In a National Geographic special, Prof. Robert Sapolsky discusses how stress works and how to better cope with it. (Stress: Portrait of a Killer – National Geographic) In the ancient days on the savanna, when a lion was chasing you, stress was 3 minutes of terror and then it was over, one way or the other. While this was going on all nonessential tasks stopped, and such things as growth, tissue repair, and reproduction were put on hold. Your lungs and heart went into overdrive as your blood pressure shot up. You ran faster, and as a result maybe you lived. But that same biological response, which once promoted survival under those conditions, today is destroying your health. The difference is that today’s stress is chronic, and chronic stress often leads to many long term health problems: memory loss, changes in appetite, sleep problems, difficulty in concentrating, immune problems, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Stress today often involves rumination instead of immediate physical threats. So today, instead of being chased by lions, people worry non-stop about such things as grades, taxes, global warming, and the mortgage.
The way a person can manage stress is by either changing their environment or changing his reaction to it. You need to identify the sources of stress in your life and take responsibility for your part in creating it. As a beginning, you might consider starting a stress journal. To change their environment people try to find things they can control and ways of predicting what will happen. Common ways to try to avoid stressors include saying “no” and delegate responsibilities, flushing toxic people, cutting off communications when it bothers you, and reducing your to-do list. To attempt to alter a situation you can’t avoid, you can speak up and voice your honest feelings, negotiate and compromise, problem solve (What happened to cause your stress? Why did it happen? How did I feel? What did I do when it happened? What should I do if something like this happens again?), anticipate and prevent issues from arising, and manage your time better.
If you can’t avoid or alter a stressor you can try to change your reaction to it. To do this you are encouraged to do such things as: step back and keep things in perspective by engaging in thoughtful reflection, finding humor in it, staying committed and engaged, looking for a silver lining through reframing it, and (one of the most important of the stress reducers) finding emotional support. Ask yourself, “How important will this be in a year?” Take advantage of the situation and be productive. Take small steps. Don’t take impersonal things personally. Try not to focus on who’s to blame, but instead on not making the same mistake again. Adopt a “good-enough” standard, instead of expecting perfection. It’s important to keep in mind that, since people vary in what helps them, stress reducers must be tailored to the person. So, depending on the person, you might try such things as exercise, meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, gardening, guided imagery, walking in nature, reading a good book, yoga, watching a comedy, Tai chi, getting a massage, playing with your pet, taking a long bath, journaling, stargazing, or playing music, etc. Sapolsky includes a caveat regarding these sorts of techniques. They aren’t necessarily long lasting in their effects, so for something like meditation to be effective you have to do it on a daily basis, and you have to make a real investment, say 20-30 minutes a day. You can’t get away with doing it just on the weekend. So set aside some time each day to do something you enjoy doing.
Other more general stress busting advice includes eating a healthy diet (the ultimate is the Paleolithic Diet), getting enough sleep, and exercising. Of course, you should avoid all the unhealthy ways of dealing with stress: smoking, drinking, too much caffeine, over-sleeping, watching TV all day, eating too much, emotional withdrawal, pills and drugs, lashing out, becoming constantly busy, and procrastinating. If you can’t do anything else about them, you can work at accepting your stressors. Recognize that there are things you can’t control. So only try to control the controllables. Share your feelings with trusted others, and if you wish to/can, you might try to forgive. You also might try to simply change the topic and focus on other positive things in your life. Finally, getting professional help is always an option.
