By Zainub Jada
PRODUCTIVE LIFE COACHING: STRESS
Stress is our psychological and physiological reaction to an event or condition considered a threat or challenge. There is a feeling of emotional pressure and strain when we feel unable to cope or are overwhelmed by something.
A feeling of emotional or physical tension can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.
In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline—your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand.
An average human reaction happens to everyone, but the human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. When you experience changes or challenges (stressors), your body produces physical and mental responses, and that’s stress.
Stress responses help your body adjust to new situations. Stress can be positive, keeping us alert, motivated and ready to avoid danger. For example, if you have an important test coming up, a stress response might help your body work harder and stay awake longer. But stress becomes a problem when stressors continue without relief or periods of relaxation.
WHAT CAUSES STRESS?
- Financial obligations
- Death of a loved one
- Job loss
- Traumatic events
- Problems at work
- Emotional well-being struggles
- Relationship issues
STRESS AND YOUR BODY
The body’s autonomic nervous system controls your heart rate, breathing, vision changes and more. Its built-in stress response, the “fight-or-flight response,” helps the body face stressful situations.
When a person has long-term (chronic) stress, continued activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on the body. Physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms develop.
When you have chronic stress, your body stays alert, even though there is no danger. Over time, this puts you at risk for health problems.
CONSEQUENCES OF STRESS
- Aches and pains
- Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing
- Exhaustion or trouble sleeping
- Headaches, dizziness or shaking
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching
- Stomach or digestive problems
- Intimacy issues
- Weak immune system
- Skin problems, such as acne or eczema
- Menstrual problems
EMOTIONAL AND MENTAL
- Anxiety or irritability
- Panic attacks
- Resorting to intoxicants too much or too often
- Overeating or developing an eating disorder/comfort eating
- Participating compulsively in shopping or internet browsing
- Substance abuse
TYPES OF STRESS
There are 3 types of stress:
This is short-term stress that goes away quickly. It results from your body’s reaction to a new or challenging situation. It helps you manage dangerous situations. Furthermore, it’s that feeling you get from an approaching deadline or when you narrowly avoid being hit by a car when you slam on the brakes.
We can even experience it as a result of something we enjoy, like an exhilarating ride on a roller coaster or ski down a steep slope, or by achieving an outstanding personal achievement.
All people have acute stress at one time or another.
Acute stress is classified as short-term. Usually, emotions and the body return to their normal state relatively soon.
Episodic acute stress
Episodic acute stress is when acute stresses happen frequently. This can be because of repeatedly tight work deadlines, and it can also be because of the frequent high-stress situations experienced by some professionals, such as healthcare workers.
We don’t get time to return to a relaxed and calm state with this type of stress. And the effects of the acute high-frequency stresses accumulate.
It often leaves us feeling like we are moving from one crisis to another.
Chronic stress results from stressors that continue for an extended period.
This type of stress feels never-ending. We frequently have difficulty seeing any way to improve or change the situation that is the cause of our chronic stress.
This is stress that lasts for a more extended period. You may have chronic stress if you have money problems, an unhappy marriage, never-ending disagreements with your spouse or trouble at work. Any stress that goes on for weeks or months is chronic stress. You can become so used to chronic stress that you don’t realise it is an issue. If you don’t find ways to manage stress, it may lead to health problems.
DIFFERENTIATING BETWEEN THE 3 TYPES OF STRESS Acute stress
Pupil dilation: As part of the fight-or-flight reaction, our pupils dilate to allow more light to enter the eyes and see our surroundings more clearly.
Heart rate increases: Another part of the fight-or-flight reaction can be disconcerting if it feels like heart palpitations.
Perspiration. When we are stressed, our body temperature rises, which causes us to sweat more.
Fast and heavy breathing: This symptom is also part of the fight-or-flight reaction. This aims to introduce more oxygen into the body’s systems, so it can more effectively react to stress.
