Stress Awareness month first launched in 1992 and has taken place every April since its inception. The goal throughout the month of April is to raise public awareness about stress, including the causes, the effects it has on the mind and body and how to cope with it.

Stress is a normal, natural part of living. In fact, some stress is ever be considered healthy. This type of stress is called eustress. Eustress is a positive form of stress having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being. Eustress also helps us to focus energy, is usually short-term, is perceived as being within our coping abilities, feels exciting and often improves performance. Examples of this type of stress might be starting a new job, having a child, buying a home or even retiring. Eustress produces positive feelings of excitement, fulfillment, meaning, satisfaction, and well-being. This is good for us because its helps us feel confident, adequate, and stimulated by the challenge you experience from the stressor.

On the other hand, distress is the type of stress we need to be mindful of, in terms of its negative effects on our overall wellbeing. Unlike eustress, distress can make you feel overwhelmed because your resources (physically, mentally, emotionally) are inadequate to meet the demands you’re facing. Distress often causes anxiety or concern. can be short- or long-term, is not perceived as being within our coping abilities, feels unpleasant, decreases performance and can lead to mental and physical problems. Examples of distress might be the death of a loved one, financial difficulties, chronic injury or serious illness, excessive job demands, unemployment or difficult commuting or travel schedules. Prolonged distress can often lead to severe mental and physical problems. If left unchecked, stress can be deadly — in fact, stress is often referred to as the “silent killer” because although its effects are not immediately apparent, it can lead to a number of serious health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease. This is why Stress Awareness Month is important — it informs people about stress and provides them with the tools and resources to manage it.

To help kick off Stress Awareness Month, below you will find suggestions on ways to better manage and cope with stress.

