What Can Stress Management Do For Me?
Stress has become a favored topic of daily conversation. All of us have heard someone say “I’m stressed out” or “My job is giving me fits”. Our efforts to control the influence of stress in our lives have resulted in a multibillion dollar industry of quick fix fad diets, questionable nutritional supplementation programs, and other convenience-driven methods that are sometimes harmful if not deadly. While most of us realize stress can have negative effects few of us may know the devastating consequences of stress to our health and economy.
In 1997, Dr. Lyle H. Miller and Dr. Alma Dell Smith reported the following statistics adapted from the Stress Solution:
- Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
- Seventy-five to ninety percent of all physician office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
- Stress is linked to six leading causes of death – heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration have declared stress a hazard of the work place.
Stress is expensive. We all pay a stress tax whether we know it or not. Currently health care costs account for approximately 12 % of the gross domestic product escalating yearly. In terms of lost hours due to absenteeism, reduced productivity, and workers compensation benefits, stress costs American industry more than 300 billion dollars annually or $7,500 per worker per year.
My goal for today is to introduce us to the concept of stress management. In essence, stress management is a proven group of techniques for modifying stress-producing thoughts, relaxing away physical and emotional tension, and learning how to make changes to our environment (or situation) whenever possible. Effective stress management can help us to resolve conflicts with others assertively and confidently, become better problem solvers in the face of life’s demands, and to appreciate the helpfulness of exercise and recreation. While this lecture is not about stress management training per se, my hope is that we will become more familiar with why it works and how it can improve the lives of folks like you and me.
An Operational Definition of Stress
In order to understand what stress management is we need a working definition of stress. Simply put, stress is a coping response, or the mind and body’s way of adapting to pressure from the environment. That pressure could be a deadline at work, the loss of a loved one, or a friendly competitive game of tennis on Saturday morning.
What determines how well we cope with stress usually has to do with the meaning we give to the stressful event. For example, if that deadline at work is interpreted as something horrible the body could react negatively in anticipation of that event by producing uncomfortable physical symptoms such as headache, nausea, or general tension. But if that same deadline is seen as a challenge or opportunity one could actually become invigorated and even relaxed in anticipation of that event.
I hope we see then that not all stress is bad. Just imagine what life would be like with no stress – we might just as well be moss on a log; nothing would get done, and life would be dull and boring. In fact, stress that is well managed actually enhances performance in the quest to achieve a goal. Consider the student who is motivated to get a good grade in her final exam: she’s anticipating the opportunity to show off her knowledge to the professor.
The Stress Response and Our Immune System
There is no doubt that stress can accumulate over time, often with debilitating consequences. To help us to understand how stress can affect our health it is necessary to look at human physiology, specifically, the role of the brain and nervous system.
Researchers have discovered that when we decide or think that some problem is threatening, regardless of whether that problem is real or imagined, we turn on the “stress switch” in the brain. It goes like this: the thinking part of the brain, or cerebral cortex, sends an alarm signal to the hypothalamus – this is the “stress switch.” The hypothalamus then stimulates the nervous system to make a series of changes in the body.
When we get upset heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension and blood pressure all increase. Our hands and feet get cold as blood is directed away from the extremities and into the larger muscles of the body. This prepares us for fight or flight. Our pupils dilate to sharpen vision and even the hearing becomes more acute.
This danger that we perceive triggers the “fight or flight response”, also known as “the stress response.” If left unchecked chronic stress can produce long-term negative consequences for the immune system or the body’s defense against disease and to a variety of organ systems within the body itself, including, but not limited to tissue damage.
I have seen many clients suffering from a variety of ailments directly attributable to chronic stress. Clients who complain about recurring illnesses like the cold or flu; others who develop high blood pressure, disorders of the digestive system, chronic muscle tension, migraine, heart disease and even cancer.
