What is Stress?
Stress is an unavoidable aspect of life that has the potential to either help people developmentally and physically or drive a person toward depression, anxiety, and illness. It can affect anyone regardless of whether or not we are aware of it or know what it is or how to cope with stress.
Apart from age, there are also disparities in the amount of stress felt by different races and genders. In our society, certain structures have been put in place causing people to feel more stressed than ever and affect them differently based on genetics. Schools and jobs are both the main inclusions of said structures. Fortunately, there are several methods to mediate the stress we encounter. One of the greatest tools we can use to counter and potentially avoid certain stress is education.
Here we’ll discuss how education has proven to affect stress in different age groups, races, and genders; along with how structures such as schools and jobs provide much of the unavoidable stress in life.
How to cope with stress?
In order to cope with stress, it is important to understand what stress is and what it can do. Many people only view stress as a detriment, however, without stress we could never grow and develop.
Perceptions of stress
There are two perceptions of stress: eustress (positive stress) and distress (negative stress); they both work against each other when it comes to growth and development.
Put simply, every stressor we encounter starts off as eustress where we are forced out of our comfort zone and have the choice to either learn from and adapt to the stressor or view the stressor as too challenging to overcome. If the stressor is perceived as too challenging to overcome or if too many stressors pile up, then that stress then becomes distressed and counteracts our growth and development.
The most relevant model for this day that best represents these stages that occur is the general adaptation syndrome (G.A.S.). This model explains how we undergo three stages when dealing with a stressor: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. In the alarm stage, we recognize a potential stressor and decide whether or not to consider the stress as eustress or distress. The resistance stage is where we go through physiological changes that help us face the stressor whether it be eustress or distress.
And lastly, the exhaustion stage occurs if the stressor could not be resolved, in which our bodies physically and mentally break down and stop any growth or development. Having this general knowledge allows people to better understand and cope with stress when it is encountered because without knowing that eustress and distress are perceptions and have opposing effects for growth and development, one may only view stress as a negative outcome or setback. As seen by countless studies, only interpreting stress as a negative experience can lead to serious future health issues such as heart disease, obesity, depression or anxiety, suppressed immune systems, and fatigue or burnout.
Methods for coping with stress
More important than knowing the physiology of stress, it’s crucial to be educated on various methods for coping with stress.
Some people deal with stress in their own way through time management, social support, or changes in their lifestyle; however, learning the most effective methods for coping at a younger age could save countless people from suffering chronic stress. These methods include progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, mindful meditation, focused breathing, and yoga/tai chi/qigong.
Some are simpler than others, and some work better for different people. These techniques have proven to be the most effective for relieving both chronic and acute stress. I personally went through my teenage years without knowing any of these techniques and was forced to figure out my own strategies such as exercising and leaning on support groups.
As a consequence, I also developed unhealthy habits to cope with stress such as relying on sleep and eating excessive amounts of food whenever I felt stressed. I also suffered from physical pains due to a build-up of chronic stress in my shoulders and lower back. I had been educated on these techniques at a younger age, my unhealthy coping habits and detrimental effects of stress could have been spared.
The focused breathing technique is exactly what it sounds like: breathing in and out while focusing on the duration and intensity of your breaths. This method is the easiest form of coping with stress but still takes practice before it feels perfectly comfortable. Just controlling your breathing will activate the peripheral nervous system which decreases the production of adrenal hormones and in turn returns your body to a calm metabolic state. Follow these steps and see for yourself if you can feel a difference in stress levels.
1. Sit down in a comfortable position
2. Close your eyes
3. Focus on inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth
4. Start by counting to 4 as you inhale, and again as you exhale
5. Gradually increase your count up to 10 as you feel more comfortable
6. Feel your lungs rise as you inhale and your shoulders depress as your exhale
7. Feel your stomach inflate as you inhale and relax as you exhale
8. Continue for as long as you like (5-10 minutes is usually enough)
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that combines focused breathing and targeted muscle contractions to separately relax each muscle group in the body. Similar to PNF stretching, the goal is to stress the targeted muscle group and then actively alleviate that stress through breathing. More specifically, as you inhale, you want to gradually contract the targeted muscle group and count to 4-10 depending on your breathing comfortability. Vice versa as you exhale, gradually relax the targeted muscle group and count to 4-10. Typically, the targeted muscles start at the feet and end at the head.
You can follow the steps we used for focused breathing and go through this list of muscle groups/actions for progressive muscle relaxation.
1. Feet – curl your toes down and clench the arches of your feet
2. Ankle – pull your toes toward your shin
3. Calves – point your toes and feet toward the ground
4. Quads – extend your knee until it is straight
5. Hamstrings – pull your heel towards your butt
6. Glutes – squeeze your butt together
7. Hands – make a fist
8. Wrist – pull your knuckles toward the back of your forearm
9. Forearm – try to touch your forearm with your fingers
10. Biceps – bend your elbow
11. Triceps – extend your elbow
12. Shoulders – shrug your shoulders up
13. Upper back – pinch your shoulder blades together
14. Neck – Pull your chin towards your chest
15. Face – squint your eyes shut and press your lips together
Guided imagery is a unique version of visualization, which we discussed in an earlier blog for training purposes. The biggest difference is that guided imagery is usually led by calming voices or sounds as the name suggests, whereas visualization for training focuses on mentally stressing the body.
However, focusing on the breath is very important for both versions along with a lot of practice in order to see the full benefits of this method. The audio recordings or videos walk you through the entire process and they can easily be found online by searching for “guided imagery”. I would recommend trying out several different recordings to find a few that you resonate with and give this technique a few attempts before deciding whether it is right for you because everyone has different stimuli that trigger relaxation; it’s just the matter of discovering which stimuli are right for you.
Mindful meditation or mindfulness is another type of mental relaxation like guided imagery. Instead of focusing on the relaxation of your body, you will be centering your attention on your thoughts, feelings, and senses. The idea is to recognize these mental aspects, accept them, and then allow them to pass out of mind without interpreting them or letting them lead into deeper thought. You can start by sitting in a comfortable position in a quiet and peaceful environment.
Now ask yourself this: What are you feeling like? What are you thinking? What do you sense around you?
As you answer these questions, try to remain focused on the “what” rather than the “why” or “how” so that you don’t proceed into deeper thought processes. Simply recognize them and let them pass on as other feelings, thoughts, or senses access your mind.
Yoga, Taichi, and Qigong
Most people have either heard of or performed Yoga, Taichi, or Qigong and they are all great methods for relieving stress by flowing through active movement. It would be difficult to coach you through these techniques in a blog since the movements often require demonstrations or verbal instruction.