Anxiety: This is the feeling of worry and fear that results from exposure to a stressor.
Emotional ups and downs: In other words, irritability and swings in the emotions that we experience.
Poor sleep: Our sleep is often disrupted by our anxiety and the cocktail of hormones produced by the fight-or-flight reaction.
Poor concentration: This symptom results from stress hormones and chemicals released into the body by the fight-or-flight response.
Episodic acute stress
Muscle tension: This is meant to help our bodyguard against injury and pain. When exposed to episodic acute stressors, our muscles don’t get the opportunity to relax.
Poor concentration: More pronounced than with acute stress, you may also notice increased difficulty with memory and recall.
Feeling overwhelmed: This is the feeling of not being able to cope or visualise effective solutions to the causes of your stress.
Uncontrolled anger and irritability: We find ourselves lashing out more frequently and with less provocation. We may also see ourselves reacting strongly to things we would usually tolerate.
Migraines: These are frequently the result of muscle tension. The frequency and severity of migraines are likely to increase under episodic acute stress.
Hypertension: Most people will be unaware of having high blood pressure. The only reliable way to detect hypertension is to have your blood pressure measured by a health professional.
Weight gain: This is typically the result of “stress eating,” but it can also result from long-term hormonal imbalances caused by chronic stress.
Heightened adrenaline and cortisol levels: Long-term effects of elevated adrenaline and cortisol levels can affect memory and digestion. They can also suppress the immune system.
Insomnia: Difficulty in falling and staying asleep, regularly resulting in not feeling rested from whatever sleep you did get.
Panic attacks: Sudden onset of feelings of fear and anxiety accompanied by the symptoms of acute stress.
Feelings of helplessness: Feeling that you cannot do anything to help yourself or improve your situation.
Chronic headaches: Frequently occurring tension headaches, generally defined as occurring more than 15 days in a month.
Emotional fatigue: This manifests as feeling tired most of the time, irrespective of the type of rest you’re getting or sleep.
While it may seem like there’s nothing you can do about stress at work and home, there are steps you can take to relieve the pressure and regain control.
The importance of managing stress
If you’re living with high levels of stress, you’re putting your entire well-being at risk. Stress wreaks havoc on your emotional equilibrium, as well as your physical health. It narrows your ability to think clearly, function effectively, and enjoy life. It may seem like there’s nothing you can do about stress. The bills won’t stop coming, there will never be more hours in the day, and your work and family responsibilities will always be demanding. But you have a lot more control than you might think.
Effective stress management helps you break the hold stress has on your life so that you can be happier, healthier, and more productive. The ultimate goal is a balanced life, with time for work, relationships, relaxation, and fun and the resilience to hold up under pressure and meet challenges head-on. But stress management is not one-size-fits-all, and that’s why it’s essential to experiment and find out what works best for you.
TIP 1: IDENTIFY THE SOURCES OF STRESS IN YOUR LIFE
Stress management starts with identifying the sources of stress in your life. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. While it’s easy to identify significant stressors such as changing jobs, moving, or going through a divorce, pinpointing the sources of chronic stress can be more complicated. It’s all too easy to overlook how your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours contribute to your everyday stress levels.
Sure, you may know that you’re constantly worried about work deadlines, but maybe it’s your procrastination, rather than the actual job demands, that is causing the stress.
To identify your authentic sources of stress, look closely at your habits, attitude, and excuses:
- Do you explain away stress as temporary (I have a million things going on right now) even though you can’t remember the last time you took a breather?
- Do you define stress as an integral part of your work or home life (Things are always crazy around here) or as a part of your personality (I have a lot of nervous energy, that’s all)?
- Do you blame your stress on other people or outside events or view it as entirely normal and unexceptional?
- Until you accept responsibility for your role in creating or maintaining it, your stress level will remain outside your control.
Start a stress journal.