Basically, stress can center on any organ system or body part. This depends mostly on our genetic predisposition or the traits we inherit from our parents. Disease always emanates from the complex interaction of mind, body and environment.
Reversing Chronic Stress: The Relaxation Response
It all seems very ominous for us. Life is demanding, fast paced, and often unpredictable but we are more adaptable then perhaps most of us realize. Stress management is effective because it teaches people skills for reversing the “stress response.” Through stress management, we learn where our real control lies.
A major component of stress management training is cognitive restructuring, or changing the way we think. Our beliefs are the lens through which we look at life. If the expectations we have for ourselves, others, and the world do not match reality, we will experience cognitive dissonance.
Put in another way, demanding that some bad or undesirable thing, person, problem or situation not exist, will cause us considerable stress, tension and emotional upheaval. So, a major key to realizing where our personal control lies is in being convinced that we feel what we think!
We do not become upset because the boss did not deliver the promised raise. No! Upsetment arises because of what we believe about our boss breaking a promise. Unrealistic demands like, “Life should be fair!” will get us stressed out every time. Stress management training teaches people to realize that contentment arises from accepting life’s uncertainties, and acting on realistic appraisals such as, “Nothing is really certain about life and I’m not owed fairness.”
Stress Management is Emotional and Physical
A second component of stress management training is in learning how to relax the body. A variety of techniques serve this purpose nicely, including, but not limited to practicing proper breathing and progressive muscle relaxation training. I shall now describe the benefits of these below.
Chronic stress will effect how we breathe. Without the right breath control, we will not properly cleanse the body from impurities. This is due mostly to the breath-holding or chest-breathing that occurs with stress. Improper breath control can also increase the blood pressure and cause fatigue. Proper breathing always originates in the diaphragm.
The “stress response” can be reversed in as little as five minutes when diaphragmatic breathing is applied. Proper breathing technique quiets the nervous system producing a state of calm quickly and efficiently. Breathing techniques should be incorporated into every stress management program; they are easy to learn, effective, and can be done anywhere.
Progressive muscle relaxation was developed by the physiologist, Edmund Jacobson over 70 years ago. Research has consistently shown it to be one of the most powerful tools for reversing the consequences of chronic stress. I have literally taught hundreds of people how to alleviate headache pain, insomnia, chronic muscle tension and high blood pressure using progressive muscle relaxation. Progressive muscle relaxation involves alternating the tensing and relaxing of all the major muscle groups in the body in as little as 20 minutes. When practiced consistently, outcome studies show the benefits of relaxation are generalized throughout the day.
I hope we can see that a stressed mind produces a stressed body. But the more relaxed we learn to be, the better our immune system functions, and the less susceptible we are to accidents, illness, disease, depression, anxiety and other maladies. The ultimate goal of stress management training is to teach people to consistently reproduce the “relaxation response.”
The “relaxation response” is the antithesis of “fight or flight.” When we are at ease our muscles are loose and warm, blood pressure, respiration, skin temperature, and heart rate are within normal limits, thinking is clear and logical, and our emotions are balanced and even tempered.
So what should we look for in a stress management program? I have designed a confidential, six-week course that incorporates the use of a workbook and other materials, to be utilized in a dynamic group environment where people can grow and learn together. I also offer many of these techniques in my counseling work with individuals. Whatever the setting, a good stress management program empowers people to take control their thoughts, relax away physical tension and stress, and balance work, play and spirituality.
Stress management courses also teach people about the role of exercise and diet in healthy living, how to confidently and assertively express our desires in stressful situations, ways to be better managers of our time and resources, and, finally, making our work more meaningful and productive. I want to stress though (no pun intended) that such courses are never meant to rule out regular checkups with our doctors, substitute for medication or to replace counseling. Stress management programs certainly are a complimentary adjunct to any of these procedures.
Want to learn more about taking control of your life? Please call me for a chat. I welcome the opportunity to be of service to you!
With warm regards,
Frank Morelli, M.A.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor