Taking Charge: Managing Stress for Life
Rachel: Welcome to today’s webinar titled Taking Charge: Managing Stress for Life. We are very fortunate to have Marjorie Nichols as our presenter today.
Ms. Nichols is a licensed Clinical Social Worker and has provided behavioral healthcare for over 30 years. She graduated from Eastern Illinois University with an undergraduate major in Psychology and Health Education. She holds a Master’s degree in Social Work and has served as a Field Instructor for the University of Texas at Arlington for social work interns.
In her capacity as an Employee Assistance Program Counselor, Corporate Director of EAP Systems and Director of Provider Networks, she has written and facilitated seminars and workshops for numerous organizations.
And without further delay, Marjorie, I will turn things over to you.
Marjorie Nichols: Thank you so much Rachel and welcome everyone and happy December. So today we’re going to be talking about taking charge and managing stress, not just for today, not just through the holiday season, but for your life. And let me tell you what I'm going to cover for you all today in this webinar.
Well, we will first start with defining what stress is and then I want to deconstruct some of the common myths that we have about stress, certainly address all of that with clients that I see in my private practice. Then I want to move on to describing the signs and symptoms of stress so that you better understand what your stress signatures are, those signatures that are unique to you, so that you can identify them earlier in the stage of stress and the debilitating effects of stress.
Then we’ll move on to identifying the unhealthy coping strategies that each and every one of us, myself included, may be Rachel as well can get into some times when we're trying to deal with the signs and symptoms of stress and then I'll move on to increasing your resiliency and managing your stress more effectively.
So let me speak with you all about Peter Hanson’s definition of stress, which is ‘Stress is simply the adaptation of mind and body to change.” Does that work for you all?
Another way of thinking about stress is our body and our brain, we action to either a real or imagined threat in which we don't believe we have the resources to deal with that perceived or real threat.
Now fortunately most of our days are not involved with acute here and now emergencies requiring the body to go into fight or flight mode. And I think all of you heard of that, the fight or flight mode. Unfortunately though for many of us we often perceive everyday situations as requiring such an intense alarm reaction.
Our bodies don't discriminate between almost being hit by a car and having a disagreement with our partner, our spouse. If we perceive a disagreement as being stressful then we send the message to our brain that there is a danger, it then responds, rather our brain then responds by making the heart pump faster by moving the muscles into high gear and by producing certain adrenaline like chemicals, one of which is cortisol which many of you have heard of.
Here’s the problem with cortisol, this is just an aside, does cortisol makes us hungry and links for many of us the reason why some of us carry extra weight when we are stressed out. What all this means for us is that even though the stress response is instinctual and a necessary part of our survival, we must learn to respond to modern day life challenges differently than our ancestors responded to the stresses that they faced. Why?
You might ask, because there's a downside to living with the stress response being turned to the on position all of the time. When our natural survival mechanisms are constantly activated without an opportunity to either fight it or ebb away and to return to a normal function, a level of relaxation, both mental and physical, exhaustion sets in, making us more vulnerable to chronic and possibly life-threatening health problems.
Our stress response is no longer activated for an acute emergency situation, but it has become a chronic adaptation to life’s strains and challenges, and I see this only too often in my office. It’s people who haven't listened to their body, they haven’t observed the signs and symptoms of what is now becoming debilitating stress.
So in a nutshell, it’s our perception that’s at the core of managing stress. And I will get to that in a minute. Let’s start with deconstructing, some of the common myths about stress. The first one; only unpleasant situations are stressful. Well, it’s not true at all. Think about it, think about a very pleasant event that you have had in your life, whether that’s planning for a trip, going on a holiday, planning a wedding, even planning to have children. All of those are very pleasant events, but they can cause a perception of stress.
The second; a stress-free life would be possible only if -- now fill in the blank, only if I had enough money, only if I didn't have such a disagreeable in-law, if I didn't have such a disagreeable coworker. Well, here's the truth. The truth is there is no such thing as being completely stress-free. To be stress-free is to be 6 feet under. What I have already mentioned is that the stress response is necessary in times of true threat and positive when used with its advantaged challenger. And no matter how good you get a change in the way you manage stress, don’t expect that you will never again perceive something that's stressful or react in not such good ways. And I would include myself in that. I don’t’.
I move on to the third bullet on the slide that you'll see in just a moment. It’s again another myth that we uphold about stress, which is stress is bad, avoid it at all cost. As you already have heard me talk about stress not only can't be completely avoided or prevented, but it can be managed effectively. For instance, having a good job, having a new job or a family member can be stressful and challenging, but it can also be exciting and rewarding as long as you have the tools necessary to cope with the changes brought on by these life events.
