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Stress: Recognizing and Managing it

Since April is Stress Awareness Month, I thought it would be the perfect time to write a little bit on stress, and share some tips on how to manage it.

You hear the word stress used almost on a daily basis, but, do you know what it is?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are three types of stress: acute stress, episodic acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is a short term, and the most common type of stress, usually manifesting from the demands of the recent past or near future. Common symptoms of acute stress include irritability, anxiety, depression, tension headaches, heartburn, migraine, high blood pressure and rapid heartbeat.

Episodic acute stress is when acute stress is experienced frequently. This could be applied to either those that consistently take on more than they could handle, and those that worry often. Common symptoms include migraines, tension headaches, hypertension, chest pains and could eventually lead to heart disease.

Chronic stress is one that almost never goes away. An individual is at risk of chronic stress when they have no perceived way out of an arousal-inducing situation, for example, being in a war. Chronic stress may also arise out of a traumatic event, such as a car accident. Chronic stress could lead to suicide, heart attacks, stroke, violence, and other life-threatening situations.

The first step to managing your stress is to identify that you are stressed. The next step is identifying your source of stress. Have you had any recent changes in your life? Are there upcoming exams? Are you having financial issues? Are you having problems with your spouse? These are a short list of potential stressors in any individual’s life. The next step is asking yourself why this is a stressor for you. It could be that problems with your spouse may lead to a divorce. Or financial problems may lead to losing your home. The next steps intertwine together:  finding a way to relieve the symptoms of the stress, finding a way to address the cause of the stress, and then assessing whether those solutions worked for you. If not, it is a matter of going back to the drawing board and trying a new way.

The Concordia University student health centre has listed common practices to tackle relieving the symptoms of stress, which include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Meditation
  • Massage
  • Exercise
  • Other types of distraction, such as playing with your pets, reading a book, or hobbies

Keep in mind that relieving the symptoms of stress are a short-term solution.

They have also put together a list of common practices to tackle relieving the causes of stress is acquiring, which include:

  • Budgeting skills
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Time management skills
  • Conflict resolution skills
  • Academic skills
  • Other skills that could be acquired through practice or with professional help

University and college websites are an excellent resource for finding tips on stress management, as there are diverse populations attending these institutions. I also recommend looking for local resources. Many doctors offices, gyms, and community centres will offer information on programs you could partake in. Remember that no two people are alike, and that different methods of stress relief will work for different individuals. If you find that you are having difficulty managing your stress, reach out to a counsellor for help.

Resources

Miller, L. H., PhD, & Smith, A. D., PhD. (n.d.). Stress: The different kinds of stress. Retrieved April 03, 2018, from //www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-kinds.aspx

Stress Management. (n.d.). Retrieved April 04, 2018, from //www.concordia.ca/students/health/topics/stress-management.html

Self Care, Part 2

Self Care: Part One mainly focused on learning how to set SMART goals. Now that you know how to set realistic goals for yourself, let’s explore other ways to engage in self-care:.

 

Remember:, self-care comes in many forms and varying degrees of difficulty, and your own personal self-care  all depends on you as an individual, and what your needs and wants are. I’ve compiled a list of 10 simple ways you can engage in self-care. Please keep in mind that this list has no specific ranking, and you could can choose to follow as few or as many of these tips as you want as part of your self-care routine.,  However, you’ll notice that many of these tips go hand-in-hand.

Hydrate

Staying hydrated is one of the most important ways to stay healthy. If you’re feeling thirsty, chances are that you’re already dehydrated. Some benefits of proper hydration include combatting fatigue, reducing high blood pressure, flushing out unwanted bacteria from your kidneys, slowing the aging process, and stopping unwanted weight gain. Remember that mental and physical health go handinhand, and when you’re taking care of yourself physically, it’s easier to take care of yourself mentally, and vice versa!

Limit Your Screen Time

Poor sleep can intensify symptoms of depression, so it is crucial that you pay attention to your sleep hygiene. Numerous studies have shown that blue light from a screen is harmful to sleep. By avoiding screens an hour before bedtime, your brain starts to relax, making it easier for you to fall asleep.

Sleep

This ties right in with limiting your screen time. Having adequate sleep not only sharpens your attention and improves your memory, it also lowers your stress and risk of depression. When you are less stressed, you have better control of both your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels, which play a role in your cardiovascular health.