  • Try Relaxation Techniques. Each day, try to relax with a stress reduction technique. There are many tried and tested ways to reduce stress so try a few and see what works best for you. For example try self-hypnosis or meditation. These techniques are very easy and can be done almost anywhere, even at your desk or in the car. One very simple technique is to focus on a word or phrase that has a positive meaning to you. Words such as “calm” “love” and “peace” work well, or you could think of a self-affirming mantra such as “I deserve calm in my life” or “Grant me serenity”.  Focus on your chosen word or phrase; if you find your mind has wandered or you become aware of intrusive thoughts entering your mind, simply disregard them and return your focus to the chosen word or phrase. If you find yourself becoming tense again later, simply silently repeat your word or phrase. Don’t worry if you find it difficult to relax at first. Relaxation is a skill that needs to be learned and will improve with practice.
  • Exercise. The research keeps growing — exercise benefits your mind just as well as your body. We keep hearing about the long-term benefits of a regular exercise routine, but even a 20-minute walk, run, swim or dance session in the midst of a stressful time can give an immediate effect that can last for several hours. Stressful situations also increases the level of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol in your body. These are our “fight or flight” hormones that evolution has hard-wired into our brains. They are designed to protect us from immediate bodily harm when we are under threat. However, stress in the modern age is rarely remedied by a fight or flight response, so physical exercise can be used as a surrogate to metabolize the excessive stress hormones and restore your body and mind to a calmer, more relaxed state.
  • Slow Down. Modern life is so busy, and sometimes we just need to slow down and chill out. Look at your life and find small ways you can do that. For example:
    • Set your watch 5 to 10 minutes ahead. That way you’ll get places a little early and avoid the stress of being late.
    • When you’re driving on the highway, switch to the slow lane so you can avoid road rage.
    • Break down big jobs into smaller ones. For example, don’t try to answer all 100 emails if you don’t have to — just answer a few of them.
  • Eat Well. Eating a regular, well-balanced diet will help you feel better in general. It may also help control your moods. Your meals should be full of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and lean protein for energy. And don’t skip any. It’s not good for you and can put you in a bad mood, which can actually increase your stress.
  • Manage Your Time. At times, we all feel overburdened by our ‘To Do’ list and this is a common cause of stress. Accept that you can not do everything at once and start to prioritize your tasks. Make a list of all the things that you need to do and list them in order of genuine priority. Note what tasks you need to do personally and what can be delegated to others to do. Record which tasks need to be done immediately, in the next week, in the next month, or when time allows. By editing what might have started out as an overwhelming and unmanageable task list, you can break it down into a series of smaller, more manageable tasks spread out over a longer time frame, with some tasks removed from the list entirely through delegation. Remember as well to create buffer times to deal with unexpected and emergency tasks, and to include time for your own relaxation and well-being.
  • Get social support. Call, FaceTime, email, text, snapchat or Facebook someone. When you share your concerns or feelings with another person, it does help relieve stress. But it’s important that the person whom you talk to is someone whom you trust and whom you feel can understand and validate you. If your family is a stressor, for example, it may not alleviate your stress if you share your works woes with one of them.
  • Deep Breathing. Stopping and taking a few deep breaths can take the pressure off you right away. You’ll be surprised how much better you feel once you get good at it. Just follow these 5 steps:
    • Sit in a comfortable position with your hands in your lap and your feet on the floor, or you can lie down.
    • Close your eyes.
    • Imagine yourself in a relaxing place. It can be on the beach, in a beautiful field of grass, or anywhere that gives you a peaceful feeling.
    • Slowly take deep breaths in and out.
    • Do this for 5 to 10 minutes at a time.
  • Take a break from the stressor. It may seem difficult to get away from a big work project, a crying baby or a growing credit card bill. But when you give yourself permission to step away from it, you let yourself have time to do something else, which can help you have a new perspective or practice techniques to feel less overwhelmed. It’s important to not avoid your stress (those bills have to be paid sometime), but even just 20-minutes to take care of yourself is helpful. You need to plan on some real downtime to give your mind time off from stress. If you’re a person who likes to set goals, this may be hard for you at first. But stick with it and you’ll look forward to these moments. Restful things you can do include:
    • Meditation
    • Yoga
    • Tai chi
    • Prayer
    • Listening to your favorite music
    • Spending time in nature
  • Eliminate Your Triggers. Figure out what are the biggest causes of stress in your life. Is it your job, your commute, your schoolwork? If you’re able to identify what they are, see if you’re able to eliminate them from your life, or at least reduce them. If you can’t identify the main causes of your stress, try keeping a stress journal. Make note of when you become most anxious and see if you can determine a pattern, then find ways to remove or lessen those triggers.
  • Learn to Say ‘No.’ A common cause of stress is having too much to do and too little time in which to do it. And yet, in this situation, many people will still agree to take on additional responsibility.  Learning to say “No” to additional or unimportant requests will help to reduce your level of stress, and may also help you develop more self-confidence. To learn to say “No”, you need to understand why you find it difficult.  Many people find it hard to say “No” because they want to help and are trying to be nice and to be liked.  For others, it is a fear of conflict, rejection or missed opportunities.  Remember that these barriers to saying “No” are all self-created. You might feel reluctant to respond to a request with a straight “No”, at least at first.  Instead think of some pre-prepared phrases to let other people down more gently.
  • Avoid Caffeine, Alcohol, and Nicotine. Avoid, or at least reduce, your consumption of nicotine and any drinks containing caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants and so will increase your level of stress rather than reduce it. Alcohol is a depressant when taken in large quantities, but acts as a stimulant in smaller quantities. Therefore using alcohol as a way to alleviate stress is not ultimately helpful. Swap caffeinated and alcoholic drinks for water, herbal teas, or diluted natural fruit juices and aim to keep yourself hydrated as this will enable your body to cope better with stress. You should also aim to avoid or reduce your intake of refined sugars – they are contained in many manufactured foods (even in savory foods such as salad dressings and bread) and can cause energy crashes which may lead you to feel tired and irritable. In general, try to eat a healthy, well-balanced and nutritious diet.
  • Make Time for Hobbies. You need to set aside time for things you enjoy. Try to do something every day that makes you feel good, and it will help relieve your stress. It doesn’t have to be a ton of time — even 15 to 20 minutes will do. Relaxing hobbies include things like:
    • Reading
    • Knitting
    • Doing an art project
    • Playing golf
    • Watching a movie
    • Doing puzzles
    • Playing cards and board games

If after trying some of these techniques you are still suffering from overwhelming stress, it may be time to seek professional help. Capital EAP is always available for supportive counseling and all our all counselors are highly trained in assisting individuals manage stress, and many other areas of clinical concern. Our services are 100% confidential and always available to Capital EAP Employees and family members free of charge. For more information or to make an appointment, contact Capital EAP at 518-465-3813, option 2 and ask to speak to one of our intake coordinators.

By Amanda Keller, LCSW-R, SAP, Capital EAP Clinical Manager