INTRODUCTION TO STRESS MANAGEMENT
OVERVIEW -- Are you stressed out? You're not alone. Millions of Americans complain of too much stress in their lives. This web site will describe tools you can try to help you relax and reduce your response to stress. You may find that some work better for you than others. In other articles on this web site you will be directed to resources for further study including books and internet web sites. If you would like personal, professional help, there is also a guide for choosing a professional.
INTRODUCTION TO STRESS MANAGEMENT -- Now let's try to get a better understanding of what stress is and how to manage it. Stress is anything that puts demands upon our bodies and minds to cope, adjust, change, or accommodate to the demand. Although stress can come from an ongoing, routine, and chosen activity like long work hours or a hurried work pace, it is often associated with an intense reaction to an event in our lives which can be either pleasant or unpleasant. We often seek out positive, stressful events such as roller coaster rides or white water rafting or competitive sporting events. By the way, watching competitive sporting events can even be stressful. On the other hand, any time we perceive a threat to us either physically or psychologically, we respond in the same way. This distress response has been labeled the "fight or flight response". This response occurs when we perceive that the challenge facing us is dangerous, difficult, painful, or unfair, and we are concerned that we may not be able to cope with it successfully(Davis, Eshelman, and McKay, 2000).
WHAT HAPPENS IN OUR BODIES? Research has shown that when we perceive a threat, our minds trigger a number of different changes in our bodies which prepare us to either fight the danger or flee the situation. Heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, metabolism, and blood pressure all increase. Blood is directed toward our large muscles in preparation for fight or flight and away from extremities and digestive system. As a result your hands and feet may get cold, and you may experience discomfort in your stomach. Adrenalin and other hormones are released into our blood stream which dramatically reduce digestion, reproduction, growth, tissue repair, and immune system functions.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE -- Now in prehistoric times this fight or flight response was very adaptive. If a sabre toothed tiger was charging at a cave man, he would need to take quick action to avoid sure death. In modern times this reaction is still adaptive in situations such as war or being attacked by another human or animal. However, today most threats are to our psychological self. We perceive a threat to our self-esteem, jobs, financial security, relationships, or comfort. Some people, who are prone to anxiety and worry, imagine threats which cause the same set of responses in their bodies as real, physical threats do. When we trigger the fight or flight response frequently or continue it for a prolonged period of time, our bodies begin to suffer fatigue and physical symptoms. Chronic stress can lead to disease. Researchers have observed that people suffering from chronic stress seem to have frequent and repeated symptoms in the same body systems which it affects such as skeletal-muscular, cardiovascular, or gastrointestinal systems.
STRESS RELATED SYMPTOMS -- The American Academy of Family Physicians reported that 60 percent of presenting problems at physicians' offices in this country are stress-related. Ninety five million Americans suffer some stress-related symptom each week and take some medication for the discomfort (Nathan, Staats, & Rosch, 1987). The following is a list of common stress symptoms:
Alcohol use, anxiety, blushing, chest pain, chills, cold and sweaty hands, constant fatigue, constipation, depresion, dizziness, drug use, dry mouth, faintness, forgetfulness, frequent anger and frustration, frequent colds or flu, frequent crying spells, frequent urination, frowning, gambling or spending, gritting or grinding of teeth, heartburn, hives, increased perspiration, increased smoking, jaw pain, lightneadedness, lowered sexual desire or performance, migraine headaches, moodiness, muscle tension and pain, nausea, nervous diarrhea, night sweats, nightmares, overeating, overreaction to small things, panic, poor concentration, problems swallowing, rashes, reduced work efficiency or productivity, ringing in ears, shortness of breath without exercising, stomach cramps, tension headaches, trembling, worry.
This is not a complete list. These symptoms can have other causes which may involve some disease process. Check with your doctor if you have any of these symptoms before starting a stress reduction program. However, if your doctor rules out other possible causes, you have hope that you can learn to control and reduce your symptoms and stress through some of the skills taught on this web site.
THE RELAXATION RESPONSE -- Herbert Benson is a physician and researcher who studied people who practiced transcendental meditation, originally an eastern practice of relaxation and stress management. He found that they were able to bring about a set of conditions in their bodies which was just the opposite of the fight or flight response. He named this the Relaxation Response. The distress response in a human triggers the sympathetic nervous system to cause INCREASES in metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and muscle tension. The Relaxation Response triggers the parasympathetic nervous system which causes DECREASES in metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and muscle tension. Dr. Benson developed a set of instructions based upon the practice of transcendental meditation which would simulate the response practitioners of meditation obtain from their bodies (You will see below his set of instructions). The Relaxation Response can be brought about through practicing any one of a great many different coping skills. Dr. Benson listed several including these:
Progressive muscle relaxation
Since the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems counteract each other in our bodies, usually only one or the other is in control at any one time. Therefore, the symptoms we have when we are in distress can be reduced by consciously deciding to bring about the relaxation response through one or more of the above exercises taught on this web site. You may notice that stress and tension build up during the course of your day. By practicing a relaxation exercise several times during the day you can keep the stress and tension from building up as high and causing physical symptoms. Through regular use of a relaxation strategy you can learn to recognize and manage your mind and body functions and therefore your quality of life and dis-ease.
Author: David W. Kidder, Ph.D.