Stress can be defined as the response of the body to any demand placed upon it and can have a positive or negative effect on us. Most often, it is the negative that people are talking about – the distress – caused by demands that exceed our ability to cope and that detract from our wellbeing.
Demands may come from the external (people, places, things, situations), or they may be internal (our thoughts). The latter is the most important cause of distress for any of us. As a result of the various demands, we respond physiologically (increased heart rate, sweating, rapid and shallow breathing, muscle tightness), psychologically (worry, anxiety, guilt, poor concentration, racing thoughts) and behaviorally (increase in smoking, use of alcohol, drugs, nail biting, compulsive eating, reckless behavior).
The three basic responses are interrelated, i.e. one will affect the other. The most important thing to remember is that almost all distress is of our own making. The important issue is not what I’m responding to but how I choose to respond.
Our beliefs and attitudes cause us to perceive events in our life in our own specific way, giving rise to thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that might be distressing.
If the distress in my life is, for the most part, of my own making, the only question I need to ask is “What am I going to do about it?” Blaming someone or something else is pointless and blaming myself or feeling guilty only exacerbates the problem. The one place I have the ability to effect change is within myself.
As we begin to work on ourselves, we must develop three important attitudes: (summed up as W.H.O.)
- Willingness – to do whatever needs to be done to eliminate the distress.
- Honesty – with ourselves primarily – about our needs, wants, feelings, expectations, attitudes, etc.
- Openness – to change – to new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.
Five other important requirements are:
- Awareness – Self-searching needs to become a regular habit for effective stress management. We need to become aware of how we are affected physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally. We need to know what we are responding to and what our expectations are.
- Acknowledgement – tell another or others. This breaks the cycle of internalizing the thoughts. It helps increase the awareness and it helps lead to acceptance.
- Acceptance – before we can change anything, we must genuinely accept our circumstance, i.e. that I am 100% accountable for where I’m at. It’s like the alcoholic who has no hope of recovery until they accepts the fact that they're an alcoholic. Acceptance doesn’t mean we have to like it. It just means we recognize “what is, is” – for now.
- Action – I must decide what I can do to resolve my difficulty and do it. It helps to have a good support system to provide the support necessary to take action different from our habitual actions.
- Appreciate – I might fall short of what my “ideal’ is but I can look at what I did and appreciate the effort I put in, my willingness and the progress I am making. Seek progress, not perfection. Take time to appreciate what you have done and what others have done for you. Celebrate what’s right.
Physiological response to stress
The sympathetic nervous system (also called the fight or flight reaction) mobilizes to create a pattern of general alarm, arousal, and readiness to operate physically against external threat or dangers to the body. The sympathetic response is triggered instinctively, without conscious direction. In effect, it is a reaction, rather than a response.
As well as the physiological reactions psychological reactions of fear, anxiety, or anger are also activated.
The body can live in such a state of extreme mobilization for only a brief period before it needs to relax and regenerate via the parasympathetic response, also called the relaxation response.
The relaxation response can be an antidote to stress. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated the individual feels calm, peaceful, and alert, and the muscles relax.
Sleep and physical exercise provide some relief from stress. However, it appears that some wakeful relaxation procedure – progressive relaxation, meditation, self-hypnosis, psychic visualization, breath release work, to name a few- can be even more stress-relieving than physical exercise or a good night’s sleep. (although such a procedure is not a sleep substitute.)
These alternative methods have one common denominator. They utilize our natural ability to obtain greater control over the autonomic nervous system.
Stress Management Techniques
Because all distress is of our own making and because it is more productive to work on yourself, the first place to look in dealing with stress and distress is within yourself. As you become more aware of your own responses you will be better able to deal with and impact upon the external factors. Accordingly I am beginning with those techniques that are, by you, for you and on you.
