Recognizing and Dealing with Stress

Recognizing Stress

Many of us are not very good at recognizing the emotional reactions we have and so find that first we notice the physical responses.

Stress can produce such symptoms as headache, insomnia, upset stomach, or digestive changes.  You may feel physical symptoms or emotional fatigue as the first clues of increased stress.  An old nervous habit such as nail-biting may reappear.  Because you may not recognize that you are under increased stress, you may interpret the symptoms as those of an illness rather than the manifestation of an adjustment or adaption process.  

The thought that you may have a new illness can be frightening and can add to the emotional burden you already have.  

The stress experience also may become apparent through psychological changes.  The most common change is increased irritability with people who are close to you.  You also may feel more cynical, pessimistic, or resentful than usual.  Many people report a sense of being victimized, misunderstood, or unappreciated.  You may find that things to which you normally look forward seem burdensome.  Some people become anxious or reclusive or prone to crying or laughing or to inappropriate aggressive behavior.  Occasionally, these changes are so gradual that you or others around you may not recognize them until your health or relationships change.

As with the physical symptoms described earlier, you may not recognize such emotional changes as what they may be, signals of increased stress.  Many people find themselves perplexed by the changes and often feel guilty or prone to blame others.  The term "burnout" often is used to describe a combination of physical and psychological responses to stress.

Dealing with Stress

In the course of daily events, we develop various ways of dealing with stress.  We work hard to decrease the newness of the changes we face, we talk about the experience, and we use things that we can count on already in our lives as "safe havens" from the new or adaptive change.

Much of this we do without really thinking about it.  However, some of these changes are monumental, such as switching jobs or moving to another home.  Others are routine, such as turning in a report, taking a test, meeting a new client, interviewing a babysitter, meeting a new teacher, or dealing with a child's temper tantrum.  Mostly, we do pretty well in getting through fairly major as well as minor crises.  Sometimes, we could do better.  The first step in learning to manage our stress-related reactions better is to become more aware of the things that may be particularly stressful for us individually.  Not everyone responds to the same life event with the same amount of distress.  For instance, a so-called workaholic may be thought by others to be working into an early grave but he or she may have found that taking on extra challenges in a work-related environment helps him or her to feel more under control.  For this person, the work itself may be a form of stress management, but the unstructured time of a holiday without goals or "relaxation" at home may be a much greater stress.

We must learn to recognize in ourselves those things that cause the most trouble.  We may not be able to avoid them but, when we encounter them, it may reassure us to know they are the source of our extra discomfort.  Just recognizing such elements helps to make us feel more in control.  Understanding the real cause of discomfort also can minimize anxiety about the manifestations of stress we experience.

As part of our overall strategy to manage stress in our lives, most of us must become more self-tolerant.  We need to understand and accept that we constantly have to adapt to changes, losses, and things over which we have no or, at best, only partial control in our lives.

Most of us tend to be a great deal more understanding of other people's distress than we are of our own.   We tend to think that we should always feel all right.  As long as we believe this, we are sure to be disappointed.  Accepting the fact that we may experience stress-related discomforts and that they are normal is helpful in managing stress.

Another important step involves actually dealing with the stress.  Most of us want to do something when we are distressed so that we can feel as if we are making an active choice to re-assume control in our lives - the very thing we feel we have lost to some degree in facing life's challenges.  What we do is largely determined by a method most easily called "trial and success".

Over the years, most of us have found techniques that help us feel more comfortable.  These vary from person to person and from personality to personality, so there is no way to provide a list of things everyone should do.

Each person needs several tools or techniques at his or her disposal.  Some of the tools may include learning and using specific relaxation techniques - meditation, exercise, hobbies, and such.  Other tools may require interaction with others and may decrease the sense of social isolation we may feel.  They may include group sports or hobbies, attending social events, meeting with a group of friends, or talking with a particularly valued friend, among many things.  Finally, more specific treatment by a skilled professional may be necessary.  Discuss this with your physician.

Be particularly careful about using drugs, either prescribed or recreational, as a management technique.  The so-called happy hour, which many people use as a way to release tensions from their work, functions as a stress reliever not because of the alcohol consumed but, rather, because of the social setting.  The happy hour works because the person has made a choice to be in a setting with friends with few work expectations.

Drugs, whether tranquilizers or alcohol, may increase symptoms of loss of control, depression, and emotional or behavioral impulsiveness.  Regular use of drugs to manage stress can also be a manifestation of addiction to the substances.  One must be mindful and extremely honest with oneself when using drugs or alcohol to medicate stress.

