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Too Stressed to Relax?

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"...the truth is that you don't have the time not to take care of yourself."
You can't escape being stressed. It is a fact of modern society. With technology and the move to a more urban society, stress is a constant. Stress includes the daily stress of living life as well as the stress unique to each person's situation such as a demanding job or chronic illness or the death of a loved one.


1) Stressor.
The event or situation that causes stress is called a stressor. A stressor may be positive or negative but in some way it places demands upon the individual.

2) Stress.
Usually, stress refers to the reaction the person experiences. This can be a physical reaction such as tension, headaches, stomach distress, or sleep disturbance. Or it can be an emotional reaction such as agitation, nervousness/anxiety, or sadness.

3) Mindfulness.
The state of being fully present in the moment is referred to as mindfulness. When people are more stressed they tend to be less mindfully aware because they are distracted by worries, concerns, and demands on their attention.


1) Multi-tasking.
Have you noticed how multi-tasking is often referred to with pride? “I can do three things at once.” However, you really can't. Your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you are multi-tasking, it means that your brain is switching from one focus to another very rapidly. Some people may be able to do this more quickly than others.

However, such multi-tasking comes at a cost. The cost is the stress experienced. The brain finds this constant switching focus to be stressful because it needs to re-organize information in memory again and again. As a result, it becomes less efficient. Therefore, whenever you are trying to do more than one thing at a time, you will accomplish each of the tasks less well.

For example, have you ever tried to text and talk to someone at the same time? How much do you actually hear of the conversation and how involved are you? Does the other person have to repeat themselves? Are there more errors in your text?

By doing one task at a time and then moving on to the next, you will not only accomplish them all more quickly, but you will do a better job with each task. In addition, you will be less stressed because this is a more mindful way of approaching things.

2) Decision-making.
Have you ever stood in front of a display of toothpaste or deodorant or toilet paper trying to make a decision about which product to buy? The number of choices has become overwhelming.

These simple decisions are a good example of what has occurred in this modern age. A hundred years ago people didn't have to make dozens of little decisions each day because there weren't as many choices to make. The simple process of daily living has become much more complicated. If you find this difficult to believe, keep a tally for one day of how many different decisions you make.

Now, there are probably ways that you have simplified this process. With the example of the toothpaste, you probably have a way of making the decision such as buying the same brand all the time or buying the cheapest brand. That is what this article is about. How can you approach the stressful situations in life to reduce the impact they have upon you?

3) Entertainment.
Even entertainment and leisure activities tend to be stimulating and stressful as our culture has become less mindfully focused and more outcome focused. In the past, sitting on the porch and having a conversation with a neighbor may have been the evening's leisure activity. How many people can do that now without being interrupted by a phone call or a text or even checking their team's scores on their smart phone?

Many people think that watching television or playing a game on their phone is relaxing. However, these activities actually stimulate the brain and prevent true relaxation. Our bodies need to regenerate each day. We do this with sleep. However, our brain also needs rest and that requires deep relaxation. (Read article: Why Are Meditative Relaxation and Mindfulness Important?) Our brain needs times where it can be quiet.


Hans Selye first proposed the General Adaptation Syndrome over sixty years ago (Selye, 1946) to describe the process of experiencing, reacting, and adapting to stress. His suggestion of three stages to the stress reaction has stood the test of time.

1) Alarm reaction stage.
When a person first encounters a stressor, it is identified as a threat to the system. Even something that is positive may be perceived as threat because it involves having to adapt in some way. Therefore, the body prepares its defenses to deal with the stressor.

These defenses include the release of adrenalin and the stress hormone cortisol. These brain chemicals help the body to prepare to deal with a threat. Adrenalin helps the body to physically prepare such as increasing muscle tension and energy level so as to react quickly. Cortisol helps the body to mentally prepare such as improving memory function or decreasing pain sensitivity. 2) Resistance stage.
The resistance stage is the time period in which the individual is coping with the stressor. During this time, the person is usually feeling good and able to cope due to the body's preparation with the chemical release. At this point an individual may not even recognize the stress reaction they are experiencing because their functioning is at a heightened level. In fact, many people state during this stage, “I thrive on stress” because they are coping well.