Journal

If you’ve ever been in counselling, you will likely have experienced being given homework assignments, likely keeping some sort of journal or tracking activity. Keeping a journal is a good way to be reflective of your personal experiences. If you’ve had a bad experience, reflect on the 5 W’s (who/what/when/where/why) of that experience. You can even take that a step further and explore what you could have done differently to turn that experience around. It’s equally important to journal positive experiences. Positive experiences could likely be a reflection of progress in some aspect of your life, or be a positive motivation to you on a bad day.

Breathing Exercises

When you are feeling stressed or angry, your muscles tense up and your breathing becomes shallow. Deep breathing allows you to get more oxygen, thus releasing tension. Breathing exercises can also relax the mind and body by getting the necessary oxygen to your brain, and help with clearing uneasy feelings out of your body, and elevating your mood.

A Healthy Work-Life Balance

By maintaining a healthy work-life balance, you’re setting yourself up for a better quality of life. You’ll likely see that your wellbeing will improve. Sacrificing too much of your time for work won’t take long to start having negative effects like increased stress, constant bouts of illnesses due to a weakened immune system, and non-stop exhaustion. A healthy work-life balance will also keep you more productive, and give you more “me” time.

Many people work jobs that require a lot of time and effort, and sometimes large amounts of downtime just isn’t possible if you want to succeed. That’s why you have to find a balance. For example:, if possible, work from home on some days, or don’t sacrifice your free time just to put the extra hours in every single day.

Physical Activity

In addition to all of the physical health benefits associated with exercising, it has also been also known to improve your mood and boost your energy. If you can’t make it to the gym, taking a brisk walk helps too, as long as you get up and do something! Physical activity is a great way to blow off some steam after a tough day. Nothing better than looking and feeling good!

Eat Better

What you eat impacts your brain, and this includes the parts that regulate your mood. Foods that are vitamin and mineral rich, like fruits, veggies, whole grains and fatty fish, have been associated with a lower risk of depression. Now hear me out on this one! Eating better is not to say that you should never have that Big Mac, just make sure that you’re not having it every day.

Learn to Say ‘No’

When you’re overcommitted and under too much stress, you’re more likely to feel rundown. It could be saying no to that weekly late night dinner with a friend to get a few extra hours of sleep, to saying no to an extra shift at work. Many people don’t say no because they are afraid of being faced with a negative reaction. A tip for saying ‘no’ is to be quick with the response. That is, don’t hold up someone’s plans when you know you’re declining the invite. Be honest about why you’re saying no. If you have other commitments, or you just need to rest, let them know. You could also suggest an alternative like naming someone else that could take your place, or asking for a raincheck.

Take a Step Towards Tackling Something You’ve Been Avoiding

This could be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. If you’ve been feeling anxious about not finishing that report, but choosing to binge-watch your favourite Netflix show instead, you’re adding to your stress and anxiety. By finishing that report, you’re taking a lot off of your shoulders. Or it could be something more lifealtering: You’ve been telling yourself that you’re going to quit smoking for years, but never take the initiative to do so. Going to see a professional to explore cessation options may be the first step in the right  direction.

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Self Care, Part One

“I just don’t have enough time for myself.” How many times have you said that to yourself? How often do you find yourself daydreaming of escaping your reality? It’s likely that you’re not taking the time to take care of yourself. I’m not just talking about your physical appearance; self-care runs much deeper than that.

Finding balance is not an easy task, and if you ask me, it’s an ongoing battle. If someone tells me they live the perfect life, I’m inclined to ask them if they’re a robot. We’re all juggling many different things while trying to be good parents, siblings, children, partners, spouses, employees and professionals, but to be truly good at any of those roles, we must take care of ourselves first. After all, how can we take care of others if we, ourselves, are not well?

Self-care is more than just unwinding in a warm bubble bath, but making the time for that is a pretty good start. And that’s just it: making time. Self-care is taking the steps to ensure that you’re feeling good both mentally and physically. Putting in a little bit of work each day will go a long way the long run. It may not be possible to take a vacation every 3 months, but it is possible to stop and take some deep breaths a few times a day.  

Self-care isn’t always pretty, either. It’s facing whatever ugliness that is holding you back from being the best version of yourself – a well-functioning one. It could be anything from going to the gym three times a week (because inactivity is beginning to take a toll on your physical health), to cutting out the negative person that always seems to bring you down. The key is to do something good for yourself.

I could write on and on and on about self care, but in the spirit of not being overwhelming, I’ve decided to break down some tips on self-care into several articles, to be posted throughout the next few weeks.

