Robert Denny: Warning, stress ahead

What is stress? The definition I use in my psychology class is from the textbook Psychology, 10th Edition, by Tavris and Wade, Prentice Hall, 2006: “Stress is the physical and psychological effects we experience as a result of the way we react to changes in the surrounding environment.”

Why is stress so dangerous? When we feel threatened, hormone glands send adrenalin, cortisone, and epinephrine to prepare the body for “fight or flight.” This survival response developed over thousands of years to help us deal with attacking wolves or tigers. In modern times, it’s little daily threats and aggravations instead of tigers. If stress continues, we can develop problems with our physical and mental health. The immune system wears down, and won’t be there to protect us from disease.

What does that mean to you? Stress is not what happens in the world, or things that happen to you. Instead, it’s how you see and interpret the situation, how you respond to the situation, and how you feel about the situation. So instead of being a helpless victim, you can choose to take control of the situation. You can decide how you want to see or interpret the situation, and what you choose to do about the situation.

So, stress is a psychological and physical reaction to a perceived threat. Which means, what’s important is not what happens to us in life, but how we perceive it and what we choose to do about it. This very definition of stress gives us the power to do something about it. Here are some things you can do when you recognize symptoms of stress:

• Decide to think the opposite. If you feel worried, overwhelmed, or helpless, or if you’re thinking “This is awful; why me? I’m stuck, I’m powerless,” then that’s how you will feel. Instead, think: “This is merely a situation I’m in. It’s not what happens to me that’s important, it’s how I choose to think about it, and what I decide to do about it. I’m going to make a choice on how I want to feel about it, and what I want to do about it.”

• Take action. Bust a move! Nothing can instill confidence more than facing a challenge head on and taking action. When you feel pressures from a job, family situation, or conflicts in your world, you can choose to see these not as “problems,” but as “challenges” and “opportunities.” Find a way to see it as an opportunity to learn and grow, develop skills like problem solving, and build strength and character. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”

• Build and maintain good relationships. Support from friends or family is extremely helpful in managing stress. Resolve any relationship conflicts. Show respect and appreciation for all the people in your life. Drop any resentments. Resenting someone hurts you more than it hurts them. Practice forgiveness.

• Enjoy your life. Make sure you save time to do things you love doing. Pursue hobbies, sports, and interests. Make the most of your free time.

• Take care of your health. Choose healthy foods and regular meals. Get outdoors and explore ways to enjoy regular physical activity.

• Relax. Try a 2-minute “mind vacation” during your day. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Visualize your favorite place, doing what you like doing. Research shows us that your mind really doesn’t see much difference between imagining it and actually being there.

Turn problems into challenges and opportunities. Decide to think and act in ways to enhance your happiness. Make your life the best it can be.

Robert Denny is a licensed mental health therapist, and teaches psychology at Florida Gateway College.

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