Healthy Ways to Cope With Stress
Taming the Tiger
By John Medina, Director of SPU’s Brain Center for Applied Learning Research
Too much stress can batter our bodies, mess with our minds. But the good news is that there are simple things we can do to cope with excessive stress in our lives and to avoid its potential negative effects on our health.
So how can we tame stress?
Response asked that question of five SPU faculty and staff members: Steve Maybell, director of the SPU Student Counseling Center; Gaile Moe, associate professor of food and nutrition and director of SPU’s Didactic Program in Dietetics; Bob Weathers, professor of physical education; Carlene Brown, assistant professor of music and director of the Music Therapy program; and Jay Skidmore, professor of clinical psychology and chair of the Department of Clinical Psychology.
Read their answers, and you may just start to feel some relief …
Who can imagine a world without stress?
“Some stress is just a part of life,” says Steve Maybell. “It’s normal, natural, and important. If we didn’t have stress, we probably wouldn’t get up in the morning. We wouldn’t have much motivation to improve or maintain ourselves.”
But some of the students who visit Maybell in SPU’s Student Counseling Center define success in ways that lead to constant stress and even depression. They focus on their grades (some consider an “A-“ a failure); their weight and body type; what clothes they can afford; their capacity to be helpful and compassionate to everyone at all times; and their character in comparison to Christ’s character.
“The way we define for ourselves what constitutes success, or significance, or being worthwhile — that’s a big part of our inner life,” says Maybell. “The more exaggerated and narrowly we define success, the more susceptible we are to stress. We diminish our ability to function. We become overwhelmed when we fall short of this often unconscious definition.”
TIP1: Pay attention to how you think about success. “We need to replace exaggerated and pessimistic thoughts with more realistic, affirming thoughts in order to be more balanced,” says Maybell. “That is what determines how much stress we experience.”
He encourages those who are worried about weaknesses and imperfections to consider themselves with more grace, as Christ does. “Christ was here to die for all of us who are broken, who are poor in spirit, and who are in need of love and grace.”
Many people respond to stress by overeating, because it seems to make them feel better. Eating well, says Gail Moe, is a way of taking back control over the “stressors” in your life.
And the advantage is better health. “When you get stressed and start doing a lot of emotional eating –– fast foods, junk foods, and processed foods –– your sodium intake is going to go up. And there has been more and more evidence that our high sodium intake and our low potassium intake are putting us at risk for developing high blood pressure.”
Moe likes the idea of keeping a food diary, noting when, what, and where you’re eating … and why.
TIP 2: Take control of your diet. For healthy stress management, eat whole foods. Eat foods that are unprocessed, and that are high in potassium (bananas, legumes, whole grains), magnesium (dark-green vegetables and chocolate), calcium (dairy products, green vegetables, fortified foods), and Omega-3 fatty acids (fatty fish, nuts, and flax). Avoid too much caffeine. Stay away from highly processed foods. “And,” Moe adds, “don’t skip breakfast.”
Should you quit caffeine altogether? “No,” says Moe, “I think that would increase stress for some people, because they’d feel bad. Moderate your intake of caffeine and maybe limit it to two or three caffeinated beverages a day. Caffeine can influence your sleep at night, and then that makes your stress feel worse. So … be smart about it.”
Moe and Bob Weathers agree that exercise is critical to managing stress. “It’s the best stress reliever we have,” says Moe.
According to Weathers, studies indicate that “the mental health benefits of physical activity are more predictable than the physical health benefits.”
And yet, exercise is itself a stressor. “It upsets homeostasis [normal, internal stability] — big time,” he says. “Exercise physiology boils down to your body adapting to the stress of regular exercise by reducing your stress response over time.”
TIP 3: Enjoy moderate physical activity. This has what Weathers describes as “powerful stress-blunting and stress-coping effects.” In 1993, The American College of Sports Medicine recommended that all Americans should accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate activity a day, and, in October 2008, the federal government recommended 150 minutes a week of physical activity.
Does Weathers follow his own advice? He claims that he hasn’t exercised in 40 years: “I get a lot of physical activity instead.” That physical activity includes biking to and from work nearly every day, and walking almost everywhere else. He calls that “cheap, non-polluting, morally superior transportation.”
Music can be a powerful aid in coping with daily stressors, says Carlene Brown. This is an area of expertise for Brown, who heads Seattle Pacific’s brand new Music Therapy program, the first of its kind in Washington state. The program trains students to use their skills as musicians to encourage physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness.
TIP 4: Practice calm through music. Brown recommends that you turn off talk radio and listen to music instead. Choose a form of music that is meaningful for you, and one that will help you breathe slowly. Concentrate when you listen. For ten minutes, put on a piece of music and follow one instrument’s progress. (Brown says she prefers to listen for the cello or the oboe.) Make sure you have sound sources in convenient, accessible environments so that you can listen when you are feeling stress.
Do more than just listen, says Brown. She also urges people to participate in making music. “Pick up an instrument and learn to play,” she says. “You don’t have to be at an advanced level. Just get together once a week with others and play. Or sing! Sing to your children. Sing in the car. Join a chorus. Sing in church. Close the windows and turn up your favorite song. Sing your heart out.”
Practice, Practice, Practice
Redefining success, diet, exercise, listening to music — these and other things that relieve stress take practice. Jay Skidmore recommends a particular discipline: We should train ourselves to observe how our reactions to "stressors" make us feel. Often, he says, we "over-respond," as if we were facing an emergency when we are not. When we become aware of our own responses, we automatically begin to slow down and reinterpret — or "reframe" — stress-inducing events.
“One of the most persistent truths of human behavior is the importance of repetition," he says. "Our research shows that consistent reframing leads to reductions in emotional distress, to decreases in bodily symptoms of stress like lower blodd pressure, and also to better interpersonal relationships."
According to Skidmore, revising our response to stressors isn't only about our health. It is also about following Christ's call. "We think as Christians that we're supposed to feel love for everyone," he says. "Recall that Jesus lauded the Samaritan not because of his sentimental feelings, which we often mistake for love, but because he reached out to help an injured person in concrete, problem-focused ways — tending to his wounds, taking him to a nearby inn, and paying for his expenses. Do the right thing, practice obedience and grace, and the feelings will follow."
TIP 5: Practice grace. Skidmore sees the common experience of "road rage" as an example of "reframing" our responses to stress.
He says: "Notice your racing heartbeat the next time you're offended by some careless driver. Then try this experiment: Wait enthusiastically for another bad driver, then deliberately think about what unfortunate events might be distracting him or her. Perhaps that driver has a very sick child, or perhaps he or she was recently laid off from work. Thinking this way, simply 'talking to yourself' differently, usually leads to less stress in both mind and body."
In short, Skidmore says, practice baking off, slowing down, and letting the other guy win. "Acting as if you have good feelings toward the person who just cut you off in traffic can actually change the way you feel," he says.
Relax and De-Stress
Remember, these ideas and tips are offered as good news — possible routes to relief. You'll find other ideas below.
If you can't master them all today, no pressure! Nobody wants stress relief to become just another source of stress. Find a partner. Practice together. It's a great way to encourage one another, stregthen one another, stregthen friendships, and tame the beast.
Read more Stress-busting Secrets.
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