Stress is not new. Stress gets a bad rap these days, but in fact, there are some really good reasons why we experience stress. Let’s imagine a hypothetical person with no stress response. We will call him Bob. Now, Bob has made the mistake of going out for a walk in the woods without packing his stress response. Unfortunately for Bob, he happens right across the path of a bear. Without the instantaneous physiological reactions we often associate with stress kicking in and triggering him to take action (fight back or run away) Bob will have to resort to lengthier cognitive processes to decide what to do in this situation. Sadly for Bob, the thinking, reasoning, and judgment that come in handy for so many other tasks are just not fast enough for this job. Bob learned the hard way that a stress response is adaptive, and could have kept him safe.
Why is it then, that so many of us think of stress as a bad thing?
Well, perhaps one reason is that the pace of our lives has evolved much more quickly than our stress response. As a result, we experience a lot of potential “threats” on a daily basis. These threats typically are not life-or-death situations like Bob faced (and if they are, then our stress response kicking in is actually a good thing). Rather, most of us experience daily hassles, and when those hassles are interpreted in an anxiety-provoking way, this can end up triggering our stress response.
A stressful line of thinking in response to leaving your house to head to work could end up being something like this: “The car won’t start. Why won’t the car start? Maybe if I try it again – no. It has to work! What did I do wrong? Did I leave the lights on? Is it the engine? I am going to be late. I can’t be late. Ugh, I’m going to miss that 9 am meeting for sure. This is a disaster! My boss is probably already mad at me. I could have sworn she gave me a funny look when she passed by my desk yesterday. Am I going to lose my job? Getting this car fixed is probably going to be expensive. I can’t cope with all this stress.” All of these thoughts could end up running through your mind in less than a minute. No wonder you’re feeling stressed!
As you may have noticed, a lot of our daily stressors involve meeting social expectations or being accepted by a group. Even when it comes to feeling a time pressure, much of that may be due to our North American cultural value of getting things done quickly and efficiently, and being on time (and therefore avoiding being on the receiving end of disapproval from a boss, co-worker, spouse, kids, friends, soccer coach, etc.). We want to meet social expectations and be accepted by the group.
Now, you may be saying to yourself, “I’m not sure how experiencing stress in response to daily hassles could be good for me. It makes sense how it helps when it comes to bears, but not so much for sitting in traffic or standing in line”. And if you are saying that to yourself, you are correct!
A lot of us feel that we are under chronic stress, which is different from the acute stress that occurs when we see a bear. Our bodies and minds are adapted to experience short bursts of life-saving stress, and once we are out of the danger zone, to return back to normal functioning. If we are bombarded with continual demands, the heightened stress level is maintained long-term. Such chronic stress negatively impacts our physical and mental health.
What can you do about stress?
Re-examine your priorities. If you are finding that you do not have enough time to do the things that are most important to you, make them priorities. Schedule them in just like you would any other appointment. Do some self-reflection and think about what is really important to you. What will bring you long-term satisfaction? Make sure you focus on your own values rather than what you think others’ expect of you. If keeping your house spotless does nothing for you, but you really want to run a marathon and find you never have time to train, there is an opportunity for restructuring your time to be more consistent with your goals and values.
Say “no” more often. It is OK to say no! If this is hard for you, that probably means you need to do it more often! Remember that everything you say “yes” to means saying “no” to something else. Saying, “yes” to more tasks at work may end up meaning saying “no” to things like exercise, sleep, cooking dinner, or spending time with loved ones. If something sounds really interesting and you want to take on a new opportunity, that’s great! Just ask yourself, “What am I willing to sacrifice to do this new amazing thing?” The time has to come from somewhere.
Take care of yourself. You may be thinking that you already have too much to do, so how are you supposed to add something else to the list? Well, refer back to the first couple of points in this list for some tips. In the long run, taking care of your mental and physical health will pay off with less overall stress. Take time to exercise, eat well, spend time with friends, engage in hobbies, relax, practice mindfulness (https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/), volunteer, or take a vacation.
Change your perspective. Learn to think about things differently so that you do not interpret daily hassles catastrophically. Try to examine the evidence for and against your thoughts to come to a more realistic conclusion. For instance, if you end up stuck in traffic and running late for work, you may say to yourself “I may have to stay at work late tonight, but it is really unlikely I will get fired over this”. Or you may look at the bigger picture, for instance, by saying to yourself: “How important will this be to me in five years?” If you find that it is really hard to take a different perspective, you may consider some short-term therapy such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).
Although stress is a natural part of life, chronic stress is considered harmful. Fortunately, we can learn strategies to make us more resilient to stress. As well, we can learn to change our thoughts and reactions to hassles, so that we are better able to cope with them when they do occur.
By Dr. Jennifer Boyd, C. Psych.