Like anything else you’re trying to achieve, setting a goal on what exactly you’re aiming for with your self-care is a good practice to have after you figure out what it is you actually want. It is key to be realistic with yourself; like all other goals, don’t set self-care goals you know that you can’t achieve. To make goal setting less overwhelming and actually achievable, I like to use the SMART approach:  A SMART goal is specific (S), measurable (M), attainable (A), realistic/relevant (R) , and timely (T).

Ask yourself:

(S) What exactly is it that I want to achieve?

(M) What will I see, hear or feel when I achieve it? What is the concrete evidence?

(A)Do I have the resources to achieve my goal?

(R)Why do I want to achieve this goal? Does it seem relevant or realistic for me?

(T) What time period do I want to get this done in?

 

You can tweak your goals as you go. Remember that this plan has to work for you. If something doesn’t feel right, make some adjustments and take it from there.

 

Here is an example of how a SMART goal:

(S) I want to become more mindful and relaxed before I start each day. I would like to do that by meditating for 20 minutes before work, 3 times a week

(M) I will make a short journal entry each day, describing how my day went, and whether I meditated in the morning.

(A) I will go to bed 20 minutes earlier the night before and wake up 20 minutes earlier in the morning to make time for my meditation. I will stream my meditation tape on the mobile streaming app.

(R) I don’t have very many coping skills to deal with stress. Meditation would be a quick way to help alleviate stress in the moment.

(T) I will check in once a week to ensure that I have met my meditation goals for the week.

I encourage you to try this, no matter how big or small your self-care goals!

The Winter Blues

If you live in Ontario, Canada, like myself, chances are you’ve experienced a combination of bone-chilling, subzero temperatures, and extremely short days during the winter months. Because of this, chances are that you or someone you know has also experienced a case of what is commonly known as “The Winter Blues during this time. A sluggish feeling, accompanied by low energy levels, constant fatigue, a tendency to oversleep, and overall not feeling like yourself are common symptoms of “The Winter Blues”.  Sound familiar?

If so, what you’re experiencing is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD). Rohan and Rough (2017) describe SAD as a subtype of depression that typically occurs in the fall and winter months. Studies have shown that areas which experience a greater variation in the amount of sunlight they receive between seasons are affected by symptoms of SAD more than those areas which see less of a variation in sunlight hours. In Canada, where sunset in the summer is after 8PM and sunset in the winter is before 5PM, we certainly see wide a variation in sunlight hours. Other symptoms of SAD include depressed moods and anhedonia (an inability to feel pleasure). These symptoms may start out as mild and progress throughout the season.

If you’re living in Canada (or any other place that experiences a great variation in sunlight exposure between seasons), the bad news is that the cold weather and decrease in sunlight hours will be inevitable every year. The good news? There are steps you can take to help you beat your winter blues! So if you find yourself experiencing symptoms of SAD year after year, don’t brush it off as “just the winter blues”; make sure you are taking appropriate steps to get yourself out of this funk.

Here are a few things you can do to help you overcome your SAD symptoms:

 

Light Therapy

Also called Bright Light Therapy or phototherapy, the purpose of light therapy is to replace the lost sunlight in the winter using a bright light. The individual experiencing SAD symptoms sits in front of a light box study results show that doing so in the morning is most effective once the fall season begins. Light therapy should be supervised by a medical professional, so before you give this method a try, be sure to see your doctor to make sure that this is a safe option for you (Melrose, 2015).

 

Vitamin D

Many people with SAD are found to have low levels of Vitamin D, which is associated with depression (Melrose, 2015). We get Vitamin D naturally from the sun, so when the sun sets at 4:30 PM, and you’re stuck at work until 5:00 PM, it can be difficult to get enough of that Vitamin D. You can help your body receive sufficient levels by taking Vitamin D supplements. It’s important to speak to your doctor before taking the Vitamin D supplements to ensure that it is a safe option for you.

 

Counselling

Speaking with a counsellor can provide support for you when you are experiencing symptoms of SAD. A popular approach that counsellors take to treating SAD is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The goal of the CBT approach is to break down negative patterns and overwhelming problems which are presented by an individual, by changing the way the individual thinks about them (Melrose, 2015). A professional is able to monitor your condition by using assessments, as well as by applying proven methods to your therapy to help you overcome your SAD.

 

References

 

Rohan , K. J., & Rough, J. N. (2017). Chapter 22/ Seasonal Affective Disorder. In The Oxford Handbook of Mood Disorders (pp. 254-264). Oxford University Press. Retrieved January 12, 2018.

Sherri Melrose, “Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview of Assessment and Treatment Approaches,” Depression Research and Treatment, vol. 2015, Article ID 178564, 6 pages, 2015. doi:10.1155/2015/178564