19 May 2020

Understanding Stress… And Why the News Isn’t All Bad

Dr. Don McCreary on understanding and managing stress during this global pandemic.
Mental Health

This article has been written by Dr. Don McCreary, owner of Donald McCreary Scientific Consulting and Movember affiliated researcher. Dr. McCreary’s research focuses in the areas of men’s health, workplace stress and health, and resilience both in and out of the workplace.
There’s an interesting saying that, for some reason, always makes me laugh: “may you live in interesting times.” According to the website Quote Investigator, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the origins of the saying, but in general it’s considered to be a curse – the notion is that living in interesting times means living during tumultuous, dangerous, and stressful times. In the past I found it funny because it helped me gain perspective about the stressors in my own life and how I really wasn’t as bad off as I thought; compared to the alternatives, that is. But I think we can all agree that, for many people, the global COVID-19 pandemic has turned things sideways for some and upside down for others.
One of the impacts many of us are experiencing is the significant changes we’re having to adjust to:  daily habits, day-to-day interactions with people, and relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. Many people have also been significantly affected financially – they may have temporarily or permanently lost their jobs or have had their work hours severely cut. This has significantly reduced the amount of money coming into their households, leading to what is often called economic insecurity. For those living in countries without a decent social safety net, the loss of work may also mean the loss of their health coverage. These are all elements of our day-to-day lives that, for many people, have tended to be fairly stable and predictable; some might even argue, comforting. But now, many people have lost that stability and predictability and, with it, maybe even their sense of safety and security. This can cause a wide range of responses, but the one I want to talk about here is an increase in stress.
As a culture we don’t do a good job of teaching people about stress – what it is, what it isn’t, how it can be both helpful and harmful, its potential health implications if gone unchecked, and how to manage it effectively. This means, during trying times like we’re experiencing now, people may be experiencing more stress than they would be if they were better equipped with how to recognize and cope with it.

I wanted to provide a brief overview of basic points to provide what I hope will be helpful.

First off, what do I mean by the word stress? While it’s a commonly used word, I’ve found that different people can have very different ideas about what stress is. Stress is the physical and psychological responses we experience as a result of not being able to effectively manage the stressors in our lives.

So then, this leads to the question: what are stressors? Well, stressors are aspects of our daily lives that we may not have the ability to cope with or manage successfully. For example, we may not have the skills or the resources (e.g. money, time, energy, help from others) to do an important task or meet a desired goal. The need to meet those goals and accomplish those tasks are stressors.

Most people are balancing multiple potential stressors at the same time. Some of those stressors may fall in the category of an acute, time-delimited life event – everything from the annoying (such as getting a speeding ticket) to the tragic (the death of a loved one). Other stressors can be more low-grade, but chronic. Those are called daily hassles, and they include things like losing your car keys, cleaning your home, and having noisy neighbors.

But not all stressors are associated with increases in stress. Whether or not a stressor has the potential to cause someone stress depends on the context. When something gets in the way of people achieving a goal or a personal accomplishment, it is called a Hindrance Stressor. For example, losing a job or being temporarily laid off can interfere with someone’s goal to become financially stable and self-sufficient. It’s these hindrance stressors that can lead to stress, especially when people are unable to manage them effectively. But then there are Challenge Stressors. These are stressors that, even though difficult and taxing, tend to be focused on helping someone achieve a goal or a personal accomplishment. For example, losing a job or being temporarily laid off may help someone by freeing up the time they need to learn an important new skill or start a project. These types of stressors tend not to cause stress.

So, in general, stress is really just an outcome of dealing with the stressors in our day-to-day lives. But not all stressors lead to stress.

These are important questions to ask because, if stress were just an annoyance, it might be something you could just learn to live with. But unfortunately, decades of research have shown that stress can cause a wide range of effects, including various physical and mental health issues such as higher blood pressure, poorer sleep quality, reduced appetite or increased loneliness, irritability, depression and poorer decision making. It’s important to know that, while some of these potential outcomes might take years to emerge (e.g. Type II diabetes), others could develop more quickly (e.g. irritability, reduced immune functioning, poor memory). This is why it’s important to be able to manage stress effectively.

But is stress always bad? The answer is no. There is a phenomenon out there called the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which describes the relationship between arousal (aka, stress) and performance. It suggests that, when stress is too high or too low, people’s performance on a given activity is poor. However, performance is maximized when stress is moderate. So, when we talk about the relationship between stress and health, we want to eliminate as much of the stress as possible. But when we talk about the relationship between stress and performance, we want to try and maintain a moderate amount of stress in order to maximize performance. The difference between the two approaches is the time-frame. This concept is typically applied in short-term situations (e.g. a sporting match or an exam), whereas the focus on minimizing adverse health effects is typically a more long-term commitment.

