Friday, February 17, 2012

Managing Negative Stress

By Melissa Banuchi

“More important, you have to stay happy and positive or the stress will kill you.”
- Joely Fisher

Unfortunately the quote above is true, stress can kill us. If that doesn’t motivate everyone to figure out how to manage the negative stress in your life, I can’t imagine what will! The recently released American Psychological Association’s (APA) annual “Stress In America” report states that women use the following strategies for managing stress:

  • Reading: 51%
  • Spending time with family or friends: 44%
  • Praying: 41%
  • Going to religious services: 24%
  • Shopping: 18%
  • Getting a massage or visiting a spa: 14%
  • Seeing a mental health professional: 5%

Remember that just as whether a certain experience causes either positive or negative stress in an individual is subjective, so is the manner in which we choose to manage negative stress. Let’s take a look at a few tips for doing so. Who knows, the right one could be a lifesaver.

Juuuuuuuuust Breathe

Okay, perhaps Faith Hill’s song wasn’t about a woman’s reaction to positive or negative stress, but maybe her beautiful voice can be our reminder to practice proper abdominal breathing during stressful times in order to ensure that our blood remains properly oxygenated. When we react to stress by taking rapid, shallow, chest breaths, we deplete our blood of the oxygen it needs to keep our muscles relaxed, hearts from racing, us from getting dizzy, and even having panic attacks (all yucky stuff!). The authors of The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (5th Edition, 2000, Raincoast Books) suggest performing this simple abdominal breathing exercise as often as needed while standing, sitting, or lying down:

  1. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Keep your shoulders relaxed. Your abdomen should expand, and your chest should rise very little.
  2. Exhale slowly through your mouth. As you blow air out, purse your lips slightly, but keep your jaw relaxed. You may hear a soft “whooshing” sound as you exhale.
  3. Repeat this breathing exercise for several minutes.

It certainly seems worth giving a try!

Get Plugged In

Earlier this week I met seven incredible women who, like me, came to our church to participate in a class for the next five Wednesdays. As we went around our table introducing ourselves, telling stories about our lives, I was beyond touched by their willingness to be vulnerable and honest, in awe of what they have experienced, overcome and accomplished, and very aware of and receptive to everyone’s desire to feel connected at our table. It came as no surprise to me that we hugged each other goodnight.

The APA report states that spending time with friends or family was ranked as important by many. “76% reported that having good relationships with family and 60% reported that having good relationships with friends was extremely/very important in reducing stress.”

Most people feel happy and positive when they are connecting with others and learning, contributing, and/or accomplishing something that’s meaningful. Even those who tend towards introversion benefit from building relationships with others that come through sharing common interests, experiences and/or activities. In order to get plugged in, you might consider:

  • Taking or teaching a class, or volunteering at your local Community College or University
  • Getting involved in a Church
  • Volunteering in your community (a non-profit organization, mentoring, coaching, tutoring, etc)
  • Joining a sports team or a club that interests you
  • Taking a dance, cooking, art, language, etc, class
Doing so will not only keep your mind occupied, contribute to your knowledge, and give you a sense of accomplishment, it will also most likely help you build relationships with people you can turn to in times of need.

The Gift of Gab

There isn’t much that is more valuable than having someone who knows your (entire) story, loves you anyway, AND answers their phone when you need them in times of stress (Gennie & Malia, you’re the BEST!). Releasing your emotions, exploring opportunities with someone you trust, and gaining their perspective can be incredibly calming and affirming. Even if you don’t have your own Gennie and Malia to turn to, seek out a family member, clergyperson, counselor, teacher, mentor or acquaintance that you know and respect. Talking through what you’re experiencing can help you acknowledge your emotions, remember your strengths and past experiences clear your mind, gain confidence, and create a plan to move forward.

Work It Out

Whether it’s going for a swim, taking a long walk, dancing, playing tennis, or whatever physical activity you enjoy, getting regular exercise helps you reduce stress. By increasing your blood flow, your brain and muscles receive more oxygen, and as mentioned above, this is a good thing during times of stress. Exercising promotes the secretion of endorphins, which not only improve our mood, but enable us to think more clearly. Who wouldn’t want these when feeling stressed out?

Consider scheduling time to exercise around work and personal obligations. Actually writing or typing appointments for physical activity into your calendar may help you to keep these appointments. Need more motivation? Invite someone who will hold you accountable to join you. 41% of Americans stated a lack of motivation as why they are not exercising more frequently, and 33% shared that they are too busy to exercise more than, or even once per week, according to the APA report.

Go Bananas

Okay, for all those as literal as I am, I’m talking about eating right! According to the 2011 APA report,

29% of Americans skipped a meal due to stress
39% of Americans reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods

Neither of these are healthy habits, and they’re even more detrimental to your health during stressful times. Eating healthy foods (as opposed to taking supplements) is widely regarded as the best way to make up for nutritional deficiencies that can deplete your brainpower, lead to fatigue, and diminish your ability to ward off and manage stress. Some foods known to boost your ability to combat stress include:

  • Almonds, pistachios and walnuts
  • Asparagus, avocados, bananas, blueberries, cantaloupe, and oranges
  • Beef, salmon, sushi, and tuna
  • Broccoli, spinach and sweet potatoes
  • Brown rice and Oatmeal
  • Cottage cheese and milk

As busy as we are today, keeping your tank filled with the right fuel (no, double espressos and energy drinks do not count!) is essential to keeping our brains and bodies travelling at the speed and for the distance our lives require. Consider tossing a baggie of almonds or a banana in your purse, or keeping walnuts in your desk at work, instead of grabbing a candy bar on the go or a doughnut out of the break room. Picking up sushi or a spinach salad for lunch or dinner is faster and far better for you than ordering a pepperoni pizza when you’re too tired or busy to make dinner.

Perhaps the best solution for managing stress is to pay attention to your calendar alarm, meet your girlfriend at the gym, take your spinning class together (remember to breathe, girls), and then sit down, vent, catch up while eating a healthy dinner. Sounds great to me!

About the Author:
Whether it's through coaching, consulting or a combination of the two, Melissa enjoys partnering with individuals, teams and organizations to bring about positive change. Melissa currently serves on the Fresh Start Auxiliary Board. She has background in a number of different including operations, sales and marketing; and after extensive training, she earned an ATC as an executive coach.

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