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Stress has become so pervasive that many of us think stress is unavoidable. Or is it?

We experience stress everyday – drivers honking on the road, angry outbursts at workplace, and cranky kids at home. Stress has become a part of our normal everyday life.

The Master Stressor for most today is work. Work brings together many stressors – time stress of deadlines, people stress of difficult colleagues and role stress of making important decisions. As if routine work wasn’t already stressful, job uncertainty, pay cuts, work overload and unemployment due to layoffs are adding to our work stress.

How can you cope with this burgeoning stress without seriously damaging your mental and physical health?

How stress affects us?

Stress damages a person in many ways. “Chronic stress has been associated with increased biological aging, suppression or abnormal regulation of immune function, impairment of brain structure and function, increased susceptibility to some types of infection and worsening of conditions like depression, heart disease and some types of cancer,” says Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences and Director of Research at the Stanford Centre on Stress and Health.

Unfortunately, people are often unaware that they are suffering from stress. We all like to believe we are managing our stress efficiently. Like Alex, a factory manager who went to the doctor complaining of fatigue. He was astonished to learn that he was suffering from stress.

People also don’t realize how much stress is really harming them. Mandy, a teacher and mother of two, could not believe that her fainting spells and increased heart rate were related to her stress.

Sadly, many people resort to alcohol or drugs to relive unbearable stress, only because they do not know of better ways to deal with stress. These coping mechanisms cause even more damage to their health and lives. Are there any better ways to deal with stress?

What is Stress

Stress is a ‘transactional’ episode between a person and his environment. It means two factors are present and interacting in a stress episode: a person and the stressor. The stress reaction is an outcome of this interaction between the two. A stressor such as a long commute to work in heavy traffic will produce different levels of stress in different people.

This presents two pathways to manage stress. One, managing a person’s stress response and his capacity to deal with stressors. Two, eliminating the stressors, if possible, or reducing their incidence or intensity.

Simple Ways to Manage Stress

  1. Get rid of Stressors – Take steps to reduce or eliminate as many stressors as possible. This may mean reviewing your schedule of commitments and reworking your to-do list. Yes, this can be done, even if it seems difficult at first.
  2. Be Aware of your stress – Become mindful that you are ‘under the influence of stress’, and that it can impair your judgment. We often become aware that we were stressed only after we act rashly in a tense situation. Check your breathing, muscle tension, mental activity periodically throughout the day for cultivating awareness of stress.
  3. Respond Mindfully - If you are aware you’re stressed ‘while’ you are stressed, then you have a chance to change your response to an aggravating situation. Choose to ‘respond’ Mindfully in ways which work for you, try not to ‘react’ automatically.
  4. Identify your Favourite Stressors – If you know your favourite stressors, you can be better prepared to control your reactions to them. Learn to identify them. What gets you mad? Long meetings or dealing with slackers in the team or clearing the inbox?
  5. Manage your Stress Response- Control your stress response by activating the opposite, Relaxation Response. You can relax in many ways – by slowing breathing, soothing self-talk, pacing to let out nervous energy or even doing a relaxing hand mudra or inhaling a soothing fragrance.
  6. Recover from Stress– Do something to recover from stresses of the day by active relaxation. Do whatever relaxes you – watching comedy, meditating, listening to music, doing exercise, long walks, talking to friends. Do it daily.
  7. Rest adequately– Rest is not the same as relaxation. Allow time for your mind-body to heal and repair the damage caused by the stresses of the day. There is no substitute to adequate sleep as a daily repair mechanism.
  8. Let Go Attitude – Cultivate an attitude of going with the flow and letting go of the need to control outcomes too tightly. Stay focused on what value you can contribute to a situation, and let go of the rest.  
  9. Make time for Doing Nothing – Practice a few moments of non-striving every day. Be mindful of nothing but the ‘now’, say by focusing on your breathing. Mindfulness keeps you focused in the present instead of dwelling in the past which has gone or a future which may not come. 
  10. Make Stress-busting a Habit – Make stress management a habit, not just a crisis response.  Cultivate stress busting habits each day, every day: take breaks from work, eat well, sleep enough, exercise regularly, laugh daily, talk to friends, say thank you, forgive people, consciously let go of worries before you sleep.  

Can we completely eliminate stress?

It is impossible to eliminate stress from our lives, but it is possible to reduce stress to tolerable levels. We don’t have to live with damaging levels of stress to be successful or happy.

Short-term stress is an important survival mechanism, the fight or flight response, which helps us to deal with challenges of our environment. Some stress is a normal part of living; it is chronic stress which damages you deeply. It is important to learn to control your chronic stress because nobody can become 100% stress - proof or eliminate stressors to zero.

Anti-Stress Prayer

When your stress seems out of control, remember the Serenity Prayer: Change what you can, accept what you cannot and know the difference between the two. 

Image Credits: 

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/12403504@N02/11064118236">Image taken from page 90 of 'Lays of Modern Oxford, by Adon. Illustrated by M. E. Edwards, F. Lockwood, and the author'</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/">(license)</a>

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