Coping with Stress in Troubling Times

By on March 4, 2011

By Robert Bornstein-

I teach at a University–in many ways a dream job–and now I’m on break.  Classes don’t start until next week.  You’d think I’d be relaxed, right?  No students, no meetings, no worries.  So why am I here in the office at 6AM?  Trust me–relaxed is what I’m not.  The thing is,break or not, deadlines loom.  Emails pour in.  There are syllabi to be made.


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Apparently I’m not alone: It seems everyone I talk to lately is stressed as well.  The economy, the housing market–just turn on the evening news.  We can’t avoid stress…it’s a part of life.  But over the years I’ve found some ways to cope that work for me, and they might work for you too.

The place to start is to understand stress–to know what it is, and just as important, what it isn’t.

Everyone experiences stress–that uncomfortable, pressured feeling you get when overwhelmed by life’s challenges.  Studies indicate that almost every one of us reports feeling stressed at one time or another and nearly 60% of American adults say stress has had a negative impact on their life.  We’re all vulnerable.

We know when we’re stressed–we can feel it–but what exactly is stress, and how does it affect us?  How does stress impact mind and body?

First it’s important to recognize that stress doesn’t happen to us, it happens within us: It is the body’s attempt to cope with a challenge–the body’s way of mobilizing to confront a threat.  Back in high school you probably remember your bio teacher telling you about the “fight or flight” response…nature’s way of gearing us up for action.  That’s what stress is–the old fight or flight response.  When this response happens once, or a few times, it’s no problem.  The problem comes when you experience stress too frequently.  Too many fight or flight responses in succession wear you down, deplete your body’s resources, sap your energy, and lower your mood and motivation.

Here’s why: each time you mobilize to confront a threat, your sympathetic nervous system–the part of your nervous system that activates you for action–kicks into high gear.  Your pupils dilate and your heart begins to race.  You sweat a bit–your palms get moist.  Blood flows to your brain so you can make quick decisions.  You’re ready to rumble.

Keep in mind–and here’s the problem–the stress response is nature’s way of helping you confront an intruder or run from a tiger, but now, eons later, the same response occurs when you miss the bus, lose your keys, or manage to jam the copier at work.  This same fight or flight response occurs when your 401K takes a tumble.  But in these situations there’s nothing to do: no fighting, no running.  So your body is stuck…you just have to let the situation pass, wait for your heart to stop racing, and try to get back to your routine.

Easier said than done.  Those repeated stress reactions sap the body’s energy–you literally wear yourself out.  They cause the body to release hormones that can lead to depression.  And over time these stress hormones interfere with your immune system–they cause white blood cells to fight off infections less well.  No wonder we get sick during high-stress times: it’s not just your imagination, it really does happen.

So stress is not something to be taken lightly, but it’s a topic that researchers have focused on quite a bit in recent years, so we have a good sense now of what works–and what doesn’t.  Four strategies are particularly helpful when stress begins to wear you down.

  • Aerobic exercise The findings are clear: Aerobic exercise is the single best thing we can do to cope with stress in our lives.  Not only does exercise help you feel better and give you a feeling of accomplishment and control, but aerobic exercise also releases hormones that counter stress’s negative effects.  Even a modest amount of exercise–a 20 minute walk, for example–can have lasting positive effects.
  • Distraction It’s not as good as exercise, but for some people distraction really helps.  Especially if your stressor is something chronic–like caring for an ill or aging parent–a bit of time off can do a world of good.  And here it’s important to do something engaging–see a movie, for example, or play bridge with friends–so you can focus on something other than what’s bothering you.
  • Unburdening Freud was right: Unburdening ourselves of troubling thoughts really is a healthy thing to do.  So try not to bottle up your feelings, but find a trusted friend and let her know what’s going on.  Email your old college roommate and tell him what a jerk your boss has been.  Studies show that disclosing negative thoughts and releasing pent-up emotions strengthens the body’s ability to cope, and enhances the immune system.
  • Social support Your parents might have taught you that independence is a virtue–but not always.  Being stoic in the face of stress is not the best way to cope…it’s better to seek out the company of others and spend some time with friends.  Social support offers the comfort of closeness, and an opportunity for friends to offer advice and reassurance.  The opposite is also true: Offering support to others actually helps reduce your own stress levels as well.

How to choose among these strategies?  The good news is you don’t have to: research indicates they can be used in combination and when you use them this way their benefits are even greater.  So choose the strategies that seem right for you given the challenges you face and your particular style of coping…you know yourself best.  If exercise is helpful, and clears your mind of troubling thoughts, terrific–you’re all set.  If you’re more of a people person then social support and the opportunity to share the burden might be the way to go.

Whatever strategies you choose, be flexible–if something’s not working, try another approach.  And remember, managing stress is a process–it takes time, and it’s never really complete.  New challenges confront us every day–that’s life–so you’ll always be findings new ways to cope, and new ways to turn life’s challenges into opportunities for growth and positive change.

Now it’s time for me to get back to work.  There are syllabi to be made…

To find out more about Dr. Bornstein, click here to read his bio.

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Coping with Stress in Troubling Times