Managing Stress

Managing stress and anxiety by improving resilience and awareness

The first thing to know about how to relieve stress is to recognize when it is happening.  So many things can cause people to be stressed out.

Career and work-related stress is one of the most frequent causes of anxiety and unhealthy stress.  A competitive work environment is more the norm than the exception, and anxiety about job security and constant change takes a steady toll.
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Relationships are a significant source of stress, perhaps the most challenging of all. Difficult relationship dynamics, conflict, or feeling emotionally insecure is especially challenging and draining. Similarly, life events like an injury or illness, a move, or a financial downturn can feel overwhelming.

In short, there are many things that can cause stress and anxiety. When people feel that they can’t control what they’re worried about, the stress of helplessness can slowly erode one’s health and well-being.  Failing to recognize when this is happening, either through denial, “powering through” or long-suffering does not help. It’s better to recognize when one is stressed out, assess the challenge as realistically as possible, and come up with a plan for dealing with the stress as well as solving the underlying problem.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Stress

Stress can have negative effects on the body, and negative effects on the mind.

Physical symptoms of stress include disturbance of what psychologists call vegetative symptoms – biological symptoms such as disturbances in sleep, fatigue, digestive problems, energy level, appetite and libido.

Psychological symptoms of stress include feelings of distress, such as worry and anxiety, depression, increased self-critiquing, impatience, and anger or irritability. They also include cognitive symptoms like difficulty concentrating, “thinking straight,” difficulty with problem-solving, planning, and the like.

One way to recognize chronic stress is when one’s ability to bounce back emotionally or physically is negatively impacted.

Checklist of Stress Symptoms

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased anxiety, including shortness of breath, racing heart
  • Frequent colds or trouble recovering from minor infections
  • Sleep problems
  • Losing or gaining weight
  • Muscle tightness or tension, including facial muscles, jaw pain, neck and shoulder
  • GI problems, such as constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel, stomach queasiness,
  • Lack of pleasure and fun
  • Lack of libido
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Mood problems including depression, sadness, anger or irritability
  • Boredom or restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating or solving problems
  • Racing thoughts or inability to slow down
  • Problems in relationships

The Vicious Cycle of Stress

In my experience most people try to help themselves through stressful periods by focusing on solving the external problem rather than doing much about the stress itself. That makes sense up to a point. If you are experiencing stress because you’ve recently lost a job, it’s understandable that your primary focus would be to try to get re-employed. However sometimes people don’t realize that the anxiety and stress they feel may compromise their ability to clearly assess the situation or generate alternatives and make good decisions. For example, in their zeal to prepare for job interviews they may shortchange sleep or exercise or downtime, making it harder for the body and mind to restore itself to optimum functioning.

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The worst part of stress is when it becomes chronic, a condition that is known as the allostatic load of stress. What this means is that the body and mind do not have the opportunity to return to a restorative baseline, but stay in a state of activated fear. Prolonged stress severely compromises health and is the cause of chronic diseases such as hypertension and heart disease, hormonal dysfunction, compromised immune system, and can trigger other mental disorders such as depression (hyperlink to depression). It is a vicious cycle because it can throw off the very processes that are needed for restoration, such as health eating, sleeping and exercise.

Tips for Managing Stress

Combating stress means restoring balance. The way to relieve stress is to activate the mental thermostat to bring down the temperature before the negative energy in body and mind get too “hot.” Here are some specific ways to think about it:

  • Go Positive, Avoid Negative.

    Stress, worry, fear, anxiety all induce negative mental and physiological states. It’s important to balance the bad with the good, in order to avoid an extreme negative condition. Fresh air, movement and exercise, healthy food, taking the time for leisure and fun, laughter — all are vitally important to break the grip of negative thinking and physiological distress. Avoid believing that you don’t have time to relax or have fun.

  • Call it.

    Sometimes people sink into a state of stress gradually so that it becomes chronic without them recognizing they are in it. This is insidious and dangerous because stress becomes normalized. It is important to recognize when you are suffering stress or living a stressed out lifestyle or engaging in behaviors that maintain stress rather than alleviate it. Stress is dangerous because it affects every area of life: your mind, your body, your behavior, and your relationships. Recognize it by reviewing the checklist of stress symptoms, by listening if people in your life tell you they think you are under stress, and by listening to your own body and mind.

  • Take [Wise] Action.