There are numerous ways that stress can be managed. But what’s important is that not all ways of managing stress work for all people in all situations. Because of this, it’s important that people develop and practice many different coping strategies – in other words, people need to build a stress management toolbox.

Most stress management tools are strategies that people need to practice on a regular basis; they’re not something you can pull out at a moment’s notice and POOF; the stress magically goes away. And by a “regular basis,” I mean practicing 3-5 times per week at a minimum. Doing this will give users more proficiency and allow the coping strategy time to become a habit, helping people to be more successful over the long haul. In other words, there are no silver bullets here. Stress management is a skill that needs investment in both time and energy, but the rewards for doing so will be plentiful.

What types of coping strategies should go into people’s stress management toolbox?

  1. Breathing. Technically it’s called diaphragmatic breathing (also known as belly breathing or abdominal breathing), because the goal is to learn to breathe from your diaphragm. When we do this, our diaphragm moves downward allowing us to breathe more deeply into our lungs. When we are stressed, we don’t breathe as deeply and therefore don’t get as much oxygen into our system. There is no one way to do this technique, and there are many ways to learn how to breathe more healthfully, such as apps and online guided exercises. The goal is to practice and do this regularly.
  2. Meditation. There is growing evidence that mindfulness-based meditation can be an effective way to manage stress. In general, this practice incorporates breathing and visualization exercises to help individuals remain focused on the present. For example, one of the basic exercises of mindfulness-based meditation is the body scan, which starts as a focus on breathing, but then transitions into a visualization of the body and its parts, from toe to head. As with breathing techniques, meditation is something that needs to be practiced regularly for the benefits to be seen and felt.
  3. Practice SMART Goalsetting. Many people experience stress around whether they are achieving the goals they set for themselves – be it personal or work-related. To help avoid goal-related stress, people should utilize the SMART system. According to SMART, goals should be: Specific, meaning that they must be specific actions that people do themselves; Measurable, meaning that people not only have to be able to see the progress they are making, but they have to be able to measure the improvement so they know how well they are doing in achieving their goal; Attainable, meaning that goals cannot be lofty inspirations, but that people have to be able to reach their goals; Relevant, meaning that they must be goals people want or need to achieve, and aren’t just there for something to do; and Time-bound, in that they need to be achievable within a given time frame.
  4. Visualization and Rehearsal. This can be especially effective when learning new skills. The goal here is to spend time visualizing the steps to achieve a desirable outcome, a technique often used in sports psychology. For example, if someone is experiencing anxiety around their performance on a task (e.g. trying to improve a golf swing), visualizing the task over and over can be helpful at reducing the stress. This mental rehearsal can also help to improve task performance.
  5. Physical Exercise. There is a large amount of scientific evidence showing the positive health effects of physical exercise and one of these benefits is stress reduction. The focus here is on aerobic exercise, but the guidelines also note that it is important to add muscle-building exercises to that routine at least 2 days per week.
  6. Getting Out into Nature. There is a growing research base that shows that going for a walk in nature can reduce stress levels quite a bit. While this can be a challenge for those living in heavily urbanized environments, it may be worth making the effort.

These coping strategies can help people manage their stress, but it is important for people to be realistic about their expectations. These may not make all the stress go away, but they can be helpful at reducing the stress to a more manageable level.

With that said, there are many types of coping strategies that should be left out of your stress management toolbox. These are often referred to as maladaptive coping strategies because, while they might feel good and helpful in the short term, over the longer run they are actually harmful to people’s physical health or psychological well-being. One of the most common maladaptive coping strategies people use is self-medicating with mood enhancers such as food, alcohol, and other drugs (including cigarettes). Other maladaptive strategies include: avoiding engaging with problems; irritability; acting out, aggression, or other forms of violent behavior; and negative self-talk, such as “I don’t deserve this” and “I’m not good enough at the task and should just get someone more skilled to do it.”

Better understanding stress can help individuals identify what potential stressors might be influencing them at any given moment. Recognizing that stress isn’t always a bad thing and that it can be managed properly gives people a greater sense of control over their lives and their health. It’s important not to rely on a single way of coping with stress; take the time to build your own stress management toolbox and figure out what works best for you.                                                                    

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