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January 1, 2012
Vol. 54
No. 1

How to Manage Your Stress

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Stress is an unavoidable part of our lives. You can't always avoid stress, but you can learn to manage it with these tips from educators, health professionals, and stress management experts.

What Is Stress and Why Is Everybody Feeling It?

According to the American Psychological Association's (APA) 2010 Stress in America survey, "most Americans are suffering from moderate to high stress, with 44 percent reporting that their stress levels have increased over the past five years." Money, work, and the economy are the top stressors, as close to 50 percent of the respondents say they are worried about job stability.
Kids are feeling the effects of stress as well. Close to one-third of children say that they've experienced physical symptoms of stress in the last month. And while parents may think their stress isn't affecting their children, the kids would disagree: 69 percent of parents said their "stress has only a slight or no impact on their children," but only 14 percent of youth agree.
Everybody has stress—both good stress and bad stress. It's a simple fact of life. The site WebMd describes stress as a "physical, mental, and emotional response to life's changes and demands." Some stress can be motivating, but too much stress can wreak havoc on one's physical, mental, and emotional health. "Stress is experienced in levels. Low levels may not be noticeable at all. Occasional, moderate stress can be positive and challenge people to act in creative and resourceful ways. High levels can be harmful, leading to chronic disease," according to WebMd.
The events that provoke stress are called stressors. The human body responds to stressors by activating the nervous system and specific hormones., which is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation, explains the process: "The hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and release them into the bloodstream. These hormones speed up the heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism."
These natural responses help the body to respond quickly under pressure, but what if you're a person who constantly feels like he is under the gun?
When you're stressed out, your body remains in a heightened state, which can cause damage to the nervous system, wear out your body's reserves, weaken your immune system, elevate your blood pressure, and leave you feeling completely overwhelmed. Therefore, it's important to learn how to step back, breathe, and manage your response to life's stressors.

Avoid, Alter, Accept, and Adapt

Adults who are experiencing stress overload may have some of the following symptoms: anxiety or panic attacks; a feeling of being constantly pressured, hassled, or hurried; stomach problems, headaches, or chest pain; allergic reactions such as eczema or asthma; problems sleeping; substance abuse or eating disorders; or extreme feelings of sadness or depression.
  • Avoid: "A lot of needless stress can simply be avoided. Plan ahead, rearrange your surroundings." If it's traffic that stresses you out, leave early for work and try an alternate, less-traveled route. If your co-worker drives you crazy, avoid engaging in conversation with her as much as possible. If you feel like you have too much on your plate, learn how to say no and ask for help.
  • Alter: If there's something that causes you stress, try thinking about the alternatives. If your source of stress is another person, "respectfully ask the other person to change [his] behavior. And be willing to do the same." If your workload is too much to bear, speak with your supervisor to develop a mutually beneficial solution. And if you're getting behind in your work, think about ways to better manage your time and organize your tasks.
  • Accept: Stress can't always be avoided or altered; sometimes you have to accept things as they are. But you don't have to suffer in silence. Reach out. Talk to a friend. Take a coffee break. And if the situation calls for a little forgiveness, you will feel better for letting go of the negative energy and anger.
  • Adapt: "The perception that you can't cope is actually one of the greatest stressors. That's why adapting—which often involves changing your standards of expectations—can be most helpful in dealing with stress," the brochure states. Learn to redefine success and perfection and be gentle with yourself. And try looking at the long view. Ask yourself, "Will this matter in a year? In five years?"

Be Healthy and Wise

Experts agree that managing your health will help you to manage your stress. So eat healthy, exercise, and get plenty of sleep.
You can also try doing enjoyable activities that help you release tension, distract you from over thinking, or even give you a sense of accomplishment that's unrelated to work. Try practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and stretching; do yoga; listen to music; take a walk; or work in your garden. Jot down your feelings in a journal. Focus on eliminating the stream of thoughts that cause you to feel stress. And laugh—even if you have to force a fake laugh—just start chuckling. You will feel better. "When you start to laugh, it lightens your mental load and actually causes positive physical changes in your body. Laughter fires up and then cools down your stress response and increases your heart rate and blood pressure, producing a good, relaxed feeling," says the Mayo Clinic article "Stress relievers: Top 10 picks to tame stress."
Develop the skill of delegation. Whether you're at work or at home, learn to how to say "no" when necessary to keep your life in balance. Also, don't put yourself in a situation where you have to rush to finish. Prioritize, plan ahead, and don't procrastinate.
When you're feeling overwhelmed, break out of your protective cocoon and tap into your support network. Connect with a friend, call a relative, and distract yourself with people you love. And if you need help, ask for it. Seek professional help when needed.
Listen to your body: if you like to stay active, then stay active, but be mindful of your boundaries; and if you're bored, then seek out new challenges and stimulate yourself.

What About the Children?

Children may experience stress that has physical, emotional or behavioral symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, vomiting, bed-wetting, fear, irritability, sadness, crying, nervous tics, anger, withdrawn behavior, extreme shyness, or teasing or bullying behavior. In the classroom, a child who is experiencing stress may have trouble concentrating or following directions, or he may tease his classmates excessively.
This fall, Kari Henley, president of Gather Central and a featured blogger at Huffington Post, organized a virtual conference call with girls in several countries, ranging from Uganda to the United States. The purpose of the event, which was called "Girls Around the World Connect to DeStress," was to help the girls, who were ages 12 to 18, to understand what stress is and how to deal with it.
Cheryl Hitchock, a stress expert, participated in the conference call and taught the girls tips for managing their stress. In her e-book, Be Free Anytime, Anywhere!, Hitchock explains that stress happens. "The first thing you need to do is understand and accept that in life you are going to run into stressors, people, events, or circumstances that cause stress," she says. The key is learning how to cope in a healthy, calm manner.
Henley says the girls were excited to share their experiences with one another. While they found they had much in common, they also realized that their sources of stress varied, from fear of not fitting in to fear of sexual violence, to academic pressure, to poverty, to peer pressure, to family issues. Henley explained to the girls that there are lots of reasons why they might feel stressed out, but whether the source of stress seems trivial or serious to another person, the body responds in the same way. "Stress is real and the body takes it seriously," says Henley.
Henley says she plans to continue these global discussions, with the hope of using college students as mentors for the younger girls.

What Can Schools Do to Minimize Stress?

Workplace stress can lead to higher rates of illness and absenteeism and lower productivity; therefore, some employers are looking for ways to minimize stress by offering health and wellness services such as fitness classes, relaxation seminars, wellness fairs, and more.
At Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., Julie Proctor, a clinical instructor and the university's health and wellness coordinator, worked with students to organize a new annual event, the Stress Less Fest. Proctor proposed the event as a senior project for her Wellness and Health Promotion students, who, as part of their major, must plan a large-scale health promotion event in the community or at the university.
"Managing stress is a critical element in taking care of our health," says Proctor. "We are all under constant stress; it's just part of life. If we don't lean how to handle this stress, then it will impact our health."
Proctor notes that college students have an enormous amount of stress in their lives because they struggle with heavy credit loads, jobs, and economic uncertainty. "Very few college students know how to handle their stress," says Proctor.
The Stress Less Fest, held in the fall, offered yoga, guided meditation, breathing techniques, arts and crafts projects, pet therapy (with the help of dogs), and laughter therapy, which got people chuckling by watching funny movie clips, YouTube videos, and a stand-up comic. Participants also learned time management techniques, received nutrition advice, and even got a little massage therapy.
So, what's Proctor's advice for stressing less? "Remember to laugh every day and do something fun. Spend time outdoors. Move every day and find an activity that you love to do. Discover new hobbies. Be mindful of the moment, focus on your breath—take three deep breaths if you start to feel anxious. Practice compassion for another person. Journal your thoughts and feelings. Play. Make art. Unplug—turn off the TV, computer and the cell phone," Proctor advises. And one more thing: "Develop a healthy social life—support systems are critical in handling stress."


Willona M. Sloan is a freelance writer and former ASCD editor.

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