I have observed over the years that stressful times come in two forms. The first is like a steady stream that slowly wears away at anything in its path. This stream is made up of minor inconveniences, unpleasant conversations, and a subtle stack of piling responsibilities. These are the times when stress build up is barely noticeable at first, and often find ourselves surprised when we eventually blow a gasket. The other form of stress is more like a crashing wave ripping through our lives in mere moments. When life hits us with devastating events that leave us reeling, it can be hard just to keep our head above the water. Stress is a common part of every man’s life. As our family grows and life progresses, the stressors we experience may change, but stress in both of its forms will always remain. You and I are not immune to hardship. So, today we will be talking about some strategies that we can use to address the stress that we will inevitably endure in the not-so-distant future.
A good place to start in managing our stress is to increase our awareness of when we are becoming stressed. The better we are at reading the signs, the earlier we can address the issue. Think of stress like a cancerous growth of cells. If we can make an early prognosis, we can mitigate the damage that the stress would have on us. Thankfully for us, our bodies, behaviors, and emotions provide us with indicators that let us know when we stress is taking over. As we learn to pick up on these indicators,we become more effective at identifying a build up of stress early on.
Our bodies are one of our first indicators. When we are experiencing stress, we often start feeling hyper-aroused or fatigued. Our bodies, when under stress, will release chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that help us stay active and alert. Over time, too much of these chemicals will wear us out (kind of like running your engine hard over a long period of time). We are not built to be at a constant state of panic, which is why stress eventually leads to exhaustion.
Stress also has an effect on us emotionally and behaviorally. When we are stressed, we tend to make hasty decisions and act more on our emotions. Often, we find ourselves behaving in ways that are uncharacteristic of ourselves. If a friend, co-worker, or loved one points out a change in our mood or behavior it is possible that we are undergoing some level of stress. Finally, our willingness to take care of ourselves when we are stressed typically goes down. Can you remember a time when life became so overwhelming that you began “letting yourself go?” That is a common response to stress. When we are overwhelmed, our minds start tossing out tasks that don’t appear to help resolve the immediate problems we are experiencing. As an example, we may stop showering or exercising when the bills pile up, because our minds are trying to save mental focus for the challenges that we find most pressing for the moment.
Once we have identified stress in our life, whether it hits us in the face or we see that subtle change over time, we can then work toward alleviating the stress. Here are some evidence-based strategies that have been proven to help reduce stress:
- Maintain a healthy routine: as was mentioned previously, it is a tendency of ours to let go of our daily functioning when we are experiencing stress. It is important for us not to allow stress to break us away from our healthy habits. It is hard to keep going sometimes, but ask anyone who has made it through a difficult life circumstance, and they will tell you that getting back to the basics is a must. A healthy routine consists of good hygiene, regular exercise, eating nutritionally, maintaining our social connections, pursuing spiritual wellness, and setting achievable goals for ourselves.
- Avoid making big decisions: because we are inclined to make hasty, emotional decisions when stressed, it is good practice not to extend ourselves out too far when we are not at our best. It isn’t too uncommon for someone to get married, buy a luxury item, break off a relationship, or move out of town when they feel overwhelmed. Giving ourselves time before making decisions like this will keep us from adding more stress to our lives. Instead of making decisions that will likely alter the core of our lives, we can focus our attention on the here-and-now. I like to ask myself, “What is one small thing I can do right now that will help?” Making a check list, blocking out time for breaks, and ordering my concerns based on importance have all helped get me back on track.
- Use your supports/delegate: this isn’t the first time I have mentioned a support system and it won’t be the last. When times are tough, it is foolish for us to think that we can do it alone. We must have the courage and humility to reach out to others when we we are feeling overloaded. Our support system can help keep ourselves steady, bare some of our burdens, and guide us toward hope when we are at a loss. It is also good to remember that “many hands make light work.” If we delegate tasks that are too strenuous for us to manage ourselves, we minimize the stress that would likely result.
- Take breaks when needed: sometimes the best remedy is a little bit of rest. When we take breaks, we allow our minds time to unwind, our bodies the ability to regain stamina, and our emotions an opportunity to return to baseline. Rest rarely ever solves the issues that cause stress, but it does position us in a way that we are better prepared to resolve our conflicts. Let me address a common mistake that is often made when resting. It is possible to go through the motions of resting, but not truly benefit from the time invested. When we engage in activities that continue to stimulate us, and when we carry the stressors with us in our thoughts while we are resting, then we are not likely to give ourselves the respite that we need. This means that we may need to shut off any distractions and clear our minds during our rest time. I often tell myself, “The problem will still be there when I get back. For now, I am going to leave it at the door.”
- Know when to seek professional assistance: experienced mental health providers are equipped to offer us tools and strategies to further aid us in managing stress. Even during my time as a therapist, I would often seek the counsel of my colleagues when I found myself stuck. There is something deep-seeded in each man that tells us that we need to rely on ourselves to solve our problems. This natural response is what drives us toward self-reliance and independent thinking. Though these qualities are not “bad,” they can keep us from resolving issues effectively. When we are stuck, sometimes the best course of action is to call in an ally to help us establish and execute a sound plan of action. Let me put it this way- managing severe stress often requires a competent, dedicated team, not merely one stubborn individual.
Finally, I would like to conclude this topic with a more proactive approach to managing stress. As boxing champion, William “Jack” Dempsey said, “the best defense is a good offense.” The best way that we can deal with stress before it hits us is to plan for it. It goes without saying that we can’t plan for every challenging endeavor. However, there are some situations that we can foresee if we are intentional. Here is a trick that I have learned: whenever we take on a new task, opportunity, or responsibility, we are likely to experience setbacks along the way. For instance, when we buy a new car, we can likely assume there will be some added challenges we will face later on down the road (wear and tear on the vehicle, accidents, car payments, etc). The same is true for caring for a newborn, buying a house, taking the next step in a relationship, saying yes to a promotion… you get the idea. There is nothing wrong with wanting these things in your life; in fact, these are the kinds of things that make life worth living. Still, it is important to remember that these game-changing events often come with some degree of added stress.
So, how do we plan for the upcoming stress? Whenever we take on something new, we can ask ourselves early on, “when things take a turn for the worst (which they will given enough time), what will I need to get back on track?” Once we come up with some ideas, we can then set aside the resources needed to address our concerns. Imagine the water heater in your house goes out (again, I’m telling you that if you have one, it will). If you haven’t planned for it, then you have a big problem. Water heaters can be expensive, and you will likely experience some anxiety trying to figure out how you will account for that big dip in your wallet. However, if we thought ahead and set aside the money to replace the water heater, it will have less of an impact on us when the problem arises.
Sometimes, we will be caught off guard. Part of life is learning from our mistakes. If we find ourselves stressed out by an unforeseen circumstance, then we can make a plan for the next time it comes up. The problems of today can help us better prepare for tomorrow if we gain wisdom from our past. It is also important to practice flexibility and forgiveness. When our thoughts are too strict or we hold ourselves and others to too high of a standard, stress will have all the elements needed to grow. If we were to think of stress as a fire, then challenges we face in life would be the igniter, and inflexible thinking and a judgmental attitude would be the fuel.
I am not even going to pretend to have given all that is needed to help you and I deal with the day-to-day stressors we face, let alone the heavy-hitting events that really knock us off our feet. However, I hope that what I have shared with you will help get the wheels spinning in a constructive direction. Feel free to contact me or someone you trust if you would like help getting through stressful times. As always, stay Rock Solid, dads!