    Stress and helplessness are closely linked. Sometimes it isn’t possible to change the circumstances that lead to stress, in which case the actions to be taken are self-care and coping. However sometimes it helps to identify and discern whether a situation requires a different solution, strategy, or decision-making to alter the course of events. For example, sometimes people slump into passivity rather than seek to influence or change things in their job, relationship, or housekeeping. It seems easier to do nothing than the wrong thing. It’s a good idea to get help or counsel to figure out what, if anything, should be changed when one has lost perspective or clarity about the most constructive path.

  • Make Social Connections a Priority.

    Spending time with friends, family, pets and other positive relationships makes a tangible impact on the brain and the neuroendocrine system. It’s one of the fastest ways to heal. The value of touch and authentic emotional connection cannot be overstated. People often get caught into the vicious achievement cycle where they believe that spending more time will yield the solutions to whatever problem they are trying to get out from under. However what they often lose is efficiency – somewhat akin to staying awake all night to cram for an exam rather than getting the rest the brain needs to perform effectively. Spending time with people who care about you should be a priority.

  • Avoid Toxins.

    Toxins can be defined as whatever accelerates tissue damage as well as emotional/mental damage. Overuse of substances like drugs and alcohol, poor diet, other addictions, including spending too much time on the internet, fights and conflicts in relationships, prolonged negative mental states, such as blaming yourself or others – all are examples of activities that can increase with stress — but greatly accelerate the vicious downward cycle of the disease of stress.

  • Exercise

    Exercise or physical activity can be the most effective way to change your energy. Cardiovascular activity in particular can fast track breathing into a smoother, healthier rhythm that signals the brain to relax. So taking a walk or going for a run, swim or bike ride is highly recommended. Yoga, dance, tai chi, weight-lifting – all forms of exercise, in short, may go a long way to interrupting the stress cycle.

  • Meditate.

    Meditation and mindfulness can mean a lot of different things to different people. Here I simply suggest any process that supports your mind to relax, to disengage itself from the busy-ness of thinking and compulsive rumination. Many people find that the effort of meditation pays itself back in spades in the form of a refreshed and quieted mind.

  • Rest.

    It can be hard to sort things out when the body is so tense or the mind so saturated that there is no room to do anything differently. Creating that space through repose or meditation can be vital to restore well-being and interrupt the overwork nature of stress.

How Does Dr. Wu Help Patients with Stress?

I do a thorough and careful assessment of what is going on with you, including how the stress is manifesting in your body and mind, in your life and relationships, and the impact on your overall health. I try to understand what is causing your stress, including looking at the possibility that your current stress may be chronic in nature. In some cases your current stress may be related to too much stress earlier in your life, which may have had an impact on your resilience and give you difficulty coping with it later in life.

I work with you to identify what immediate behaviors or exercises may help you interrupt the cycle of stress and help restore your balance sooner rather than later. I also invite you to talk through your feelings and concerns, so that we may have a thorough understanding of what your experience is, and to give you help coping with these burdens. Once we have a sufficient understanding of the problem and its context, we can work together to think of how best to solve your problems, both in your life but especially in your mind.

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Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that suggests a person has not recovered from a traumatic event, whether it happened recently or in the past. Recent trauma can include external events such as being caught in a disaster or being a witness to, or victim of, violence. It can also include severe psychosocial stressors, such as losing a job or one’s health—in essence, losing control. Children are particularly susceptible the effects of traumatic events, as their neuropsychology is still developing and may be adversely altered by the stress.

The more intense the trauma, the more likely it is that an individual will suffer PTSD. While the bleeding and damage of a physical wound is a result of severe physical trauma, the mental breakdown and damage of a psychic wound is a result of severe psychological trauma. PTSD may occur shortly after a traumatic event but, unlike the body, it may occur many years afterward, or something in between, with many recurring episodes.

Individuals suffering from symptoms of PTSD are effectively re-living their trauma, attempting to cope with the memory of it by avoiding or outright blocking the re-experience of it, and experiencing anticipatory anxiety against the fear that the trauma or some equivalent threat may re-occur. PTSD caused by an acute, single event, like a traumatic accident, can be easier to heal from than from protracted exposure to trauma, such as living through a war, or surviving a noxious family or political regime.

People who suffer post-traumatic stress often have other psychological difficulties at the same time. It’s not unusual for people with symptoms of PTSD to also suffer depression, anxiety, anger, attentional problems,compromised immune systems, etc.

Read more about: Mindfulness Therapy

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