Stress is fundamentally caused by your perception that bad things are happening, but often stress isn’t the only thing that’s going on. There are a number other factors that can increase the damage stress causes. Some of these are: when the stress can’t be controlled or predicted (you are powerless), you have no physical outlet for relieving the energy it creates, and you’re emotionally alone with no shoulder to cry on. If things are really bad, and you add in other exacerbating elements you might end up traumatized. Trauma is more likely to happen if the trigger happened during childhood, was done intentionally, it was done unexpectedly and repeatedly, you were already under heavy stress, you had already suffered other setbacks, and you were unprepared for it. (Healing Emotional and Psychological Trauma - Helpguide.org, What Is Stress? How To Deal With Stress – Medical News Today) There are a variety of symptoms of psychological trauma: nightmares, flashbacks, emotional upset when reminded of an event, emotional numbing and withdrawal, memory gaps, insomnia, being jumpy, having difficulty concentrating, being constantly watchful, being irritable, being angry, aches and pains, depression, panic attacks, fear, guilt, fatigue, the use of drugs and alcohol, inability to form close and satisfying relationships, and feeling permanently damaged. Several common therapies for treating trauma include Somatic Experiencing and EMDR, which help people work through their memories and feelings. Often clients need to learn to trust others again. (Healing Emotional and Psychological Trauma: Symptoms, Treatment, and Recovery – HELPGUIDE.org, Psychological Trauma – Wikipedia, Surviving Psychological Trauma – Counseling Center - Univ. of Illinois, Emotional and Psychological Trauma: Causes and Effects, Symptoms and Treatment – HealingResources.info)
There are important individual differences in how people respond to trauma. Some people get over traumatic events quickly, while others take much longer to adapt, if they ever do. For those who are vulnerable, there are some events, such as a major illness or injury, divorce, or unemployment, which can result in a relatively permanent reduction in happiness for many people. (Pursuit of Happiness is not a Straight Path – Science Daily) A person’s happiness levels drop as she approaches divorce and gradually rebounds over time. But the level of satisfaction does not return to the level of satisfaction felt prior to the divorce. “”Instead people’s satisfaction ended up .22 to .34 points lower than baseline levels,” author Richard Lucas states.” (Happiness Levels After Divorce Decrease And May Never Completely Rebound – Medical News Today) (On a slightly more positive note, it takes on average about seven years to recover from losing a spouse.)
Scientists have discovered important differences between the brains of suicide victims who suffered abuse as children and normal brains. The differences are in their epigenetic marking – a chemical coating on the DNA that is influenced by environmental factors. (Epigenetic Changes Discovered In Abuse Victims’ Brains – Science AGoGo) For those who had served in the military, heavy combat predicted more chronic physical illnesses, and severity of trauma is the best predictor of PTSD. (What Makes us Happy? – The Atlantic)
If your brainstem’s alarm center is chronically overactive you can become depressed, but it might be possible to develop resilience to this. In one experiment, when rats were put in a stressful situation that was controllable their brains were able to turn off mood-regulating cells in their brainstem’s alarm center. Later, when they were exposed to stressful situations that were not controllable, the prior practice meant that they were somewhat immunized. They reacted in the same way as they had in the earlier controllable stressful situations, and were able to turn off the mood-regulating cells. (Experience Sculpts Brain Circuitry to Build Resiliency to Stress – Medical News Today)
You need to know when to cut your losses. If hope makes people put their lives on hold it can reduce happiness. Patients who were given a no hope of reversing a colostomy were happier than those patients who were told that it could later be reversed. Researchers suspect this might also explain why people who have a spouse die are often happier than those who get divorced. Closure seems to be helpful in allowing people to get on with their lives. (Chronically Ill May Be Happier If They Give Up Hope) In a recent study teenagers who persisted in difficult goals had higher levels of CRP, a general indicator of inflammation that is linked to many diseases. Also, they found that those who shifted to new goals did better than those who ruminated about their failure. (Why Quitting may be good for you and You’ve Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em: Goal Disengagement and Systemic Inflammation in Adolescence)
Many scholars have stressed the importance of being able to delay gratification. Providing further confirmation of this, it turns out that when people are in the middle of mastering a new skill they often feel stressed. Yet, people who learn new skills are happier overall, both on a daily and long term basis. (No Pain, No Gain: Mastering A Skill Makes Us Stressed In The Moment, Happy Long Term - Science Daily News)
Ethnic pride can help teenagers maintain happiness when faced with stress, according to a new study by a Wake Forest University psychologist published in the October issue of Child Development. (Ethnic Identity Gives Teens Daily Happiness Boost - Medical News Today)
If you want to be happier don’t bet in the office pool. The problem is that no one likes being wrong and ending up embarrassed, and so the fear of losing can often feel worse than losing itself. This can ruin the enjoyment of the event. It also turns out that whether you win or lose doesn’t matter; both sides of the bet become less happy. Of course, this effect is an average, and I strongly suspect that risk-taking increases your happiness if you’re the right personality type. (All Bets are Off: Office Pools Lead to Unhappiness - Science Daily)
Women suffer anxiety and major depression more often than men. Men’s immune systems improve with marriage in general, but a woman’s only gets better if she has a good marriage. (What Makes us Happy? – The Atlantic)
(Get Back to Happy: 6 tips for regaining your happiness after a setback, Dealing with Stress: 10 Winning Tactics, Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief, Stress Management: How to Reduce, prevent, and Cope with Stress)