However, depending on the stressor involved or if numerous stressors occur, this stage may not last long enough to deal with the problem. Then, the individual is likely to deplete all the body's natural defenses coping with the situation.

3) Exhaustion stage.
Once the natural resources are depleted, the exhaustion stage occurs. The resources may be depleted after the stressor is over or if the stressor is ongoing the resources may be depleted when a person is still dealing with the stressful situation.

The exhaustion stage is when the body is trying to recover from the stress. Depending on the amount of stress experienced, this stage can be short or can become chronic and create other problems such as clinical depression. Chronic stress can also cause physical problems due to the increased adrenalin and cortisol in the system. High levels of cortisol has been associated with an increase in the body fat around the mid-section which has been linked to diabetes and heart disease.

Because the exhaustion stage frequently occurs after the stressor, many people aren't even aware of why they are feeling bad. I've had many clients tell me in their first visit, “I don't know why I'm having problems now. Everything is fine now. It was last year when everything was happening.”

The exhaustion stage is what most people refer to as “being stressed.” This is when you experience the stress reaction or the effects of stress. These effects include extreme fatigue, loss of drive/interest, agitation, sleep problems, body aches and pains, low resistance to illness, anxiety, and depression.


Some people seem to react more to stress than others or to be able to tolerate stress for longer periods of time. Some people may even seem to “thrive” on stress. However, the truth is that in most cases these folks simply use better coping strategies and have incorporated healthy coping practices into their lifestyles. These strategies and coping practices may look natural if they learned them at a young age. However, these are skills that most people can learn to help manage stress better.


1) Recognizing Stress.
Too often people are stressed and don't realize it. As a result, by the time they start to do something about the stress it has already affected them to a great degree and is much more difficult to resolve. It is best to use many of the stress management practices as ongoing lifestyle practices to prevent the impact from stress.

However, even if you do practice stress management, it is beneficial to recognize stress so that you can take additional precautions to reduce the impact. Awareness allows you to take steps such as eliminating a stressor or changing it in some way. In addition, awareness allows you to choose what you need to do to take better care of yourself.

2) Problem-solving.
One method to help prevent stress is to engage in active problem-solving. Instead of allowing events to occur, the more you consider situations and potential consequences you can solve a problem before it becomes a stressor. Many situations might easily be resolved if they are caught early.

One good way to learn to engage in problem-solving is to listen to others. If someone points out a possible problem, don't ignore them and assume that everything will be okay. The more you can acknowledge you don't know something and get assistance, you can reduce the problems or stress that might occur.

One time when I was working with a professor in college, he said to me “Of course you know the research of so-and-so.” Instead of admitting that I didn't, I spent the night in the library. If I had just stated that I wasn't familiar with the research, he probably would have given me the articles I needed to read. That taught me an important lesson that has reduced my stress throughout life.

Another aspect of problem-solving is planning your stressors. With the stressors over which you have some control, you may be able to decide when you can best handle them. For instance, if you plan to buy a new home but you know that your job situation may change, wait to buy your home until you have settled the job situation.

3) Healthy Lifestyle Practices.
The more you take care of yourself physically, the more you can cope with stress. A healthy body functions better and an unhealthy body is likely to cause additional stress. For instance, if you are out-of-shape physically, many things that wouldn't affect you become more stressful such as walking up a flight of stairs.

The main lifestyle practices that help us function at our best are exercise, eating nutritiously, and getting enough sleep. The more you maintain your overall health, the more you can tolerate stressful situations that occur.

4) Reducing Stressors.
Many times when people are stressed, there may be aspects of the stressor that can be changed to reduce the amount of stress experienced. The first step is to determine whether the stressor is controllable, partially controllable, or uncontrollable. Sometimes it is a good idea to get the opinion of an objective observer because you may not be able to see the situation clearly.

For example, a client of mine had a boss who was petty and mean. She was convinced that the situation was not controllable because if she stood up to him she would lose her job. However, we focused on practicing assertive communication which she put into practice at work. Over time, not only did he treat her better but he saw her as management material and gave her a promotion.

Therefore, don't assume that you can't control a stressful situation. Get someone else's opinion. If you determine that certain aspects of the situation are controllable, then develop a plan for changing the situation and reducing the amount of stress you experience.

If the stressor cannot be controlled, it is especially important to engage in healthy stress management practices. By taking care of yourself and improving your body's defenses, you will have less impact from the stress or you can recover more quickly from the effects.

5) Coping Practices.
A variety of stress management methods are available that can help you calm your body and reduce the release of adrenalin and cortisol. By using these methods routinely, you can decrease the impact of stress on your body. The relaxation and meditation audios can teach you methods to quiet your system and restore internal balance. You may download free audios from Excel At Life to help you do this.


Many times people know what they can do to manage stress better, but certain thinking styles are obstacles to using the methods that can be helpful.

1) Time.
The most common reason people have for not using stress management or healthy lifestyle practices is time. “I don't have the time to do that! I already have too many things to do.” On the surface, this reason seems completely valid. However, if examined more closely, it can be seen as unreasonable in most situations.

The reason this is true is because when you are in a stressed state of mind everything takes more time. You are less able to focus, concentrate, and remember. You are often physically sluggish. Even if you try to speed up, you will often make more mistakes or struggle with how to do something that normally would be easy.

In addition, the things that people do when stressed such as consume more caffeine and other substances are likely to cause problems. These problems then take additional time. Other times people “relax” by watching television or smoking. Again, these take time.

So, overall, you may believe you don't have the time to take care of yourself, but the truth is that you don't have the time not to take care of yourself. Many of the stress management techniques, once learned, take very little time. And they will give you much more time in return.

2) Effort.
Another reason people report for not using stress management methods or doing problem-solving is the amount of effort it takes. Frequently people just aren't aware of how much effort they are already using to deal with the stressor. The difference with the stress management methods is that the effort is effective. In other words, instead of going in circles you actually get somewhere.

3) Lack of Confidence.
Sometimes people lack confidence in themselves or in the stress management skills. Sometimes people think that the skills sound too simple. “How could something as simple as listening to a 20-minute audio help? That couldn't possibly help with how bad I feel!”

Other times people don't believe that they can actually change the situation. “Maybe someone else could do that, but I can't.” If that is the case, they may need some cognitive therapy to help change the thinking styles that create a lack of confidence.

4) Expense.
Another reason people give for not doing the healthy coping practices is the expense. Usually this is due to only seeing certain aspects of coping with the stress but not examining all the possibilities. For instance, a person might think “I need a massage, but I can't afford it right now so there is nothing I can do for my tension.” The nice thing about stress management is there are many different methods and usually do not cost much.


If you read much of what I have written, you will notice that I often refer to “Mindfulness.” In cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) we have come to understand that mindfulness helps to reduce stress which can help individuals be more effective in dealing with all sorts of physical and emotional problems.

I found an interesting quote from 1976 by Hans Selye that appears to foreshadow this movement towards mindfulness in CBT. He spoke of his “philosophy of gratitude” which was “based on the conviction that by earning our neighbor's love and becoming necessary to him, we can satisfy our own selfish needs while helping others. In this way we avoid creating interpersonal stress situations, and instead can make stress work for us.”


American Psychological Association (2012). Stress in American: Our Health at Risk. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/index.aspx

Selye, H. (1974). Stress without distress. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co.

Selye, H. (1946). The general adaptation syndrome and the diseases of adaptation. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology, 6, 117-231.


Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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