inducing situation.
o Foot on both — where the response is both tense and frozen at the same time and one freezes under the pressure. While one looks numb and calm on the surface, there is extreme agitation underneath.

To better deal with stress, it is important to identify the reasons for the stress as well as one’s own stress response.

Some effective ways of dealing with stress that work for a lot of people range from activities meant for relaxation to more long term introspective initiatives for becoming self-aware and changing one’s outlook towards life in general and interaction with people more specifically.  These include:

o Learning ways to communicate assertively and saying NO to people, situation and things that cause stress.
o Being more expressive about ones feelings and emotions. An increased understanding of one’s likes, dislikes, values etc. leads to better understanding of one’s self, which leads to a better understanding of the reasons for  stress and ways of dealing with it.
o Reevaluating stressful relationships and their impact in order to make necessary adjustments.
o Accepting changes and life events that cannot be altered. This is especially true for situations that are beyond our control, e.g. the death of a loved one, calamities etc. Accepting change also means letting go of things and events that have hurt in the past. It does not simply mean avoiding the feelings, but sharing and talking about them and then letting go.
o Adjusting the standards one sets in one’s own life or expects from others. Perfectionism is a major cause of stress that can be avoided.
o Finding a deeper purpose and meaning of life, introspecting on life’s spiritual and philosophical aspects can help in understanding life better thus increasing the ability to be aware of and deal with stress.
o Focusing on the positive things in one’s life, one’s own strengths and qualities.
o Finding the ability to laugh at oneself and what one goes through, looking at things from different perspectives.
o Managing and utilizing time more effectively and efficiently.
o Taking time out to relax and having fun is also a useful way of dealing with stress. What relaxes a person will vary  and may range from going for a walk, spending time in the garden or with nature to listening to music, watching a movie to spending time with friends. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing and systematic muscle relaxation exercises are also useful.
o Maintaining a healthy lifestyle by exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, avoiding alcohol, cigarettes and drugs and eating a balanced diet has been found to be extremely useful for managing stress.

There is no single stress management strategy or formula that will work for all, and thus it is all the more important to identify reasons for feeling stressed and identifying ways that will make you feel most calm and in control.

Remember to seek professional help, if you feel stressed all the time, or by things in life that did not stress you in the past or if you feel unable to manage the physical and psychological symptoms, despite trying various stress management techniques.

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