In summary, experiencing stress is an ongoing and normal part of living.  We are constantly called on to adapt to changes within ourselves,  (such as aging or health problems), or in our surroundings (such as a new job, family structure, or social relationships).  The reactions to these stressors may be physical or psychological and usually are unpleasant.  The fact that they may be unpleasant does not mean that they are abnormal or that they constitute illness.

You can minimize the effects of stress by learning to recognize when you are experiencing it, by acknowledging and accepting it, and by choosing or learning to use methods for managing it.  Some of these tools for managing stress include individual and interpersonal skills and techniques and include both physical and psychological approaches. 

A caution.  Physical or psychological symptoms that affect a person's ability to work, to play, or to find pleasure in life or hope for the future are unlikely to be merely due to stress.  Consult your family physician immediately for further evaluation.  Stress-management techniques alone are unlikely to provide relief.

Keeping Stress Under Control

Most of us know something about stress - the term has become common in our society.  In addition, nearly everyone experiences stress on a day-to-day basis.

Stress is an individualized, personal response to situations and circumstances that create pressures.  It is a normal and perhaps necessary part of our lives.

Stress is not an outside force; rather, it is our physiological response to specific stimuli or "stressors".  These responses mobilize bodily systems so that they can help us adapt to the constant demands and changes of our lives.  For example, athletes frequently perform best in competition rather than in practice.  Many people find that goals and deadlines are stimulating and necessary for accomplishment.

Sometimes stress responses may be so mild that they go virtually unnoticed.  At other times, they can seem to be an overwhelming burden.  One of the greatest current stressors may be the feeling that we should not have the discomfort associated with increased stress.

When this discomfort happens, some of us may assume that we are not coping well or that this is a sign of illness.  The assumption that we should feel good all the time, no matter what changes or problems we are facing, can add to the pressures we already feel.

There are two basic types of stressful events:  one is intense, an alarm reaction that readies your body for an emergency; the other is less intense and alerts your body to meet a long-term problem that calls for endurance.

In instances when the stimulus is intense, as in a perceived threat, a phenomenon referred to as "fight or flight" occurs.  The physical signs of this stress response are almost always conspicuous and may include an increased heart rate, muscle tension, or perspiration.

The effects of stress are not always fleeting.  In many people, the impact can be deferred for weeks or months.  As a result, many illnesses are thought to be affected by accumulated stress, whether the illness has been either brought on or worsened by stress.  Simply stated, stress produces or worsens symptoms when demands outweigh personal resources to cope with them.

Methods of Coping with Stress

Even if you cannot always identify causes of stress, you can relieve some of the discomfort.  Just feeling that you can do something often is a help in itself.

Relaxation Techniques:

Many of us think of relaxation as simply not working.  We tend to think that watching television with our feet up or reading a book or the newspaper is relaxing.  Such activities may or may not be.  If our teeth are clenched or our muscles tense as we follow the action or if we relive the irritations and problems of the day while paying only partial attention, we are anything but relaxed.  Relaxing involves skills you can learn.

Relaxation techniques can help lessen the discomfort and duration of symptoms of stress such as headaches, anxiety, high blood pressure, trouble falling asleep, hyperventilation, and clenching or grinding teeth, to name a few.

One simple method of relaxation is to remove yourself from the stressful situation:  block the world out and concentrate on your body.  Here is how:

  1. Sit or lie in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Allow your jaw to drop and your eyelids to be relaxed and heavy but not tightly closed.
  2. Mentally scan your body, starting with your toes and working slowly up through your legs, buttocks, torso, arms, hands, fingers, neck, and head. Focus on each part individually:  where you feel the tension, imagine it melting away.
  3. Tighten the muscles in one area of your body and hold them for a count of 5 or more before relaxing and moving on to the next area. This is a good method for releasing tension.  Tighten the muscles of your face, shoulders, arms, legs, and buttocks.
  4. Allow thoughts to flow through your mind but do not focus on any of them.  Many people find using autosuggestion to be a great help: suggest to yourself that you are relaxed and calm, that your hands are warm (or cool if you are hot) and heavy and that your heart is beating calmly, or that you feel perfectly at peace.
  5. Breath slowly, regularly, and deeply during the procedure.
  6. Once you are relaxed, imagine you are in a favorite place or in a spot of great beauty and stillness.
  7. After 5 or 10 minutes, rouse your self from the state gradually.

Relaxing Breathing: 

Make relaxed breathing part of your total relaxation program.  This type of breathing can be helpful because of its quick, calming effect.

Different methods of breathing involve movement of different regions of your torso.  Most adults breathe by expanding and contracting their chests (chest breathing).  Some lift their shoulders in an attempt to fill their lungs (shoulder breathing).  Infants and children, on the other hand, usually breathe from the diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity.  This diaphragmatic breathing provides a more efficient exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide than chest or especially shoulder breathing.  Diaphragmatic breathing also takes less effort.