There is nothing that we can do about stress. Well, in fact, there is plenty of that we can do about stress, and the rest of this webinar has everything to do with empowering you with tools to do that.
The last one is only major symptoms of stress require attention and I can't stress harden upon how important it is for all of you to begin to listen to the next couple of slides on the signs and the symptoms of stress to better understand that when we are better aware of the earlier signs of the less reactions that we have to stress, the better off we are in being able to cope with it and manage it.
So Rachel, let’s move on then to the next slide, to slide 6, where we begin to talk about how stress affects four major life areas. Now on this slide you see the physical and the emotional, and I will talk about that in just a moment. There are also the behavioral and cognitive effects that stress can have on us. You see, our bodies react to perceived threats, or adjust to change by putting us on alert and heightening our awareness of the situation. All symptoms are activated. This response allows us to get things done and take on the challenges presented to us.
So some of the physical signs and symptoms of stress are fatigue, insomnia, gastrointestinal distress, arthritis, headaches and migraines, muscle tension, particularly in the shoulders and the neck, changes of appetite, either an increase or decrease in appetite and a sliding libido.
The emotional ways that stress can affect us. Irritability, indecisiveness, crying spells, moodiness, depression, inability to relax, feeling overwhelmed. If you will move me to the next slide, Rachel, thanks.
Now those behavioral signs, social withdraw, isolation, becoming aggressive, strained relationships, increased errors, alcohol and drug abuse, eating more or less and then the cognitive problems, not being able to recall words or mis-speaking, inability to concentrate, finding yourself so distracted, making poor judgments, saying only the negative, anxious or racing thoughts, constant worry. Sometimes people don't realize that they are reacting to stressors in unhealthy ways, until serious health or other problems develop.
So use that self knowledge of how to react under stressful situations, like you would use a carbon monoxide detector in your home. Think about it, if the detector becomes activated, you know that harmful carbon monoxide has built up. So if you find yourself experiencing more headaches than usual, stomach distress, being grouchy with loved ones, isolating yourself from others, whatever signs you know indicate that you are perceiving someone or something as stressful. Then step back and evaluate the situation. This is an opportunity for you to act before the situation becomes chronic and possibly causes serious health or other problems.
But many of us practice what I call numbing behaviors. Those are actions, sometimes unconscious behaviors that we use to numb the signs and symptoms of stress. Rachel, move us to the next slide, because here I want you all to recognize for yourself how you might slide in to some of these behaviors. So you might recognize yourself and one of my clients, let’s call her Kera, because that's not her name. She is overwhelmed at work. She dislikes most of the people on her team, has an ongoing conflict with her brother and is a single mother. Her stress levels are high and her signs and symptoms include isolation, insomnia, irritability, faults finding, blaming and she copes by drinking a bottle of wine at night to get to sleep and chase away the obsessive thoughts of coworkers, her brother’s latest criticism of her, her self-directed anger at how she ate yesterday, because her jeans are getting a little bit too tight and so on. Can you hear yourself in any of that? You see a list of unhealthy coping skills on this slide.
Kera drinks to numb herself at night, she drinks caffeinated drinks with sugar to get started in the morning, followed by an egg and sausage biscuit at a drive-in, because she doesn't have time to prepare healthy meals and so the story goes. If you hear yourself in some of these numbing behaviors, what we all want to challenge you to do -- move me to the next slide, if you will, Rachel, is to manage your stress by identifying what’s bugging you? What are your stressors? It's much easier to manage stress at the earlier states of development. Before you have a drinking problem or sleeping problem, a thinking problem, an extra 30 pounds on you. Practice, avoid, alter, adapt, accept.
Avoid, stressful situations. If you're stressed up by rush-hour traffic, manage your time, your routes, your reactions to the traffic, to coworkers, to a family member. Move me to the next slide, if you will, Rachel.
It’s difficult to manage your reactions, if you're not managing and nourishing your body and your mind.
Much like a car, your body requires the right fuel, if you will to function. If you are putting high levels of alcohol, caffeine, sugar and other faucet foods into your body, your are not providing the right fuel for both, body and brain. Make the time to make your fuel, what’s good for your body is good for your brain.
I had a client, let’s call her Ann. Her stress levels went through the roof, which in turn resulted in anxiety and depression and began walking. She started with 10 minutes in the morning and soon was walking 40 minutes, and within a month Ann, had improved by 50%. She was on her way to the highly coveted traits of resiliency.
And I am going to talk about resiliency in the next slide. But before I move on, as you heard in Kera’s story, she isolated. What we know is when we pull away and withdraw from our social network, we further exacerbate our stress. So lean in to your close friends, to your healthy friends, and ask for their help or support or just have a laughing fest if you will.
