Our stress is getting worse. You’re probably not surprised. Whenever I tell people that I teach stress management to college students, they invariably reply, “Oh, I could really use that.” The latest report on Stress in America, from the American Psychological Association, bears that out: people acknowledge high levels of stress, yet very few believe they are doing a good job of managing it.
It’s also not surprising that the big stressors for most people are money, work and the economy. We are living in a time of great uncertainty and people feel that they lack control over what happens to them. For the most part, people know that there’s a connection between their stress and their health, but often feel too overwhelmed to do anything about it.
A group that is of special concern to the APA researchers is that of caregivers – people who have the primary responsibility of caring for someone who is ill or disabled. Caregivers often feel overwhelmed and isolated, and often report poor health. Caregivers also age faster and die earlier than other people, due in part to cellular changes that are related to chronic stress. The good news is that caregivers who belong to support groups, where they can share their experiences with others, show fewer signs of these cellular changes.
Do people feel that they can’t manage stress because it would require a big life adjustment, like changing jobs, moving to the country, or meditating 24/7? We often hear messages about exercise and healthy eating that tell us small steps are the way to go; any positive change is better than no change at all. But maybe people aren’t used to thinking about stress that way.
Robert Sapolsky, a leading researcher on biology and stress has said, “We are not getting our ulcers being chased by Saber-tooth tigers, we’re inventing our social stressors — and if some baboons are good at dealing with this, we should be able to as well. Insofar as we’re smart enough to have invented this stuff and stupid enough to fall [for] it, we have the potential to be wise enough to keep the stuff in perspective.”
Most of us are pretty good at recognizing stress when we feel it. What truths can we pull out of the new survey and other research to help us in those moments?
- Small step one: Next time you’ve had a bad day and you’re tempted to plop in front of the TV, take a walk first.
- Small step two: Next time you’re feeling stressed and you find yourself yelling at your kids – call a friend to chat. You don’t even need to tell your friend your problems. Just talking to someone who is non-judgmental will probably make you feel better.
- Small step three: If you’re feeling wound up, but you don’t have time to exercise, put on your favorite music and dance around the room for five or ten minutes.
- Small step four: When feeling stressed at work, don’t take it out on other people – do something nice for one of them instead.
- Small step five: If you are feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to make a list of all the things in your life that you are grateful for.
- Small step six: The next time a task seems too big for you, ask for help.
- Small step seven: If you can’t sleep at night because of worry, distract yourself by thinking of your favorite joke or funny movie. Try to go to sleep with a smile on your face.
If you need a smile or a reminder, watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGbnua2kSa8