Proper relaxed breathing is an important part of good physical and mental health.  With relaxed diaphragmatic breathing, your shoulders do not move up and your chest does not move out noticeably.  Air blows smoothly into and out of your lungs rather than being drawn in and blown out forcefully.  Your abdomen rises with each inhalation and lowers with each exhalation.  The overall effect is relaxing to your entire body.

With practice you can breathe in a deep and relaxing manner as a matter of course.  At first, practice lying on your back while wearing clothing that is loose around your waist and abdomen.  Once you can breathe easily in this position, practice while sitting and then while standing.  After a while you will be able to breathe from your diaphragm whenever and wherever you wish.

  1. Lie down on your back on a bed, a well-padded floor, or a recliner chair.
  2. Place your feet slightly apart.  Rest one hand comfortably on your abdomen near your naval.  Place the other hand on your chest.
  3. Inhale through your nose because this allows the air to be filtered and warmed.  Exhale through your mouth.  If you have trouble breathing through your nose, inhale through your mouth.
  4. Concentrate on your breathing for a few minutes and become aware of which hand is rising and falling with each breath.
  5. Gently exhale most of the air in your lungs.
  6. Inhale while slowly counting to 4, about 1 second per count.  As you inhale gently, slightly extend your abdomen, causing it to rise about 1 inch.  (You should be able to feel the movement with your hand.)
  7. As you breathe in, imagine the warmed air flowing in.  Imagine this warmth flowing to all parts of your body.
  8. Pause 1 second after inhaling.
  9. Slowly exhale to the count of 4.  While you are exhaling, your abdomen will slowly fall as your diaphragm relaxes upward against your lungs.
  10. As air flows out, imagine that tension is also flowing out.
  11. Pause 1 second after exhaling.
  12. If it is difficult to inhale and exhale to a count of 4, shorten the count slightly and later work up to 4.  If you experience light-headedness, alter the length or depth of your breathing.
  13. Repeat the slow inhaling, pausing, slow exhaling, and pausing 5 to 10 times.  Exhale.  Inhale slowly:  1, 2, 3, 4.  Pause.  Exhale slowly:  1, 2, 3, 4.  Pause, Inhale:  1, 2, 3, 4.  Pause.  Exhale:  1, 2, 3, 4.  Pause.  Continue on your own.

As you practice you may notice that initially not every breath will reach the lower parts of your lungs.  This will improve with practice.  The idea is to concentrate on slow, even, easy breathing.

If it seems difficult to make your breathing regular, take a slightly deeper breath, hold it for a second or two, and then let it out slowly through pursed lips for about 10 seconds.  Repeat this once or twice and return to the other procedure.

Physical Fitness

Another method for coping with stress is physical activity.  If you are physically fit, your body can handle stress better, both physically and emotionally.

Exercise also has a calming effect that lasts well after you finish your workout.  Activities such as running and swimming which require repetitive movements can produce a mental state similar to that of meditation.  Aerobic exercise that increases your heart rate for at least 20 minutes is good for cardiovascular fitness and also may decrease feelings of stress.  Yoga and other non-aerobic stretching exercises are calming and produce a meditation-like state.

Almost any exercise can be good for you.  Jogging, swimming, aerobic exercises, and brisk walking all may help to relieve symptoms of stress.  Stretching can relieve tension in certain muscles or all over, and it can be done at almost any time.

Tension is common in the shoulders and neck.  To relieve it, roll your shoulders, raising them toward your ears.  Then relax your shoulders.

To reduce neck tension, move your head gently in a circle going clockwise and then counterclockwise.

Relieve tension in your torso by reaching toward the ceiling and doing side bends.

To help relive foot and leg tension, draw circles in the air with your feet while flexing your toes.

To help ease muscular tension throughout your body, stand up and stretch all over.

Techniques for Accepting Stress

Events that cause stress will always be with us.  We can do many things to lessen the effects of stress and to relieve the discomfort it causes, but some stress is inevitable.  Accept situations that cannot be changed.  But remember - you can make acceptance easier.  Here are a few suggestions.

Keeping things in Perspective 

Most of us tend to worry about things over which we have no control.  For instance, how many times have your worried about whether the weather will be pleasant for a special event, such as a wedding?  Clearly, there is nothing you can do about it except to prepare for the possibility of inclement weather.When faced with worries and fears, try to look beyond the specific event.  Ask yourself a few questions, such as:

  • What is the worst thing that can happen?
  • How likely is it that the worst thing will happen?
  • Have I done everything I realistically can to influence the outcome of the situation?
  • Will the outcome change my life substantially, and will I even remember it several years from now?
  • How would I counsel a friend in a similar situation?

