Monday Medical: Why managing stress matters
Stress isn’t so much what happens to you, but how you react to it. And for most of us, that reaction can feel out of our control.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to James E. Porter, president of StressStop.com and stress management expert whose work has been used by groups including NASA, Time Inc. and Homeland Security.
“Most of us put stress management last,” Porter said. “(It’s) the first thing to go when we get busy — when we need it the most.”
Porter spoke recently to employees and community members at Yampa Valley Medical Center as part of the hospital’s wellness program.
Understanding stress requires understanding the body’s “Fight or Flight” reaction, an automatic response to stress that gives people a burst of energy by increasing heart rate, tensing muscles, increasing blood pressure and more.
“This was designed to help us get away from a tiger,” Porter said. “And we’re activating this when someone cuts in front of us in line.”
Constant stress takes a toll. It can result in conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression and anxiety.
Many of us already manage stress — just not in healthy ways. We overeat or overspend, abuse alcohol and drugs, or spend hours online. While these habits temporarily lower stress, they create more problems in the long run.
The good news, Porter said, is that stress can be managed in positive ways. He recommends exercise, yoga and the following practices:
• Deep breathing: Sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in your lap. Breathe in deeply, pause, then breathe out completely. Repeat.
• Progressive muscle relaxation: Tense all the muscles in your upper body — scrunch up your face, tighten your belly, make fists with your hands. Take a deep breath and hold the tightness for a count of seven. Then breathe the tension out and repeat. For a longer practice, take 30 minutes to tighten then relax all parts of your body, one by one.
• Mindfulness: Usually, we’re worrying about future events that may not happen or stewing over past events we can’t change, both of which increase stress. Instead, focus on the present moment. Sit quietly with your eyes open or closed and notice your breath, how your body feels in your chair, the sounds in the room. If your mind wanders, bring attention back to your breath.
• Change your thought patterns: If you get a flat tire, it’s easy to think things like: Why does this always happen to me? This happened at the worst possible time and will take forever to fix. If I’m late to work, I could lose my job. Instead, tone down the thinking to be more realistic. You don’t have to put a positive spin on it — you just have to take out the overly negative thoughts.
• Problem solving: Make a note of all the stresses you feel over a two-week period, then look for patterns. For example, one common source of stress is time pressure. If you find you’re always stressed during the morning rush, you might wake up earlier or get things ready the night before.
“I really think problem solving is the cutting-edge approach to managing stress because you’re actually eliminating stress rather than just managing it,” Porter said. “The minute we start thinking about solutions, the stress eases just a little bit.”
Porter recommends starting small with these practices and scheduling them into your day until they become habits.
Managing stress may seem less important when compared to goals like being a good parent, advancing your career or pursuing spirituality. And yet, Porter said, reducing stress can have an incredibly positive impact on all of those areas.
“This one goal of managing your stress … can drive all of the other important qualities in your life,” Porter said.
Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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