We briefly saw the light when COVID-19 requirements and restrictions eased. Today, we are back to puzzling the impact of a virulent virus strain, and the rise in COVID-19, and what impact that will have on practice procedures, staff, clients, and patients. Compounding these concerns are staffing issues, angry clients, compassion fatigue, and a host of other problems. During stressful times, we must prioritize health---both mental and physical. Yet, ironically, we do the opposite---we ignore our distress to take care of others. This approach is counterproductive. When we are not healthy, we cannot do our best for others.
Stress is pervasive
What’s so bad about stress? We all experience it, and psychologists maintain that eustress is good stress because it makes us feel alive and excited. Eustress is associated with enjoyable life events such as a thrill ride or finding out we won the lottery. With acute stress, most of us can return to stasis quickly. For instance, believing that your keys are locked in the car will subside as soon as you dig them out from your purse. Chronic stress, however, can be debilitating and can damage the mind and body. It can manifest physically as headaches, elevated blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, digestive issues, sleep disturbances, and skin conditions.
Even more insidious is the impact that chronic stress can have on the brain. According to research, chronic stress can transform the brain, causing mood disorders and anxiety.
No doubt about it, stress should not be ignored or treated lightly. We owe it to ourselves and those we love and care for to control our stress to reduce the risk of adverse health effects.
Has a well-meaning colleague or supervisor told you to calm down or relax when you are stressed? Wow! Talk about having the opposite effect! Most of us feel tenser after being advised to chill. It’s hard to change an emotional state and relax on command. We can, however, condition ourselves to recognize stress triggers and behaviors and adopt strategies to prevent stress from spiraling out of control.
Experimenting with these practices can help defuse tension:
Talk therapy: There are two types of talk therapy: confiding in a friend or speaking with a professional.
Confiding in a friend, coworker, and others we are comfortable with offers a safe environment for sharing our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it is helpful to say what we are feeling out loud. Because these confidantes are not trained to help work through emotions, they may not have the advice or answers we are searching for. However, by acting as sounding boards, these informal conversations can be mood-altering.
Friends and colleagues are not substitutes for seeking therapy. Counselors, psychologists, social workers, and therapists guide clients through emotional turmoil to help them emerge with a clearer vision and feelings of empowerment.
Move your body: Exercise can be a powerful antidote to stress. This is my number one stress reliever. If you already have a regular regimen but can’t seem to shake the stress, perhaps you need to step it up to get more endorphins flowing. Even if you’re not active, small changes can go a long way: a brisk walk in the morning or evening, opting for the stairs rather than the elevator, or dancing to a favorite song can go a long way.
Relaxation techniques: Relaxing on command can be impossible, but it is possible to program your body to calm down through deep breathing techniques, meditation, visualization, and mindfulness. Experiment with different methods to find the one that is best suited for you.
Choose a healthy lifestyle: Relying on drugs, alcohol, and overeating to self-medicate will create more problems. Moderation is key.
Put yourself first: During times of stress, it is important to prioritize yourself and your needs. If you are ignoring your own needs, you cannot effectively care for others. Make it a point to set boundaries, schedule, honor medical appointments, speak up when necessary, and recharge.
When it’s too much
Occasionally, someone will ask me if it is possible to know when stress is becoming too much. In 2017, The American Psychological Association published Stress in American and identified six indicators of overwhelming stress. They include:
- The inability to function adequately in any core area of life such as work, family, or interpersonal relationships;
- Relying on ineffective coping strategies or failing to abandon behavior that contributes to stress;
- The inability to realistically look at the stressors in your life and adequately analyze their impact;
- Underreporting stress or inflating minor issues;
- Holding on to unresolved issues that prevent you from effectively navigating the present; and,
- Dealing with life changes that are making it difficult to cope.
Each of us has a tipping point for handling stress. To admit that stress is becoming too much does not mean that you are less of a person. Instead, the acknowledgment indicates that you are astute and self-aware and know when to take action. If you feel overwhelmed, there are many resources available such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), suicide prevention and addiction hotlines, support groups, and more. If you feel like you cannot cope, contact your Human Resource department for confidential assistance.
We don’t know what the future holds, but we can face it confidently if we do our best to be strong and healthy.
Wishing you peace and joy.
Michelle Gonzales Bryant, CVPM