Ok… so brace yourselves but this is International Stress Awareness Week and today is International Stress Awareness Day. I can’t tell if the ISMA timed this week around the US Presidential Election intentionally as an elaborate prank on Americans or if it’s just a coincidence.
I suppose it’s also possible that this was just their way of helping us become aware of stress. “Hey America, you know that feeling of impending doom you’ve been dealing with for the last six months. That’s stress! You are now aware of it. You’re welcome.”
Interestingly, in the US, National Stress Awareness Day is April 16th, the day after our taxes are due….
Regardless of when this important day falls, if you’re like me you celebrate your awareness of stress every day. So lets talk about different ways of observing this important holiday.
What is Stress?
We tend to define stress in a couple of different ways. Sometimes we talk about it as the stuff outside of us happening around us or to us (e.g., financial difficulties, family problems, a major election with enormous implications for the future of the entire world, excessive traffic on your way to work). Sometimes, though, we talk about stress as the stuff we feel in our bodies (e.g., anxiety, muscle tension, upset stomach, racing thoughts).
Probably the best way to think about stress, though, is as the interaction between those two things. It’s when we are dealing with more external pressures than we are used to dealing with and our bodies and minds are suffering as a consequence.
What’s the Best Way to Handle Stress?
This question actually feels a little victim-blamey to me. “What, this international health crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen for over 100 years has you nervous? What are you gonna do about it, huh? Huh?!”
But since we don’t always have the power to address the external stressors in our lives, it’s good to spend some time thinking about the parts we can control. There are a ton of great resources out there on coping with stress. So many, in fact, that this article might not really be necessary. One might even go so far as to ask what kind of person invites a task like writing yet ANOTHER article about coping with stress into their life. What sort of idiot decides to add a completely unnecessary job to their to do list at a time like this…? [points both thumbs at self] This guy!
Oh well, at least it was a distraction, which is one of the things we can do to cope with stress. So let’s continue that distraction, shall we:
- Acknowledge and identify the stress. Sometimes it’s helpful to be honest with yourself that there is a lot going on and you are having a difficult time dealing with it. Take a look here to see some examples of how those stressors tend to manifest themselves in your body.
- Identify the less useful ways you might be dealing with stress. When people get stressed, they sometimes turn to less healthy coping strategies. Alcohol and other drug abuse, overeating, and excessively checking fivethirtyeight.com for the latest updated polling data are all things people do when they feel like they can’t cope. Try to replace those potentially maladaptive behaviors with healthier strategies.
- Embrace more positive thoughts. People tend to engage in a lot of negative self-talk when they are stressed. They might even call themselves “idiots” and shame themselves publicly in writing for taking on too much work during a difficult time. A healthier strategy is to shift those negative thoughts into more positive thoughts. Maybe I’m not a “complete idiot.” Maybe I’m just a “regular idiot.” Since I’m obviously terrible at this, here are some approaches to turning negative thoughts to more positive ones.
- Intervene (when you can) and relax (when you can). There are some external stressors we do have some control over, so we should use that power when we can. Even if we have no power over the situation itself, we can choose how much of it we invite into our lives (i.e., you can decide how much of the news you want to watch, how much you want to engage on social media, etc.). Similarly, finding ways to embrace relaxation can be really valuable at times like this. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, etc. are all helpful. See here for many examples.
Dr. Ryan C. Martin
Ryan Martin is the Associate Dean for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and a member of the Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He researches anger, manages the website All the Rage, and teaches courses on mental illness and emotion. Follow him on twitter at @rycmart or All the Rage on Facebook.