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More PsychNotes: Stress and Coping

July 25, 2017       
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Signs You Are Not “Thriving” on Stress
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

It's not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it. Hans Selye
Some people believe they perform best under stress. Certainly, an optimal degree of stress can be beneficial for performance but it is also important to be aware of when stress is affecting your performance, your relationships, and/or your health.

7 signs that stress is creating problems

1) Irritability. Many busy people who run on adrenalin also are frequently irritable with others. Frustration is especially likely if other people are getting in their way to accomplishing their goals whether it is a slow driver in front of them or a co-worker who needs further explanation of a task.

2) Complaining. Even though a person who believes they “thrive” on stress often creates stressful conditions by taking on too much or setting unrealistic deadlines, a sign they are not thriving is frequent complaining about the stress: “I'm so stressed! (with a sigh)” or “I don't have enough time!” Some people believe that complaining helps relieve the stress, but typically it doesn't because it increases the focus on the negative aspects of stress.

3) Forgetfulness. Those who are overly stressed are often forgetful. They pick up the phone to tell a co-worker something and forget what it was when the person answers due to being distracted by another task. Or, they forget or overbook meetings.

4) Thoughtless errors. When you are stressed you often don't pay attention to the little things which can create big problems. For instance, when I started my internship at a VA hospital, I thoughtlessly checked all the “yes” boxes on a form about ethical violations when I should have checked “no.” This led to me being further investigated and created a hassle to starting the internship.

5) Muscle tension. Even if you like the motivation of stress, if you find that you experience a great deal of muscle tension in your neck, shoulders or jaw, then your body is not handling the stress well.

6) Poor nutrition and lack of exercise. Those who lead stressful lives aren't always doing well at taking care of their physical needs. They grab fast food or snacks from the vending machine rather than eating a healthy meal. Poor nutrition and not getting enough exercise can potentially lead to more serious or chronic health problems.

7) Frequent physical illness. Another sign that your body is being affected by stress is that you experience frequent illness. This can be a direct consequence of stress or can be due to not taking care of yourself properly.

A more mindful approach to stress can help

Many people who “thrive” on stress believe they can't fit mindfulness into their busy lives: “I don't have time for that meditation stuff." However, with each of the signs of stress just described, some simple mindfulness methods can help reduce the experience of stress. By using these methods, you may be able to truly “thrive.”

1) Take a moment. Even just a few seconds to take a breath and focus your attention can help reduce irritability. Use a coping statement to help put things in perspective: “Being irritated won't help this situation, slow down, take a breath.”

2) Focus on your task. Whatever you are doing, focus on it completely. People believe they can multitask but that is untrue. Multitasking is actually switching between tasks rapidly. You are likely to perform better if you focus completely on a single task. Even if you have to take an interruption, focus on the interruption fully, and when finished, focus completely on the original task.

3) Be aware. Part of focusing is also being more aware of what is occurring not only around you but also internally. For instance, muscle tension can often easily be reduced just by being aware of it. Once you are aware, you can focus on deliberately relaxing your shoulders or jaw. When you do awareness-induced relaxation on a regular basis, it often only takes a moment to reduce the tension.

Awareness also can help reduce complaining. Be aware of both what you say as well as your internal talk. When it is negative, either focus on eliminating it or remind yourself of the positive aspects: “I'm accomplishing a lot!”

4) Take time for yourself. Even if you are busy, you still need the time to take care of yourself. However, sometimes you can find easy ways to work this into your schedule. Plan to have nutritious snacks available rather than grabbing chips from the machine. Or, walk to you co-worker's office instead of calling so you get a short break. Or, stand at your computer rather than sitting so you can get more physical benefit.

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