It’s no secret we face stress every day. In fact, did you know that more than half of working adults—47% of all Americans—say they are concerned with the amount of stress in their lives? Also, 94% of adults believe that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression, and obesity, and that some types of stress can trigger heart attacks and even sudden death. Sadly, when stress occurs, only 29% say they are doing a good job at managing or reducing it.1
Stress also has a high cost. Overall, the price tag for stress adds up to $200–300 billion a year in lost work productivity, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.2 As astronomical as this number is, the cost to our health is even greater: 77% of people report regularly experiencing physical symptoms caused by stress; 48% say stress has a negative impact on their personal and professional life; and 54% say stress has caused them to fight with those close to them. Stress is taking a significant toll on our society and on us individually.
Money, work, and the economy (in that order) continue to be the most frequently cited causes of stress for Americans, as they have every year for the past 5 years. As a result of this stress, Americans report irritability or anger (42%); fatigue (37%); lack of interest, motivation, or energy (35%); headaches (32%); and upset stomachs (24%) due to stress. A smaller percentage report having a change in appetite (17%) and sex drive (11%).1
Eliminating stress from our lives may be an impossible task, considering that the things we stress over the most are the things we control the least. So if we can’t eliminate stress and we can’t allow stress to take its toll on our physical and psychological well-being, what do we do? The answer: we must learn how to manage our stress better, both physically and psychologically. Learning how to respond better to the daily stresses in our lives is the key to success. We can’t always control events, but we can control how we respond to them. That’s a choice.
A rough definition of stress is “an event or a change in our environment that creates a physiological response inside of us.” But the concept of stress is extremely complex. Stress is different for each of us—it’s a subjective term. What I consider to be stressful might be nothing to you, and vice versa. Additionally, the tolerable levels of stress are different from person to person. How that stress affects us is also individually unique.
Not all stress is bad. In fact, stress can help guard us in dangerous situation, i.e., fight or flight response. In this case, stress creates additional alertness and energy in a way of protecting us. But for this discussion, we are talking about the stress that is adverse to our well-being—the stress that takes its toll on us emotionally and physically and that causes the physiological responses as described above. Even worse, there is the acute stress that can shorten our life span. The statistic above that says 94% of adults believe that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses or disease is absolutely accurate. Science has proven that over many studies.
How do we effectively manage stress? Here are five effective ways:
1) Diet and Exercise. Take care of yourself. Stress hormones have been linked to overeating and the storage of excess body fat, leading to obesity. Exercise not only creates a healthy lifestyle, but it also combats stress on a hormonal level. Good hormones released through exercise can help combat the negative effect of stressor hormones. Healthy eating also reduces the onset of diseases such as type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as regulating hormones throughout the day. Stabilizing hormones can have an overall effect on your mood and ability to cope with the physiological responses to stress.
2) Stress Inoculation. Subject yourself to stress. According to Donald Meichenbaum, a professor at the University of Waterloo, “Stress inoculation training is based on the notion that exposing clients to milder forms of stress can bolster both coping mechanisms and the individual’s confidence in using his or her coping repertoire.” Military, law enforcement, firefighters, and elite athletes have known this for years. We work better under stress and pressure; creating deadlines and goals are a way of subjecting ourselves to controlled and manageable stress levels. When we accomplish those tasks and goals under pressure, it creates an increased belief in our own ability to accomplish tasks and reach goals. That, in turn, becomes self-fulfilling. Working under pressure is vital to learning how to better manage stress. Fighters become better fighters when they spar in a ring with another competitor under fight-like conditions.
3) Positive Internal Dialogue. Change your internal chatter. Psychologists tell us that we talk to ourselves all the time, non-stop—300 to 1,000 words per minute. Furthermore, 70% of that internal chatter tends to be negative. That means we have a constant running dialog with ourselves with a negative message. If we are constantly telling ourselves that we are stressed out and are overwhelmed, we certainly will be. Stop telling yourself how hard life is and how rough you have it—you will only believe what you say. Change that internal dialogue to positive messages. Fight against the negativity in your head to become a more positive person.
4) Create a Positive Mindset. Change your mindset, and you will change your life. People underestimate the power of their own minds. How we physically experience the world is shaped in our mind. How we interpret and process the things that happen to us is determined in our mind long before the events take place. Our successes and failures in life are created in our mind long before they ever happen to us in reality. We can’t avoid negative events simply through positive thought, but we can change how we respond to those events. If we have a conditioned negative response (like negative internal chatter), we will respond negatively. If we have a positive framework, however, we will respond much more favorably. When our mindset is geared toward negativity, we create our own negative environment and outcome. We must learn to practice a positive mindset. Creating positive thoughts is a way to create new neural networks in our brains—a new roadmap. Each time we do this, it weakens the negative network. Therefore, we are better equipped to respond to life’s stressors and events.
5) Reduce Chaos. Change the quality of your life. Chaos is a state of utter confusion or disorder; a total lack of organization. Chaotic people create chaotic environments, which we interpret as added stress. Even without a significant stressor event, people like this create artificial stress constantly. I have seen people create conflict with everyone in their lives: a spouse, an ex-spouse, an ex-spouses new spouse, parents, friends, employer, and the list goes on. How can one person be in conflict with so many people? The answer is surprisingly simple—the conflict is within that person. The external chaos we create is a mirror image of the internal chaos we feel. If your thoughts and internal being are filled with chaos, you will have a chaotic life, plain and simple. Learn to focus on what matters in life: finding happiness, love, and purpose. Let the chaos go.
Managing stress in your life is different than trying to eliminate stress in your life. In this sense, a lot of the advice out there is wrong and only sets things up for failure. Some of the things that cause the most stress (money, work, and the economy) can’t simply be eliminated—that’s not reality. The successful recipe is to learn how to manage the stress, and the majority of that takes place in the framework of your mind.
This article was published in Hopelessly Romantic Media Production’s Classic Male Magazine, June 2015. To see the entire magazine online, click here.