By Dr. Jan Hittelman
Endocrinologist Dr. Hans Selye is credited with coining the term “stress” in his 1956 book entitled “The Stress of Life”, which revolutionized our view of stress and its impact on the human body. Since then, research has shown a link between stress and a wide variety of serious health problems including: hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, ulcers, neck or low back pain, and even cancer.
Dr. Selye identified two types of stress; “eustress” or positive stress and “distress” or negative stress. Positive stress helps us prepare for challenges like a final exam or avoiding a car accident. Negative stress is more ongoing and chronic, which can lead to substance abuse, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, emotional exhaustion, and overall weakening of the immune system.
Negative stress impacts children and adolescents as well as adults. In 2006 the City of Boulder, the Boulder Valley School District and Boulder County conducted a high school youth summit to better understand the challenges they face. One of the key findings was that “Young people in Boulder Valley feel incredible stress and pressure. Many youth feel overwhelmed (and) others experience sadness and hopelessness and even contemplate suicide because they can’t handle everything in their lives” (Building Connections, June 2006).
By simply being alive we are exposed to a variety of stressors, which can profoundly impact our quality of life. While we cannot avoid many of the things that we find stressful, we can learn to manage them in ways that will reduce the harmful effects of chronic stress. There are a variety of research-proven stress reduction techniques that are fairly simple to learn and with practice are highly effective. Mental health professionals commonly teach many of these strategies to their clients. They include:
• Reduce over-scheduling. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with everything on your plate, try to reduce one or two nonessential activities. This may require learning how to determine what is truly essential.
• Learn relaxation techniques. From simple breathing techniques to visualizing yourself in a peaceful place, relaxation techniques can significantly reduce your stress level.
• Muscle relaxation and exercise. Simply tensing various muscle groups for 5-10 seconds followed by 10-20 seconds of relaxing those same muscles can significantly reduce muscle tension resulting from stress. Moderate exercise can also be a great stress reducer.
• Be aware of your thinking. We tend to place a lot of stress on ourselves based on our perfectionist, pessimistic, and generally negative thoughts. By trying to be more aware of our thinking and shifting to more rational, logical, positive thoughts (and keeping things in perspective), we can significantly reduce our subjective experience of stress. This can be easier said than done and professional assistance is often helpful.
• Have fun! We tend to undervalue simply having fun and enjoying time with friends and family. Imagine if we placed as much importance on recreation as we do on achievement. Not only would we be healthier, we would also achieve more.
Take the time to assess your level of stress as well as that of your loved ones. Reducing stress will positively impact your family’s relationships and quality of life.