By El Webb

Stress Survival Guide

UNM Behavioral Health Experts Share De-Stressing Tips

Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives, and usually happens when we're in a situation we don't feel we can manage or control.

Whether it’s moving to a new town, taking final exams, graduating from college, dealing with family conflicts or starting a new job – no one is immune to stress.

“When there are external or internal circumstances through our individual perception of those circumstances, it can trigger a sense of feeling like we need to respond,” said Kristina Sowar, MD, University of New Mexico School of Medicine associate professor and clinical psychiatrist. 

Sometimes a small amount of it can actually be a good thing. Studies have shown that low levels of stress can be motivating and energizing.

But ongoing mild to severe stress can have ill consequences on a person’s health. Long-term stress can cause or worsen many serious health problems, including mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety; cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks and strokes; obesity and other eating disorders and gastrointestinal problems, such as GERD, gastritis and ulcerative colitis.

“Sometimes people aren’t aware of how much stress they’re dealing with until their body speaks up with illness or other physical manifestations,” Sowar said.

Experts emphasize that experiencing stress is not indicative of a personal failure or a reflection of weakness. However, not attempting to mitigate prolonged stress can be hazardous to someone’s health.

“There’s a lot of stress in our world right now, and it’s important to take a moment every day to check in with yourself,” said Chelsea Spraberry, PsyD, clinical psychologist at the UNM Medical Group Behavioral Health Clinic at Health Sciences Rio Rancho. 

“An important thing to remember is that stress relief looks different for everyone,” she said. “The trick is to find things that help you.”

Here are some ways people can seek support:

Sometimes people aren’t aware of how much stress they’re dealing with until their body speaks up with illness or other physical manifestations

Kristina Sowar, MD

Take Stress Seriously

The first step in getting stress under control, Sowar said, is knowing the symptoms. However, recognizing stress symptoms may be harder than people think, she added.

Stress means different things to different people. What causes stress in one person may be of little concern to another, and some people are better able to handle stress than others.

“I encourage people to develop some awareness for what their stress levels are like, how to navigate it, and doing some self-check-ins,” Sowar said. “That awareness can be a really important part of the inventory to get started.”

Similarly, symptoms of stress can vary from person to person.

They may include emotional signs, like becoming easily agitated, feeling overwhelmed and low self-esteem; physical manifestations, including aches and pains, rapid heartbeat and insomnia; cognitive symptoms, such as racing thoughts, inability to focus and poor judgment and behavioral changes, including procrastination, use of alcohol and drugs, and changes in appetite.

Take a Deep Breath

Slow, deep breathing is a technique that allows us to calm the mind and reduce the concentration of stress hormones in the blood, which can enhance health. Deep breathing can rapidly induce a sense of calm, helping us to think more clearly and focus on what we’re doing. 

Along those same lines, practicing meditation –focusing attention and releasing jumbled thoughts – is an intentional way to relieve stress.

“Practicing deep breathing and meditating routinely can help in the immediate time frame,” Sowar said. “They can also produce longer-lasting effects in terms of reduction in anxiety and improved resiliency to stress.”

Another mindfulness technique can include something as simple as a notebook and a pen.

“Journaling can be really helpful,” Spraberry said, “especially when you’re dealing with a lot of emotions that you’re trying to figure out.”

“Just the act of having to write it down helps us process what we’re dealing with,” she added. “Just putting some of those thoughts down somewhere else can help you not focus on them as much.”

Set Healthy Habits

Good nutrition is an important stress management tool, Spraberry said. Nutrients from healthy foods provide extra energy, support a healthy immune system, and even help regulate elevated levels of cortisol – a hormone typically associated with stress.

“I think a lot of us don’t think about how intricately connected our mind and body are,” Spraberry said. “When we’re not taking care of our nutrition, we’re more vulnerable to dealing with stress, feeling overwhelmed and burnt out.”

Sleep is also a powerful stress reducer, she said. Following a regular sleep routine can calm and restore the body, improve concentration, regulate mood and sharpen decision making.

“There’s a lot of research on the way our sleep impacts our mood and our functioning,” Spraberry said. “When we’re not sleeping well and when our bodies feel bad, our minds respond with additional negativity.”

Get Your Body Moving

Regular physical activity is one of the most important things people can do for their health. But when working out to relieve stress, Sowar said gentle movement is key.

“Things like walking – it doesn’t have to be hardcore cardio that a lot of people think of,” she said. “People can develop that mind-body connection without attaching any expectations.”

For some people, the suggestion to engage in regular exercise can be intimidating, triggering, or even come off as ableist. This can be due to a poor relationship with exercise, feeling anxious in a gym environment, willpower paralysis during a particularly lethargic depressive episode, or a disability, such as having a knee injury or being wheelchair bound.

“Sometimes with the encouragement of exercise, people associate it with going to the gym, which can come with its own set of stressors, and we don’t want to cause more problems for people,” Sowar said. 

Committing to easier and more fun exercises in shorter time periods may do the trick. Taking a quick jaunt around the neighborhood, doing 15 minutes of a YouTube yoga video, or going for a swim – all with the intent of feeling better and without self-judgement – are some ways to make exercising more enjoyable and appealing.

“Exercise can definitely be a bit loaded, and people can put a lot of pressure on themselves with what that means, but we know it can be helpful in terms of calming our nervous system,” Sowar said.

Surround Yourself with Support

Having a network of people that can provide practical and emotional support has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. Joining a support group can also help by meeting with others who are dealing with similar challenges.

“There’s research about feeling lonely and the impact loneliness has on people, and it’s quite significant,” Spraberry said. “Making sure we’re connected in a way where we can find some support is important.”

Seeking professional help is also encouraged to people who are feeling overwhelmed. As experts in human behavior, psychologists and therapists can help their patients develop strategies to cope with stress and help improve their social skills.

“If it’s feeling like a lot and coping strategies within reach don’t seem adequate, you can get more support from a therapist,” Sowar said.

While research on human-animal interactions is still relatively new, some studies have shown that animals can serve as a source of comfort and support, too. That’s why therapy dogs are sometimes brought into hospitals or nursing homes to help reduce patients’ stress and anxiety. 

“Our pets can be part of our social network. There is research that spending time with them, petting them and cuddling with them can lower those negative hormones and increase dopamine in the brain,” Spraberry said. “There’s a very neurochemical way we respond when we’re interacting with our pets and that’s pretty special.”

Allow the Emotions, Not the Spiral

Taking stock of what you can and cannot control can do wonders to mitigate stress, Sowar said.

“When people have the ability to work with what they can accept and what they can let go of, even in those circumstances, that can be another important step,” she said. 

“I think a lot of times, we think of stress as the external stuff happening, but it’s also helpful to recognize that some of our thought patterns and internal components of our experience of the world can be contributors to stress,” she added. “Stress is often a precipitant in terms of people developing or heightening anxiety.”

Sowar said people can get trapped in vicious cycles of setting impossibly high standards, failing to reach them, and feeling insurmountable shame as a result. 

“As a society, there’s this notion that people need to keep moving through the hard times and that it’s a matter of willpower or strength,” Sowar said. “We do so many comparisons to other people and perceive that what we’re able to do is inferior to other folks.”

The most effective way to break that cycle, she said, is to aim for self-compassion over self-criticism and to practice empathy when dealing with other people.

“It’s shifting away from needing to be strong all the time and acknowledging that it’s okay to have some compassion and acknowledge that things are hard,” Sowar said. “It’s good to reframe it and see that we’re all different constitutionally in terms of the things that we handle well and the stuff that is more difficult.”

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