With summer drawing to a close - and the impending rigours of September scheduling just around the corner - it is a fitting time to think about stress and the impact it has on our lives. A certain amount of stress is natural, in fact necessary to our existence. It helps keep us working at an optimum level, able to meet the challenges that arise each day. But too much stress - and not having the appropriate tools to deal with it - can be unhealthy. Poorly managed stress can have a negative impact on our happiness, our families, our relationships and our health.
The stress response is a chemical reaction that occurs in our bodies. It is a response to a physical, mental or emotional stressor. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released which make the heart beat faster (increase blood pressure), quicken your breath and heighten your senses. If the stress response is prolonged, the effects can compound over time and affect our health. It can suppress the immune system, increase risk of cardiovascular disease and worsen medical conditions such as asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, psoriasis, chronic pain, mental health disorders, etc… In a survey of 390 missionaries, 97% reported experiencing tension, 88% found anger to be an issue, and 20% had taken tranquilizers.
Tips for effective stress management:
Try to identify stressors that can be avoided. Sometimes the stressors will be things that cannot be changed. If this is the case, try to think of ways you can alter your response to them. Even identifying what the triggers are can help you feel more in control. It may be helpful to write them down. External factors include things like work, family cross cultural community, unpredictable events, etc… Internal factors include unrealistic expectations, perfectionism and worry. Identifying stressors - recognizing the triggers that cause it, avoiding those that can be avoided and evaluating what to do about those that cannot be avoided - is exactly the process we need to engage in to manage and balance our lives.
Develop an Action Plan
Prioritize and plan your days ahead of time rather than reacting to circumstances as they arise. This will help you feel more in control of your life. Daily events can be contextualized in light of your long term goals and plans. You can make daily and weekly plans in accordance with long term plans instead of reacting to daily events as they occur. Organize your time and your environment. If you know where things are you won't have to spend unnecessary time looking for things you have misplaced and also avoid the stress that these types of scenarios create.
Try to be more tolerant of yourself and of situations over which you have no control. Frantic, harried reactions drain energy that can be used more productively and erode any sense of enjoyment or peace. Cultivating healthy attitudes, like patience, and choosing to adopt a calm presence of mind are beneficial in maintaining balance and control. But also remember to accept that a certain degree of stress is normal … especially when living overseas.
The stress response is physical in nature and physical exercise is one of the biggest tools for managing stress. Exercise is also a mental "time out" from other things that may be pressing. A study last year determined that exercise in green space "boosts mental health" - the biggest effect demonstrated in just five minutes. Build exercise in to your daily schedule. Give yourself permission to devote 30 minutes to this every day. The benefits are numerous.
A well-balanced diet provides us with energy to handle daily stress. Snacks high in sugar and carbs (which we tend to reach for when we are stressed or pressed for time!) provide a short burst of energy but they can leave us feeling drained and even more tired in a few hours. Rather than crunching through a bag of potato chips, reach for a granola bar, an apple or some carrots!
Give yourself the gift of time, and permission to relax
If you are actively in control of your daily, weekly and long term agendas make sure you also schedule in time for personal activities and hobbies. Family time, shared experiences with friends, time alone for reading, hobbies and meditating … all of these are worthy enough to be included in your plans. Allow your mind to take a break. It's healthy to be still and take a few moments to notice your thoughts and feelings. You don't want to live life bound to a never-ending "to do" list, feeling guilty if you pause for a moment. By prioritizing time for yourself you can enjoy the process of living and contribute to your sense of well being.
Engage, evaluate and actively take control over what elements you can, and try to be more accepting of the things that are beyond your control. Life does not have to be lived as if it is a gigantic emergency. The more we effectively deal with stress the more resilient we are, giving us a greater capacity as individuals to manage our own lives and contribute to the lives of those around us.