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Stress Education

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Stress Education
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Stress is a common problem that can seriously impact health, sleep, and relationships. Many people believe they can't do anything about stress. However, they don't realize that how a situation is approached can change the impact of stress.

This audio teaches you about the stress reaction, how it affects your body, and what can be done to deal with stress and to reduce its effects. You might not always have control over whether stressors occur, but you do have control over how you manage the stress you experience.

Transcript: Stress Education
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Stress is a common problem. You can't escape being stressed because it comes with being alive. However, you can learn to cope with stress and reduce how much it affects you. And that it is what I'm going to talk about.

First, however, let's take a moment to focus. Begin by just focusing on your breathing. Notice each breath you take and what it feels like as it comes into your body and as it leaves your body. Notice the changes in your muscles as you inhale and exhale. Notice that as your breathing slows and becomes more rhythmic your muscles begin to relax especially when you exhale. Allow yourself to continue this very natural breathing process as I talk to you about stress.

Just that moment you took can help you focus a little better. Problems with focusing is one of the major effects of stress. The reason that focus is so affected is because when we are stressed we are not in a mindful state. We are distracted by thoughts that we can't act upon in the moment. Such as “How can I ever get all this done?” Or, “I just can't deal with this. I'm too overwhelmed.” Or, “Why does life have to be so hard?” Thoughts such as these take our focus which prevents us from fully focusing on what we CAN do.

This audio is about learning how to deal with stress more effectively. That involves controlling what you can, using stress management techniques to cope with what you can't control, and changing the thinking that interferes with doing either of these things.

First, however, it is important to understand stress and why you are affected. If you are affected by stress, it does not mean that you are weaker than other people because you can't cope. It means that you haven't LEARNED the skills to cope with stress. By learning the stress management skills as well as the cognitive thinking skills, you will learn to manage stress better.

Stress is caused when demands are placed upon you that exceed your natural ability to cope. Stress is often perceived as negative because of the impact it has, however, the events that cause stress can also be positive. Any events, positive or negative, that provoke stress are referred to as stressors. So, even a person who just got a new job with an increase in salary and can afford to move to a new home is likely to experience stress even though the stressors are all positive. They might even have the additional stress of “I should be happy. Why am I feeling bad?” which typically doesn't occur with someone who has had negative events occur.

How does the body cope with stress naturally? The body increases its defenses such as the production of cortisol which is often referred to as the stress hormone and the production of adrenalin which prepares the body to react quickly. These chemicals in our system actually help us to resist the stress and to cope by reacting to the event. In fact, during the resistance stage of stress, we are able to focus better, think more clearly, and respond more rapidly than normal.

However, if the stressor continues, or there are numerous stressors during a period of time, this heightened state of readiness and preparation caused by these chemicals will start to exhaust the body. This is when the demands of the stressors begin to exceed the body's natural ability to cope and you will begin to experience the effects of stress.

These effects include the inability to focus or think clearly, fatigue or exhaustion, physical symptoms such as headaches or body aches and pains, stomach upset or indigestion, sleep disturbance, over-eating or not eating, and emotional distress. If these symptoms become chronic, over time they can lead to depression and the inability to function effectively. In addition, there are long-term effects caused by the body's defenses. For instance, although the stress hormone cortisol is meant to help with stress, when a person is in a state of stress over a long time, the cortisol causes a build-up of fat around the middle of the body which is the kind that can contribute to heart disease and diabetes. Long-term adrenalin release can cause chronic agitation, irritability, gastro-intestinal distress, and sleep disturbance which can lead to problems with pain, digestion, and chronic fatigue.

Obviously, as your own personal experience probably tells you, as well as the fact that the stressors can be positive or negative, there is no way to avoid the stressors. However, there are ways to help your body defend itself from the effects of stress.

First, you need to identify when an event is controllable, partially controllable, or uncontrollable. Sometimes you might need to get other people's perspective on this because it might not always be clear to you when you are being stressed. If you determine that the event may be controllable, then do what you can to change the situation. For example, much daily stressed is caused by people trying to do more than is reasonable given the time they have. One good way of controlling this stress is by saying “No” when others make requests of you. You need to be in charge of your time or the demands upon you can become excessive.