Summaries of 10 of the most common ways to reduce stress and supply balance to life are listed below. Don’t try all 10 at the same time. Pick one and practice it until it becomes a habit. It takes a real commitment and continual practice so that a new learned adaptation becomes part of a behavioural pattern. After one item has been thoroughly incorporated into your life, pick another and work on it until it also becomes a part of your life.
- Watch your diet. Maintain a balanced diet and regular eating habits.
- Exercise. Increased stress levels due to the “fight or flight syndrome” are best dissipated through physical activity. A recent survey of more than 1,100 CEOs showed that approximately 90 percent were careful about their diet, and 64 percent exercise regularly.
- Learn time management. In a recent study almost half the lawyers surveyed believed that the greatest source of stress was time pressures and their need to learn time management. Procrastination is a problem that seems to affect many lawyers and/or legal assistants. It appears to be built into the legal system. We have motions for continuances, and delay may be a part of an attorney’s strategy. Cases can drag on for years. Overcoming procrastination involves prioritizing and learning to manage one’s time.
- Learn relaxation and breathing skills. Learning how to breathe deeply can be a simple exercise, which brings immediate results. Relaxation techniques, such as yoga, transcendental meditation, the Benson relaxation response (constant repetition of a word, such as one, relax, etc.) and other forms of relaxation have been proven to be highly beneficial. A recent study involved individuals with 90 percent blockage in their heart vessels. After several months of using only relaxation techniques, the heart blockage was reduced by 50 percent. The relaxation response is the direct opposite of the stress response. Not only does it reduce stress and improve health, but also it increases clarity of thought and raises energy levels.
- Learn to play and have fun. We have heard the old adage “all work and no play makes Jack or Jill dull”. If we spend many hours a day in work there should be some time set aside for playing and having fun. If you find it difficult to set aside play and fun time you might try scheduling it. You might enroll in some recreational activity such as arts and crafts, theatre, sports activity, dance, etc…. This will require you to be at a certain place at a certain time.
- Use positive thinking and self-talk. Your attitude toward stressful situations is critical. If you focus on the positive and pleasurable, positive things seem to happen. It is important to talk to yourself using positive affirmations in order to change behaviour and reduce stress. Repeating statements such as, “I enjoy managing my time,” “I enjoy eating healthy nutritious food,” “I am choosing to live my life fully,” etc. will produce the intended result. When you start changing how you think, you can change how you feel and you can change how you behave.
- Develop a detached attitude. Many of us get caught up in the wins and the losses. When the other side prevails in a lawsuit, many times a lawyer will say, “What did I do wrong?” and will become emotionally involved in the outcome. It is important to develop a “let go” attitude. The important thing is to do the best you can and then let go of the results.
- Use prayer. This technique brings about the same kind of stress reduction that relaxation techniques do. (See; “Beyond the Relaxation Response; the Faith Factor” by Herbert Benson. People need not have any certain form of religious affiliation or belief. For some people, a spiritual dimension is an integral part of their lives. Relying on that spiritual source can be of great value in dealing with stress and reducing the threat of burnout. This is an individual choice but a proven effective stress reduction technique.
- Develop a sense of humour. Humour and laughter are wonderful stress reducers. When you laugh endorphins and neurotransmitters in the pleasure center of the brain are release, creating the relaxation response. The overall relaxation effect can last for up to 45 minutes after laughing. Many times we are able to look back at difficult times and events and see the humour in them. The basic message is to lighten up, don’t take things so seriously and laugh a lot.
- Talk to someone about your stress. In all the literature relating to stress reduction, this is the number one way to reduce stress. Having someone to talk to, whether a spouse, a partner, associate, friend or mentor, is very important. There is something magical about taking stress that has been internalized and verbally expressing it outwardly. Three is wisdom in the adage, “Get it off your chest.” By verbalizing your stress to another, you can release it. Try it and you will be amazed at the results.
You may also seek professional help. Everybody gets stuck once in awhile. Guidance from a counselor or therapist can help us break through whatever is blocking us.