Stress Management - Intentional Wellness

stress Stress is everywhere. It may seem as though there's nothing you can do about it.  You have all these demands in your life....a hectic and demanding career, bills that won't stop, family responsibilities, and too few hours in the day. Do you feel overwhelmed by all these? Don't know what you could possibly do to reduce this stress? The truth is you have more control than you think. The simple realization that you're in control of your life is the foundation of stress management. It's time for intentional wellness and choosing to let go of stress. This is about you taking charge, making choices (intentionally) of your thoughts, emotions, schedule, and how you deal with problems and stressors.

Identify the sources of stress in your life.

Stress management starts with identifying the sources of stress in your life. This isn't as easy as it sounds. Sometimes the true sources of your stress aren't always obvious. It's easy to overlook your own stress-inducing thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Yes, you know that you have a lot of pressure with your job and you're constantly worried about meeting deadlines. But what are you thinking and saying to yourself about the situation? Your own thoughts and how you react to the stress can be increasing your stress.

To identify your real sources of stress, look closely at your habits, attitude, and excuses:

  • Do you blame your stress on other people or outside events, or view it as entirely normal and unexceptional?
  • Do you explain away stress as temporary ("I just have a million things going on right now") even though you can't remember the last time you really took a breather?
  • Do you define stress as an integral part of your work and/or home life ("Things are always crazy around here") or as a part of your personality ("I have a lot of nervous energy, that's all").

Until you accept responsibility for the role you play in creating or maintaining it, your stress level will remain outside your control.

Start a Stress Journal

Why would you want to document stress? Isn't it bad enough experiencing it? Actually starting a stress journal can help you identify the regular stressors in your life and the way you deal with them. Each time you feel stressed, keep track of it in your journal. As you keep a daily log, you will begin to see patterns and common themes, and get to the true sources of the stress.

  • What caused your stress (guess if you are unsure)
  • How you felt, both physically and emotionally
  • How you acted in response
  • What you did to make yourself feel better

Look at how you currently cope with stress. 

Think about the ways you currently manage and cope with stress in your life. Your stress journal will give you hints. Are your coping strategies healthy or unhealthy, helpful or unproductive? Unfortunately, the coping strategies of many only increase stress and it's harmful effects.

Unhealthy ways of coping with stress:

These strategies may temporarily reduce stress, but they cause more harm in the long run.

  • Drinking too much
  • Overeating or under-eating
  • Smoking
  • Sleeping too much
  • Procrastinating
  • Zoning out for hours watching TV or on the computer
  • Taking medications to relax
  • Withdrawing from family, friends and activities
  • Filling up every minute to avoid facing the problems
  • Lashing out at others

If your methods of coping with stress aren't contributing to your physical and emotional health, it's time to find healthier ones. While there are many ways to manage and cope with stress, they all require change. Yes, you can is a choice! You can either change the situation or change your reaction. Since everyone has a unique response to stress, there is no one universal method that works for all or for every situation. Experiment with these different techniques to see which makes you feel calm and in control of yourself.

The Four A's to Deal With Stress

Change your reaction:

  • Adapt to the stressor
  • Accept the stressor

Change the situation:

  • Avoid the stressor
  • Alter the stressor

Stress management strategy #1:  Adapt to the stressor

If you can't change the stressor, change yourself. You can adapt to stressful situations and regain your sense of control by changing your expectations and attitude. You can make this choice, have the control and power to do is up to you.

  • Focus on the positive; practice gratitude. When stress is getting you down, take a moment to reflect on all the things you are grateful for and appreciate in life. Be sure to include your own positive qualities and gifts. This one strategy can help you view things in a new light.
  • Look at the big picture. Take perspective of the stressful situation. How important will it be in the long run? Will it matter in a month? A year? Is it getting in the way of your vision and goals? Is it really worth getting upset over? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy elsewhere.
  • Reframe problems. Look at the stressful situation from a positive perspective, especially if you cannot control the situation. Rather than fuming about a traffic jam, look at it as an opportunity to pause and regroup, listen to your favorite radio station, or simply breathe and relax until traffic clears.
  • Adjust your standards. Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress. Stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection. Set reasonable standards for yourself and others. Let go of feeling the need to "control" every situation or person.

Stress management strategy #2:  Accept the things you cannot change

Some sources of stress are unavoidable. You can't prevent or change stressors such as the death of a loved one, bad weather, or a national recession. The best way to cope with these situations is to accept things as they are, recognizing that you cannot change it. Acceptance may be difficult, but in the long run, it's easier and much healthier for you, than fuming and railing against a situation you cannot change.

  • Don't try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control, particularly the behavior of other people. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems. You do have control over your response to stress.
  • Look for the positive in situations. When you are faced with challenges, what will they provide that is positive? Perhaps they are really opportunities for growth and development. Also consider how you may be contributing to a stressful situation. What are you saying to yourself? What choices are you making? Reflect on those, learn from the past, and choose different responses.
  • Share your feelings. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to a good friend, coach or therapist. Expressing what you're going through can be very cathartic, even if there's nothing you can do to change the stressful situation.
  • Learn to forgive. Accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes. Let go of anger and resentment. That negative energy is harming you. Free yourself. "Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die." --Buddha

Stress management strategy #3:  Avoid unnecessary stress

First recognize that not all stress can be avoided, nor is it healthy to avoid a situation that needs to be addressed. However, you may be surprised at the number of stressors in your life that you can eliminate.

  • Learn to say "no". Know your limits and stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, refuse to accept added responsibilities when you already have too much on your plate. Taking on more than you can handle is a recipe for stress.
  • Avoid people who stress you out. If someone consistently causes stress in your life and you can't turn the relationship around, limit the amount of time you spend with that person or end the relationship completely.
  • Take control of your environment. If watching TV is your way of zoning out, turn it off. Limit the time you spend on the computer. If clutter is driving you crazy and stressing you out, take some time to clean it up, organize it, or get rid of it. If the news makes you anxious, don't watch it. Look have more control over this than you may think.
  • Avoid hot-button topics. If you get upset over religion or politics, don't engage in those conversations. If you repeatedly argue about the same thing with the same people, stop bringing it up or excuse yourself when the topic comes up.
  • Pare down your to-do list.  Analyze your schedule, responsibilities, and daily tasks. Differentiate between the "shoulds" and the "musts". Think about your priorities and what are those things that move you toward your goals and what is most important. Cross off the tasks that aren't truly necessary.

Stress management strategy #4:  Alter the situation

If you can't avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Figure out what you can do to change things so the problem doesn't present itself in the future. Often, this involves changing the way you communicate and behave in your daily life.

  • Manage your time better. Poor time management can cause a lot of stress. When you're stretched too thin and running behind, it's hard to stay calm and focused. But if you plan ahead and ensure you don't overextend yourself, you can alter the amount of stress you're under.
  • Be more assertive. Don't take a backseat in your life. Deal with your problems, accept what role you are playing in the problems and then communicate what you need and what changes you will take. If you are working on an important project and a chatty co-worker stops by, say up front that you have a deadline and could talk later.
  • Express your feelings instead of bottling them up. If something or someone is bothering you, communicate your concerns in an open and respectful way. If you don't voice your feelings, resentment builds and the situation will likely remain the same or get worse.
  • Be willing to compromise. When you ask someone to change their behavior, be willing to do the same. Remember, you may be contributing to the problem too. If you are both willing to bend at least a little, you'll have a good chance of finding a happy middle ground.

Stress management strategy #5:  Make time for fun and relaxation

In addition to taking a positive attitude and taking responsibility for your life, you can reduce stress by nurturing yourself. If you make time for fun and relaxation, you'll be in a better place to handle life's stressors when they inevitably come. Don't get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of life that you forget to take care of your own needs. Taking care of yourself is a necessity, not a luxury.

  • Set aside relaxation time. Include rest and relaxation in your daily schedule. Don't allow other obligations to always override your time. This is your time to take a break and recharge.
  • Do something you enjoy every day. Make time for activities that bring you joy. Even doing that for a short time can yield big benefits.
  • Connect with others. Spend time with positive people who enhance your life. Avoid negative people who can cause you stress. A strong support system will buffer you from the negative effects of stress.
  • Keep your sense of humor. This includes the ability to laugh at yourself. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.

Stress management strategy #6:  Adopt a healthy lifestyle

You can increase your resistance to stress by strengthening your physical health.

  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress. Make time for at least 30 minutes of exercise, three times per week. Nothing beats aerobic exercise for releasing pent-up stress and tension. If you can't find 30 minutes to exercise, then just do ten minutes. Or make a point to move more throughout your day. Park a little further away. Take the stairs. It all helps!
  • Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress, so be mindful of what you eat. Focus on eating whole, fresh vegetables and fruits, lean protein, fiber and whole grains. Start your day right with breakfast, and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout the day.
  • Reduce sugar and caffeine. The temporary "highs" sugar and caffeine provide often end with a crash in mood and energy. By reducing the amount of coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and sugary snacks in your diet, you'll feel more relaxed and you'll sleep better.
  • Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs may provide an easy escape from stress, but the relief is only temporary. Don't avoid or mask the issue at hand; deal with problems directly and with a clear mind.
  • Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep fuels your mind, as well as your body. Feeling tired can increase your stress because it may cause you to think irrationally.


Coming soon...Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief

Mindfulness Practice for Caregivers...Serenity Wellness

  Are you a caregiver for a loved one? Perhaps one of your parents? This can be an incredibly difficult, yet important and rewarding role....but takes its toll on the caregiver. How do you go about this on a daily basis being both compassionate and accepting of the situation as it is? How can you achieve serenity wellness for yourself while caring for an ill or elderly loved one?

Here is a mindfulness practice specifically for caregivers from Jeff Brantley, MD, Founder and Director of the Mindfulness-Based StressReduction Program at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, NC. I met Dr. Brantley while completing my integrative health coach training and certification at Duke. He is an amazing person who not only practices mindfulness, but has the unique capacity for helping those he teaches how to do it as well. Just listening to him talk, always put me at ease and able to be mindful - or paying attention on purpose, with intention, in the present moment, in a friendly and non-judging way. Please try this practice if you are a caregiver or pass it along to someone who is.

Metta for Caregivers

The emphasis in this practice is on balance - the balance between opening one's heart endlessly, and accepting the limits of what one can do. The balance between compassion and equanimity. Compassion is the trembling or the quivering of the heart in response to suffering. Equanimity is a spacious stillness that can accept things as they are. The balance of compassion and equanimity allows us to care, and yet not get overwhelmed and unable to cope because of that caring.

The phrases we use reflect this balance. Choose some phrases that are personally meaningful to you. You can alter them in any way, or use ones that you have created out of their unique personal significance.

To begin the practice, take as comfortable a position as possible, sitting or lying down. Take a few deep soft breaths to let your body settle. Bring your attention to your breath, and begin to silently say your chosen phrases in rhythm with the breath... You can also experiment with just having your attention settle in the phrases, without using the anchor of the breath. Feel the meaning of what you are saying, yet without trying to force anything....let the practice carry you along.

"May I offer my care and presence unconditionally, knowing it may be met by gratitude, indifference, anger or anguish."

"May I find the inner resources to truly be able to give."

"May I offer love, knowing I cannot control the course of life, suffering, or death."

"May I remain in peace, and let go of expectations."

"I care about your pain, and I cannot control it."

"I wish you happiness and peace, and I cannot make your choices for you."

"May this experience help me open to the true nature of life."

"May I see my limits compassionately, just as I view the suffering of others."

"May I, and all beings, live and die in ease."


The Gift of Being Present - Intentional Wellness

Yesterday I took my dog, Cooper, for a long hike on one of the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway trails. Since I love to hike I was anxious to get out there and enjoy the warm weather and peacefulness of the trail. Key word here...anxious. Anxious to get hiking, we jump on the trail and I am hiking along feeling pretty good and Cooper is enjoying himself, although I keep interrupting his smelling time to keep us moving. I am keeping my pace brisk and charging up and down the hills, feeling the effects of not hiking on a regular basis. About a mile or so later, a bit winded, I stopped. And that is when it hit me...I was not present on this hike! Here I am in the middle of these gorgeous woods and I am so concerned about doing....get this hike going, that I am missing the essence, the gifts of all that is around me.

I began to breathe deeply, becoming aware of all around me, my body, the sounds, the feelings. That is when the magic began. I sat down on a rock and just experienced the present moment. It literally felt as though a switch had been turned on and everything came into focus, clearly, brilliantly. The colors of the trees and plants became brighter, the breeze more pronounced on me and in the trees, the birds singing suddenly became clear, and I noticed...really saw all that was around me.

I felt absolutely alive and completely refreshed. Turning down a new trail, the magic continued. It seemed to me that I had never really seen how beautiful this area was until then. A beautiful running stream that meandered along the trail. Cooper completely enjoying himself now. He suddenly had so much energy! He was running and splashing in the stream, jumping across it, running back to me then back in the water. What is going on? Just before this I had to keep urging him on to stay at "my pace". Sensing that I was now here and fully present in the moment, he too came to life.

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Feeling energized and completely alive and present, the hiking became easier and more natural. Our hike went much longer than I previously thought we could or would do. I become aware that I am smiling, happy and content. Then I smell something sweet but not the sweet from flowers or trees. It is the smell of something baking. What?? I am in the middle of the forest. I simply allow myself to take in this smell and I begin to feel the presence of my Mom who passed away just one year ago.

Sensing her around me brought me so much joy. I realized that it was my Mom who taught me the power of being mindful and the beauty of woods, plants and trees. When I was a small child she would take me for walks in the woods, picking berries or mushrooms, and enjoying a picnic lunch. Those were so special to me....just me and Mom because my older brother and sister were at school or at other activities. How had I forgotten about this? The memories came flooding back. She was with me to remind me to just be, that the present moment was all I really have, enjoy. Another gift. This is intentional wellness for my mind, body and spirit.

I came home feeling amazing and not one bit tired! What an incredible experience. The richness of being fully present on the hike once again helped me realize the benefits of mindfulness.

I invite you, or challenge you, to try being fully present during any activity that you truly enjoy. Just breathe and allow yourself to drop into the present. Begin to experience the gifts that are available to you.