However, there are many stressors in life that are uncontrollable such as injury, illness, loss of a job. In these situations, you may not be able to change the cause of the stress, but you can change your reaction and not be as impacted by the stress. I'm not trying to say you won't be affected at all, but you can reduce the impact and improve your ability to cope with it.

There are a number of reasons people may not use the tools that can help them cope with stress. The first of these is that they may not be familiar with the techniques of stress management. They might think that relaxing is sitting in front of the TV with a beer or a glass of wine. However, not only is that not effective stress management but it can lead to other stress such as not getting necessary things done or reliance on substances or even substance abuse.

However, most importantly for our purposes, it is not effective stress management because it does not decrease the chemicals that are released by the body's defenses. You need techniques that HELP the body's defenses so that your body doesn't have to work as hard. In other words, you need to increase your body's natural ability to cope. The way you do this is by using techniques that have the effect of decreasing the cortisol, or stress hormone, release and that counteracts the adrenalin by releasing a calming chemical into your system.

The techniques used in psychology are natural methods that will change this chemical response affecting how a person reacts at a physiological level. These techniques are fairly simple but need to be used consistently and frequently until they are a natural part of your routine. There are many different ways these techniques are modified and presented, but primarily, they involve mindful breathing and focus, muscle relaxation, and pleasant imagery. Similar to exercise, they need to be a lifestyle behavior to be effective. You can't just use a little breathing occasional when you are stressed and expect it to have a great impact.

If you pay close attention to people who seem to cope well, they probably have relaxation practices built into their lifestyle, sometimes to the degree that they might not even be aware of their practices, but other times it may be a more deliberate routine. It is good to have a 20 to 30 minute deep relaxation practice every day, often before bedtime so that your sleep can be more restful. It is also important to practice quick stress relief exercises throughout the day. These quick techniques are more effective when you have been practicing the longer relaxation and know how your body responds.

Even though these techniques are fairly simple and are pretty effective, the second reason many people don't use the techniques is because of time. They often state “I don't have time to relax. I have too much to do.” However, the truth is you don't have time not to relax. Stress takes time from you where relaxation gives you more time. What I mean by this can be illustrated by thinking of a time when you were in a hurry or rushed. Most likely, you were less careful and more likely to make mistakes causing you to take the time to correct them. Also, you were probably less focused causing you to not think as clearly and having to take more time to make decisions. In addition, you were probably more forgetful causing you to take time to remember.

However, when a person is more relaxed, they are more mindfully focused which allows them to think more clearly, react more quickly, and to be more efficient. Therefore, taking the time to approach your day in a mindfully relaxed way will actually allow you to accomplish more in less time.

Now, what I just did in discussing a different way of thinking about time is considered cognitive therapy which is learning to think in a different way. In this instance, it is taking an obstacle to stress management, time, and thinking about it in the sense of stress management gives you time rather than taking time.

By thinking differently about dealing with stress we can begin to eliminate the obstacles that prevent self-care. Other obstacles people have may include thoughts such as “It will take a lot of effort.” Or, “It will take time and won't do any good anyway.” Or, “I don't have the willpower or the discipline.” Or, “I don't have the energy.”

Each of these ways of thinking can be changed by looking at the situation differently. For instance, stress management may take effort but it doesn't take a lot of effort. Just listen to a relaxation audio. I tell my clients frequently that even if they feel they don't have time to fully focus, just let the relaxation audio play in the background while they are doing something else. Even doing this, they will probably get some benefit.

If the problem is lack of confidence in your ability or in the techniques themselves, just try doing a little at a time. If you experience even a small amount of benefit for a short time, you may be encouraged to do more. The nice thing about some of the quick relief exercise is they can be done in a few minutes.

In addition, once you learn more about mindfulness, you can learn to bring it into your daily activities. Mindfulness does not actually take time, it is more a state of mind of being fully focused on your immediate moment. Once you learn to do that, it will help you be less stressed and more focused and effective.

If you give yourself the gift of 30 minutes a day to take care of yourself and use these techniques, you will be given much more than that in return.

Now, let's just take a moment again to focus on your breathing. Allow yourself to notice each breath just as you did at the beginning. However, this time imagine that you are breathing energy into your body and letting that energy flow to all parts of your body. As you exhale, notice which muscles need to relax and allow those muscles to relax. Take this mindful focus with you throughout your day.