Can We Hide From Stress?

Feature Article – DIETARY MANAGER

By: Debbie Polisky, MS

Published In: Dietary Manager (April 2008)

It was one of those days, Mary Anne thought, when you wanted the day to end and the perfect solution was to curl up in bed until tomorrow. She had woken up with a bright smile that morning, which faded away as the problems in the hospital’s food service increased, hour by hour—a combination of the Monday blues, two employees called in sick, new staff to be trained, paperwork to be completed, payroll to finish, quality assurance documentation to analyze…and the list went on. Would Friday afternoon ever come around?

Stress…can we hide from it? And, do we even want to? At times, it feels as if stress invades us—from financial worries that can take a toll on our body, back aches as we sit at the computer for long hours, a difficult exam, starting a new job, receiving sad news, even getting married.

Stress is an inevitable part of our lives. Eustress, the “Good Guy,” is associated with positive events—including opportunities for personal growth and satisfaction, having a baby, beginning a career; while distress, or the “Bad Guy,” is caused by opposing negative occurrences—financial burdens, a breakup, shortage of staff.

No one is immune to stress, but, what is stress? Most define stress as the mental and physical response of our bodies to the changes and challenges in our lives. Although we think of stress as an external factor, it’s really the internal state of emotional tension that occurs in response to a variety of demands. It’s important to emphasize that, ultimately, we are responsible for our levels of stress.

Stop and think. Why is it that some co-workers thrive under intense pressure and produce marvelous results or creative solutions, turning challenges into opportunities for growth, while others just want to cringe and run for their lives when faced with a job crisis? Whenever we’re surprised by a sudden stressor, such as somebody rushing up to steal our purse or a car swerving

into our lane, the fight-or-flight response is activated. Dr. Hans Selye coined the term fight-or-flight response, also known as GAS, general adaptation syndrome, characterized by three phases: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.

What happens in our bodies? Our heart starts to speed up, breathing rates and blood pressure increase while a flow of blood rushes to the muscles, resulting from the quick release of blood sugar into the bloodstream. The physiological reaction that takes place is our basic survival instinct, in which our bodies move from homeostasis (a state of equilibrium) to one of crisis, while our bodies attempt to regain balance.

As healthcare professionals, we preach daily about health and nutrition. Yes, stress anxiety can rob us of our needed nutrients, damage the cardiovascular system, raise our blood pressure, and decrease our immune system, leaving us vulnerable to disease and lack of energy. It also drains

our emotional reserves, contributing to depression, irritability, hostility, often leading to anger.

So, how can we master stress so it doesn’t dominate our world, our mind and body, our health?

First, assess your stressor and identify your hazards. Are they routine hassles, personal problems, job related concerns, major life changes, maybe an overload or combination of the above? A useful tool is to keep a journal, similar to a food or exercise log book, where you can date and

write down what made you feel exhausted or drained that day. Is there a pattern to your stressors? Can you identify some issues that stand out from the rest?

After recognizing it, evaluate it. Can you alter the circumstance or must you change your behavior to reduce stress levels? Often we cannot change unexpected facts, yet we can change our reactions to certain distressors. Avoiding last minute completion of certain deadlines at work or at school can relieve some tension.

Learning to Cope With Stress

One of the newest coping techniques, known as stress inoculation, helps prepare people for possible future stressful events by planning ahead. Need to give a presentation to a crowd of 300 co-workers? Some health experts compare stress inoculation to a vaccine, protecting against a disease, by analyzing that event, way before it arrives. Practice your presentation in front of a camera, a group of friends, or even your family. Ask for feedback, modify your speech, and practice, practice, practice!

Your time management tips may have become a little rusty while you tried balancing the everyday act of survival at work and at home. Everybody needs more of it, but regular organization of schedules and time, prioritizing, delegating tasks when possible, handling one concern before jumping to the next, increases our efficiency and reduces our stress levels. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with your chores, divide them into mini-jobs and check each one as they are completed. Maintain your self-confidence. Don’t forget that you’re the expert in your field.

Take physical action! Exercise reduces stress by raising levels of endorphins—mood-elevating, natural pain killers—in your bloodstream. Exercise increases energy, reduces hostility, and improves mind alertness. Even better, develop a regular routine, three or four times a week, choosing activities you really enjoy, to benefit daily. Start slowly, maybe a five or ten minute

break around your office building—even take your supervisor or a co-worker with you. A change of air can start our creative juices flowing again!

It is clear that eating a balanced, healthful diet will help provide the stamina needed to get through conflict resolution. Make a weekly grocery list and menu and stick to it. Add more fruits and vegetables to your diet. Try new foods, new recipes, and have other co-workers join the

fun! Share healthy pot-lucks instead of greasy doughnuts during your staff meetings.

Research has shown that laughter and humor have both preventive and therapeutic values, while removing the negative effects of stress. Who doesn’t feel better after a quick laugh? And quite so, as it boosts our immune system, increases stamina through increased oxygen supply, alleviates pain and releases endorphins, our natural painkillers, acting as an effective antidote to depression.

Assign time for yourself! We all need some “me” hours, either as quiet moments to take a breather or try some alternative techniques. Some popular ones include hypnosis, massage therapy, meditation, and biofeedback. These techniques help reduce stress levels by aiding in our relaxation response, allowing introspection and personal renewal and monitoring our muscle tension, blood pressure, and heart rate.

Looking for a simple breathing technique that can be performed at work, school, or home? Sit in a comfortable position, eyes closed, and focus on your breathing. Each time you inhale, say “one” or any other soothing word; as you exhale say “two.” Continue this breathing pattern for at

least five minutes. Gently let go of thoughts that may intrude and relax. When you open your eyes, stretch and take a deep breath. This five minute breather can do wonders for your health.

Feel better when you share your thoughts with others? Support groups are an important aspect of stress management; including family, friends, co-workers, or even a stranger. If these aren’t currently available, check your local resources for groups or low-cost counseling.

Life is pretty busy for all of us. Learn to embrace stress by finding the balance between your daily plans and your constant stressors. Ask yourself if you really need to rush so much or is it possible to delegate some tasks. Discover that “me” moment, value your precious time, and take a breather. Optimism is the spice of life…and, did you know, reduces your stress significantly?

Need a Quick Pick-Me Up? Try these stress relievers…

  1. Visualization: Sit quietly in a chair or on a bench and close your eyes. Spend several minutes concentrating on a mental image of your favorite place or a happy experience—it could be your last vacation, a poem you recently read, or a beautiful ending to a novel you just finished. Think about the scene, the words, the images, the smell and taste of the event. Breathe in and out through your nose while you relive those images.
  2. Deep breathing: Sit quietly and close your eyes, once again. Take a deep breath through your nose, feeling not only your lungs expand but your stomach go out. Place your hand on your stomach to feel it rising. Hold the breath for a few seconds. Breathe out slowly through your mouth, feeling your stomach deflate. Repeat a few times.
  3. Relaxation for your back: Sit comfortable in your chair. Relax your low back by leaning forward in the chair, letting your head and neck hang down.
  4. Relaxation for your neck: Sit comfortable in your chair. Relax your neck by turning your head slowly in a circle, first in one direction, then the other. Keep your shoulders still.
  5. Relaxation for your shoulders and arms: Stand with hands over your head, palms facing up, and fingers locked. Repeat a few times.