So move me on to that coveted trait of resiliency on Slide 11. Resiliency is the ability to fully engage in life, recover from challenges and as a result, increase the capacity to thrive in the future. The resilience of an individual, a family, a team, an organization isn't set. It changes over time and can be developed to better handle challenge. People who are resilient are stress-hardy, resourceful. See change as a challenge, know that from chaos comes order and have the capacity to know what they have control of and what they need to let go off.
Resilience is what is right with us, and it’s more powerful than what’s wrong with us. All of us have the ability to develop resilience. All of us have the ability to transform our negative stress reactions, or adversity and grow stronger as a result.
Next slide please Rachel. Now I want to talk with you about how to increase your resilience. Resilience needs to be viewed as a process. Most of us aren't born with extra-ordinary resilience. As a matter of fact, we learn to be resilient by managing stress, by managing our hardships. We are hardwired as little babies and children to manage difficulties. So a resilient person uses a variety of protective characteristic to prevent a collapse of mind, body and spirit. They include taking steps to prevent or better manage physical, mental and financial or physical health concerns.
Cease the silver lining when a dark cloud creeps into his or her life. They are the optimist, they are not the pessimist. They use healthy reactions when dealing with those dark clouds. They recover more quickly from difficult changes or challenges and use their personal strength to help others. They have a positive attitude. Positive thinking means having self-respect, valuing yourself and others, making healthy choices about how you proceed and interact with the world in which you live. It means being less critical and judgmental of yourself, as you heard in Kera’s story and others. Learning to step back from a stressful situation to slow down and relax your body. It can help you shift to a more positive outlook on a situation. Ask yourself, are blowing the situation out of proportion, are you making it up? Maybe you are tired, hungry or overly frustrated and instead you need to take a break to recharge your batteries and get a different perspective on the situation.
Sometimes I say to my clients, the mind is a dangerous neighborhood, don't go in when they are alone. So pick up the phone, call a friend, get a different perspective. Take those breaks, push that restart button. Talk to someone who is close to you, that will help give you a fresh view on the challenge that you're struggling with. Practice good self-management and time management. Make a master list of the next day’s task, delegate, postpone or eliminate task if possible.
Create an A and a B list based on priorities; pad your schedule with extra time. So many of us race to do way too many things, if we don't need, we don't utilize the time effectively because we are already worrying about the next step, because we've overbooked, we have a sense of time urgency and hurry-up syndrome.
Develop and use social support network. Sometimes, even when we try hard to keep a positive attitude, we fall short. This is the time to enlist the help of someone else for feedback, and encouragement, airing your thoughts and feelings with trusted friends or relatives is often the best way to reduce your tension level. Gain perspective and receive ideas and support for tackling the stressful situation at hand. Releasing negative thoughts and feelings makes room for a positive energy and ideas; perhaps it's the Feng Shui of our cognitive process. Getting rid of what takes up room that is hurting you. Knowing that you are not alone with your problems, may be all it takes to re-energize and help you focus. Get sufficient sleep, practice relaxation techniques, use a sense of humor.
Move me on to the next slide, because we want to make sure that we have armed all of you, not only through this webinar with giving you tools and techniques to better manage your stress, but to improve your resilience. The tools that we have utilizing Achieve Solutions websites include articles on stress, again, what it is and what you need to do about it. Building blocks of resiliency, a great article to better improve your resiliency intelligence. The third article, develop resilience to recover from setbacks. We also have quizzes, ways to assess just how well you are doing with handling your stress and adversity. An inventory of stressful events, if you will, a way of applying a number to how much intensity and severity is associated with the stressful events in your life, so that you better understand you're under a lot of stress and here are some ways of dealing with it.
And then related webinars; one, get a grip on stress. Second; change the way you think to enhance your resilience. If you will move me to the next and last slide of this webinar, I want to conclude with all of you I hope recognizing, it is our perception, it is the way we think about stress, that either allows to successfully navigate and manage stress and harness the effective ways of using stress to improve our performance and our achievement in life, or harm us.
So by reframing your perceptions to be more positive, you can reduce or limit the harmful effects of stress. If possible, try to change any external and internal stressors, such as your physical environment or your lifestyle choices, or that negative thinking or some of the 12-step programs, call it thinking, thinking. And remember resiliency is the ability to bounce back, to overcome and succeed, despite adversity. Being resilient can help you manage stress more effectively and decrease your risk for depression as in the case of my client, Ann.
There is an old African proverb that goes something like this.
“Good sailors are not born on calm seas.” We are hardwired to manage adversity and stress and resiliency is key to helping us with that.