Try giving yourself a little pep talk of reassurance.  Do not let feelings of defeat, fear, or disappointment overtake you.  The more positively you can approach the situation, the more likely it is that you will be able to face and influence the outcome.

Seek Help if you Cannot Cope

You do not need to handle all of your problems alone.  Sometimes the help of a counselor, psychiatrist, psychologist, clergy person, or friend may be just what you need to help you handle stress.  Many people believe that seeking outside help is a sign of weakness, which adds to their sense of despair, hopelessness, or anger.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It takes strength to realize that you need help.  Ask your physician, local community health organization, or your employer for recommendations if you need help in finding appropriate assistance.  The Mountain Employee Assistance Program is one such resource available to you.

Interpersonal Conflicts

Difficulties in coping are not always a matter of the individual and his or her circumstances.  Often, life's hurdles include dealing with personality conflicts with others.  Typically, such conflicts are of four kinds:  family, marital, household finances, or job-related.

Family Conflicts

All families are a complex network of relationships.  Each member has a different relationship with each of the others in the family.  These differences may be a reflections of age, birth order, sex, or personality type, or a combination of several factors.  Each of these relationships, in turn, affects the rest of the family.

Physicians often recommend family therapy - in which the client is the entire family unit and the sessions include the whole family - when more than one member seems to have serious emotional problems, when a pattern of blame has become entrenched, or when an adolescent is particularly rebellious.

Often, problems within the family as a whole may be brought to the attentions of a professional therapist when one member of the family is showing signs of a problem - for example, trouble in school or substance abuse.  Through family therapy, each member can discover his or her role in the problem.

There may be a pattern of behavior that everyone is contributing to and that everyone needs to help change.  Rather than focusing on the gripes of individual family members, the therapist will identify specific problems in communication that can be worked on by all.  The therapist does not solve the problems for the family but shows families how to understand their problems and how to cope with them more effectively.

Marital Conflicts

Marriage counselors frequently observe that one of the greatest problems in the marriages they observe is that partners often enter into the relationship with unrealistic expectations.  Our culture's romantic view of marriage fosters this tendency.  Instead of realizing that they are marrying ordinary human beings with strengths and weaknesses, people tend to idealize their mates and expect nothing short of perfection.

Over the life of a marriage, couples typically face a predictable series of transitions.  Consequently, researchers often speak of "different marriages" within a single marriage.  Adjustments to the first child and subsequent children, changes in jobs, loss of a spouse's parents, and changing sexual needs all present challenges.  If the marriage is to survive, the couple must communicate and resolve inevitable conflicts effectively.

At a time of conflict in a marriage, a marriage counselor often can help bring such issues to light so that the couple can begin to deal with current problems in a more mature way.

Household Finances

The Great Recession has increased the financial burdens on many households in the community.  Young adults are now living with their parents in order to make ends meet.  Many "middle-aged" adults are caring for their aging parents.  Others may have experienced a job loss, a spouse's job loss, or increased expenses.  In some cases, a combination of these elements have confronted households.  Resources are available to assist your family during these challenging financial times:  non-profit credit counseling services, your credit union, and a financial planner, among others.  One such organization, Consumer Credit Affiliates of Reno, Nevada, is an accredited, bonded and certified service that provides Debt Management Planning, an IRS Advocacy Program and a program for Helping You Take Control of Your Money & Credit Through Counseling & Education.  For more information, contact its website at:

Job related conflicts

Interpersonal conflicts in the workplace can represent a multitude of issues.  Competition between co-workers may reflect a genuine lack of the potential for upward mobility; there may simply be too many candidates for promotion.  Conflict also can stem from an individual's desire for power and control.  Problems result from a lack of proper communication between co-workers and between management and employees.  Problems can also result from increased workloads.

If conflicts prove to be a continuing problem, seek counseling, training and/or other resources to cope with the problem.


Mountain Employee Assistance Program

Mountain Employee Assistance Program (Mountain EAP) is an employer-paid service offered to all full-time employees to assist you when you need information, assistance, or counseling.  Mountain EAP is a confidential, licensed counseling service available to you and your immediate family members.  Mountain EAP's goal is "wellness" (mental and physical) for you and your family.  An EAP counselor can provide you with assistance for just about any problem.  Some examples include:  marriage/family, eating disorders, drugs or alcohol, legal matters, job, depression, finances, parenting, gambling, sexuality, family blending, and divorce - to name just a few.  For more information about EAP services, contact Mountain EAP at: