Stress management

Stress explained

Easily explained, stress is the response to demands made either by you or your surroundings. Your ability to manage these demands will determine if the stress is perceived as positive or negative. In other words, stress can be perceived both positive and negative depending on how you feel you can manage these demands. 

Positive stress is when we’re able to benefit from the stress. Because stress is just a feeling, it’s an evaluation of the demands and our capacity. When we perceive that our capacity is enough to cope with the demands we perceive it positive and can even benefit from the stress. Elite athletes are good examples of people who’ve learned to deal with stress and how to use it positively. By practicing their stress management, it helps them focus and perform better.

Negative stress, on the other hand, is often overwhelming since we feel that the demands are too high and we can’t meet and manage the demands. These demands can come from ourselves, for example that I’ve put the demand on myself to cook every meal for the baby myself and not to buy any baby food from the supermarket. If I feel I can’t live up to that demand, I feel stressed. So stress isn’t the actual thing in itself, it’s how we perceive it. That’s also why some can go through very stressful events seemingly unaffected, while others become stressed for things some wouldn’t bother about.

How stress works

When we are stressed, it often starts with an event. Our kids spill out a glass of milk when we’re already in a hurry, more tasks to do at work, we’re being followed by a strange person on the street, but also the thought that I should work out more when seeing myself in the mirror. 

When we perceive the event, we react to it by releasing different hormones in our body. Adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol is released into the body which sharpens our senses; we hear better, our pupils expand so that we can see better. We breathe faster to get more oxygen in the brain and body parts that need more oxygen, blood is diverted to provide our brain, heart and muscles more oxygen, and it reduces our experience of pain in our arms and legs. 

We’re getting ready to fight, flee, or freeze. These are the three reactions found in people in an acute stress situation. This reaction has evolutionary been lifesaving, and for physical life-threatening situations today, it’s still adaptable. It can be the difference between life and death when being attacked in the park or being in a car accident. 

The problem is that our brain doesn’t see the difference between mental and physical threats. We also become stressed in situations that aren’t life-threatening like taking a test at school or when our child spills out the milk.

Stress in itself isn’t dangerous; it’s meant to serve us in short-lived life-threatening situations. The problem is when the stress becomes prolonged. That’s when it makes us sick. Living with stress for an extended period of time makes us exhausted, we develop mental illnesses, even diabetes, pain, and experience trouble sleeping. 

The stress bucket

We’ll try to illustrate how stress works through the stress bucket theory. To begin with, everyone has a different size of their bucket, and the buckets size determines how much stress you can handle. For some, it’s a huge bucket, a 10-liter or 2,5 gallons bucket if one imagines a bucket, for others, it’s more like a teacup.

Stressors, the events that make us stressed are illustrated as water that fills the bucket. For example, my children are fighting a lot, I have high demands at work, and my mom’s in hospital. All the events are more or less stressing, and ads water to my bucket.

But as you can see, there are also holes in the bucket, that drain the water before it fills up. This is coping strategies, different strategies or activities we have to avoid or reduce stress. Coping strategies can be both intentional and unintentional activities. My primary focus when going to the gym may not be to release stress, but it’s a positive side effect. Meditation, exercise and good nutrition are examples of different coping strategies.

Often, we have a pretty good balance of stressors and coping strategies in which the water is filled up but also emptied from the bucket. Sometimes the stressors become too many, too much, for too long. My car breaks down, and my relationship is turbulent, and my PMDD takes overhand and the bucket overflows.

The water that flows over from the top of the bucket are symptoms of stress like fatigue, depression, insomnia, and apathy. Everyone experiences different symptoms and they are often a result of prolonged stress. When the water spills over it affects the people around us, our performances, happiness, and life in general.

Short-term and long-term stress

There are many different perspectives and angles to stress. One of them is short-term and long-term stress. Short-term or acute stress is a stressor for a short period of time. I can be late for work once and become stressed, but since I don’t perceive it to be too big of demand its manageable for me. However, if I were to be in a severe car accident with many people severely injured around me, the stress becomes high and can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In this case, it can impact my life in recurring memories and flashbacks, avoidance of similar things like riding a car again, pain and isolation from the world, etc.

When stress is part of life for a long time, it can also have a significant impact on our lives. It doesn’t have to be big stressors or very high demands but since it lasts for a long time, it therefore, wears you out. Somehow small stressors aren’t assumed to be stressful even though they are. It is just as real as a car accident, but it affects us differently. This is also why this is particularly striking for women with PMDD, especially if they have high standards and demands on themselves. To be a good woman/mom/worker you need to cook nutritious, healthy food, managing household and all that needs to be organized, to work out and look good while performing well at work. All with less energy and hard emotions to manage.

A half glass of water

I want you to imagine that you’re holding a half filled glass of water with your arm stretched out just like in the picture. It’s not a big deal, is it? Keep holding the glass with your arm straight for 5 minutes. Now it starts to get a bit tricky, your arm’s hurting a bit, and you might wonder how long you can last. Imagine holding the glass for an hour, would you make it? Your arm would probably be quite exhausted.

And this is how it works with stress; the same small stressor has a very different impact on us depending on how long we have to deal with it. Remember that PMS/PMDD is a long term diagnosis?

Anxiety, everyday demands that becomes maountains to climb, constant arguments, exhaustion, nagging guilt that your not the mother/partner/friend/worker/daughter you wished to be is wearing. Taken together, you can become stressed out just knowing your PMDD is on it’s way, knowing how you behave, or won’t be able to do and even more overwhelmed when cleaning up or recompensate in the good periods.

Stress management

Many often try to avoid stress altogether to protect themselves from it, but the fact is that whether we want it or not, stress is a part of life. No matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to avoid stress altogether.

You can tackle stress in two ways: prevent it or treat it. When I talk about preventing stress I mean to grow the stress bucket and your overall capability to menage stress. To deal with stress, on the other hand, is to merely reduce stress and take care of the symptoms. We need both.

To identify stressors and dealing with them before it becomes a major problem is the first step in preventing stress. Stressors can be situations, but the question is why I perceive this situation as stressful. What thoughts are behind it?

Three legs of stress

To manage stress we need to view our perceived ability to manage the stressful situation, time to do it and the demands. So when preventing stress, the first task is to identify what is causing the stress and what to do about it. Just like a three legged stool needs it’s three legs working to stand, we need these three pillars to avoid stress causing us harm.

If I feel insecure in my parenting role, I don’t know whether I’m doing good or bad and I’ve got a nagging remorse for things I fear to have done it is stressful.

It’s stressful not to know and to feel that you’re not on top of the situation. Uncertainty is scary and stressful to many, indifferent what the uncertainty is about.

So, I’ve identified the insecurity as the cause and not being on top of the situation. What I could do is to increase my capacity to handle my parenthood and perhaps my own thoughts and emotions through participating in a parenting course, by talking to other parents or by attending tutoring or coaching, in order to raise the level of knowledge and ability.

Time or rather lack of time is another thing that’s causing stress, and in today’s society, it seems that there’s just never enough time. We’ve got too little time with our family, we are short of time to care for our partner and friends, little time to coordinate the household and there is minimal time to take care of yourself, your interests and for just relaxing.

Feeling stressed when multitasking all day juggling everything isn’t strange, but ponder over who’s setting the time frame. Is it you or is it someone else? For some reason, we’re pretty good at having some sort of mental picture of how and what we should accomplish, and when we don’t meet our own expectations we become stressed.

Instead of hurrying even more to get it done, try to stop, and ask yourself if it’s necessary to do it all.

“I need to wash all clothes today, pay the bills, make a list to do some grocery shopping and cook dinner!”

Is it necessary to do it all today? What can be done tomorrow? I’ll make a priority list.

Many times the necessary things are only necessary in our minds but put in perspective, it’s not.

So make a priority list and give yourself more time if possible.

Or maybe you have a deadline at work, ask if you have the opportunity to postpone the deadline to get more time and be honest about how you feel.

Today many feel the demands are high, but we need to figure out if it’s someone else or we ourselves that put those high demands on us. Again, it’s not uncommon that it’s we who put those demands on ourselves and this is especially true for women. Many women have very high standards for themselves. When I don’t meet my own demands, I feel stressed.

What I need to do when I have high standards is to identify the person putting the demands on me. Is it me or someone else? Is it realistic? What would happen if I didn’t meet the demands today?

In other words, it’s okay to be human, lower the demands. If someone else demands something of you, talk about it and how you react to it, and say no if you have to.

Shifting focus

I’m going to tell you a personal story from when I went to high school. I grew up in the Swedish countryside, and school was a half hour ride away. Every morning I went to the train station since I went to school by train. The Swedish trains aren’t always completely reliable, especially not in the wintertime due to the snow, or in the autumn due to the fallen leaves, or in hot summer days due to the heat making the tracks go buckled. So, you never knew if or when the train would come, so waiting was a big part of going to school for me. I waited through snow, rain, sun, and wind and since I was young at the time and it was important to look good, I seldom had enough clothes. As I stood there waiting for the train, the wind whistled in my face, and the snow whirled around me making me a living snowman, I developed a mental strategy.

 I closed my eyes imagining myself sitting on a white sandy beach overlooking the turquoise ocean. The sun was shining in my face making my skin warm, and above me, palm trees were swaying slightly in the wind. 

It become so real that the I didn’t feel the icy cold, and suddenly waiting around wasn’t so bad anymore because I always had somewhere to go. So I had a choice to either stand there and think about how awful the weather was and how much I was freezing, or ease my pain through shifting my focus. When shifting my thoughts, I reduced my stress because remember; stress is something that we need to be aware of. 

So when the stress is palpable, and you feel your heartbeat, try to find a quiet, magic and relaxing spot in your mind and go there. Shift your focus and calm yourself down, let the stressful thoughts go. You can only focus on one thing at a time. You wouldn’t be stressed over the saber-toothed tiger if you didn’t see it. 

Be realistic

I also want you to think about whether your stressors are indeed realistic. Is it possible to do something about it or is it something you can’t influence? For there are things that we cannot influence. And we need to accept these situations and our inability to do something about it. I’m only human; I can’t do everything. Ponder over whether you actually need to feel stressed over something you can’t influence. Stressing over something you can’t control is destructive to your mood, life, and relationships. I’m not going to tell you it’s easy to let go and accept reality but it’s sometimes needed to live and prosper.

4 tips on stress

Here are four advice on how to think in order to stress less. This is something to work and practice on every day.

  • First, I want you to imagine the best scenario instead of the worst-case scenario. Many times, stress is increased by imagining the worst that can happen. Instead, I want you to imagine the best thing that can happen, and thus you’re more likely to reach that scenario.
  • I also want you to live and express yourself as if you have reached your imagined best  scenario. Imagine yourself achieving your goal you so badly wanted. Imagine you are that person you want to be. Be that person you want to be and express yourself in the way you want to be.
  • It’s not unusual that after a conversation with someone think “oh, why didn’t I say this? Why did I do that, I shouldn’t have done that! I should’ve said this!” Instead, imagine the conversations as the way you wanted it to be or what you wanted to say.
  • Be honest and realistic with yourself. If you’re beating yourself up, reflect over if you would be as critical of your friends if they did or said the same thing?