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How to manage stress

”While you cannot control the weather, you can always choose to kiss in the rain.”

To not encounter some kind of stressor in your life is rather impossible. Stress is inevitable, and most certainly we will feel stressed out at some point in our fast paced life. However, what are the steps we can take to master stress, and not become its victim?

But firstly, what is stress?

Stress can be seen as a process. This view emphasizes the importance of how we appraise – that is, judge – demanding or threatening events (stressors); these appraisals, in turn, influence our reactions to such events. Therefore, stress is largely in the eye of the beholder; it’s not so much what happens to you as it is how you respond.

Stress can, however, be a positive, motivating force that can improve the quality of our lives; a moderate amount of stress can be beneficial in challenging situations.

Nonetheless, when a person experiences very strong emotions – especially those associated with a perceived threat – the body’s sympathetic nervous system and the endocrine system is activated (the fight-or-flight response). This is mainly due to maintenance of homeostasis; an internal environment in which physiological variables are stabilized at levels optimal for survival. However, most of us do not face dangerous threats each and every day, nevertheless the body’s fight-or-flight response can easily be triggered by difficult life-changing events such as a divorce, death of spouse, and even events such as public speaking, an important exam, or a job interview.

And secondly, why is stress so dangerous?

In short, stress weakens the immune system. Psychoneuroimmunology is the field that studies how psychological factors such as stress influence the immune system and immune functioning.

Stress, especially during early life, can be just as harmful to our health as smoking or fast-food. Moreover, stress – if it’s chronic- takes a toll on our bodies and can have enormously negative health implications. A prolonged, or repeated stress, has been implicated in development of a number of disorders such as hypertension, coronary heart disease, asthma, IBS and depression.

(Bonus facts; Why do stressed out people look so worn out? Stress, it seems, can shorten telomeres, which are segments of DNA that protects the ends of chromosomes. Shortened telomeres can inhibit or block cell division, which includes growth and proliferation of new cells, thereby leading to more rapid ageing.)

Effective coping strategies

There are different coping styles to take in order to manage your stress.

A problem-focused coping style is when we actively try to do things to address the problem. For example; let’s imagine that you lost your job. If you choose a problem-focused coping style you’ll start applying for jobs, learning new skills, branching out to people and enlarging your social network – everything that might make it easier for you to find yourself a new job. Nevertheless, if you choose a emotion-focused coping style you are treating the symptoms rather than the actual cause. If we take loosing your job as an example; you would rather seek out things that will make the situations feel more bearable than trying to find a solution to your problem.

Emotion-focused coping is more effective when dealing with uncontrollable stressors. Hence, problem-focused coping is favourable when facing stressors you perceive as controllable.

Perceived control is your beliefs about your personal capacity to exert influence over and shape outcomes. Greater personal control is associated with lower reactivity to stressors in daily life.

In addition to having the right coping strategies, there are numerous means by which you can manage stress;

  • Establish a social support network – Building strong relationships with others helps us establish a network of close, caring individuals who can provide social support in times of distress, sorrow and fear. Social support can take many forms, such as advice, guidance, encouragement, acceptance and emotional comfort.
  • Exercise – It’s well established that exercise is beneficial for both physical and mental health. Physically fit individuals are more resistant to the effect of stress and recover more quickly from stress than less physically fit individuals.
  • Meditation & relaxation – Sit upright in a comfortable space, in a relaxed position. Focus on your breathing or repeat a word or a calming phrase (mantra) to yourself. A relaxation response approach is conceptualized as a general approach to stress reduction that reduces sympathetic arousal, and it has been used effectively to treat people with high blood pressure. (For those interested in the science of meditation I can strongly recommend the book ”The Science of Meditation” written by David Coleman & Richard J. Davidson 2017).

A growing movement and field of research called positive psychology emerged in 1998, thanks to psychologist Martin Seligman who urged psychologist to focus more on understanding how to build human strength and psychological well-being. In a general sense, positive psychology can be thought of as the science of happiness; it seeks out to identify and promote qualities that lead to greater fulfilment in our lives, and it moves aways from focusing on people’s pathology, faults and problems.

Important topics studied by positive psychologist include altruism, empathy, creativity, forgiveness, compassion, the importance of positive emotions and enhancement of immune system functioning. Recent efforts in the field have focused on extending its principles toward peace and well-being at the level of the global community. In a world in which conflict, hatred and distrust are common, such a positive-peace-psychology could have important implications for understanding how to overcome oppression and work toward global peace.

A stress-free life not only brings peace within, but moreover, can help to establish peace between humans.

Source: OpenStax University – Psychology


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