A stress journal can help you identify the regular stressors in your life and how you deal with them. Each time you feel stressed, keep track of it in your journal or use a stress tracker on your phone. Keeping a daily log will enable you to see patterns and common themes. Write down:
- What caused your stress (guess if you’re unsure).
- How you felt, both physically and emotionally.
- How you acted in response.
- What you did to make yourself feel better.
TIP 2: PRACTICE THE 4 A’S OF STRESS MANAGEMENT
While stress is an automatic response from your nervous system, some stressors arise at predictable times: your commute to work, a meeting with your boss, or family gatherings, for example. When handling such predictable stressors, you can change the situation or your reaction. When deciding which option to choose in any given scenario, it’s helpful to think of the four A’s: avoid, alter, adapt, or accept.
The four A’s – Avoid, Alter, Adapt & Accept
- Avoid unnecessary stress
It’s not healthy to avoid a stressful situation that needs to be addressed, but you may be surprised by the number of stressors you can eliminate in your life.
- Learn how to say “no.” Know your limits and stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, taking on more than you can handle is a surefire recipe for stress. Distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts” and, when possible, say “no” to taking on too much.
- Avoid people who stress you out. If someone consistently causes stress in your life, limit the amount of time you spend with that person or end the relationship.
- Take control of your environment. If the evening news makes you anxious, turn off the device. If traffic makes you tense, take a longer but less-travelled route. If going to the market is an unpleasant chore, do your grocery shopping online.
- Pare down your to-do list. Analyse your schedule, responsibilities, and daily tasks. If you’ve got too much on your plate, drop tasks that aren’t truly necessary to the bottom of the list or eliminate them.
- Alter the situation
If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Often, this involves changing the way you communicate and operate in your daily life.
- Express your feelings instead of bottling them up. If something or someone is bothering you, be more assertive and communicate your concerns openly and respectfully. If you’ve got an exam to study for and your chatty roommate just got home, say up front that you only have five minutes to talk. If you don’t voice your feelings, resentment will build, and the stress will increase.
- Be willing to compromise. When you ask someone to change their behaviour, be willing to do the same. If you both are willing to bend at least a little, you’ll have a good chance of finding a happy middle ground.
- Create a balanced schedule. All work and no play is a recipe for burnout. Try to find a balance between work and family life, social activities and solitary pursuits, daily responsibilities and downtime.
- Adapt to the stressor
If you can’t change the stressor, change yourself. You can adapt to stressful situations and regain your sense of control by changing your expectations and attitude.
- Reframe problems. Try to view stressful situations from a more positive perspective. Rather than fuming about a traffic jam, look at it as an opportunity to pause and regroup, listen to your favourite radio station, or enjoy some alone time.
- Look at the big picture. Take perspective of the stressful situation. Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run. Will it matter in a month? A year? Is it worth getting upset about it? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy elsewhere.
- Adjust your standards. Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress, and stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection. Set reasonable standards for yourself and others, and learn to be okay with “good enough.”
- Practice gratitude. When stress is getting you down, take a moment to reflect on all the things you appreciate in your life, including your positive qualities and gifts. This simple strategy can help you keep things in perspective.
- Accept the things you can’t change
Some sources of stress are unavoidable, and you can’t prevent or change stressors such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or a national recession. In such cases, the best way to cope with stress is to accept things as they are. Acceptance may be difficult, but it’s easier than railing against a situation you can’t change in the long run.
-Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control, particularly other people’s behaviour. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control, such as how you choose to react to problems.
- Look for the upside. When facing major challenges, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes.
- Learn to forgive. Accept that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes. Let go of anger and resentments. Free yourself from negative energy by forgiving and moving on.
- Share your feelings. Expressing what you’re going through can be very freeing/relieving, even if there’s nothing you can do to alter the stressful situation. Talk to a trusted friend or make an appointment with a therapist.
TIP 3: GET MOVING
When you’re stressed, the last thing you probably feel like doing is getting up and exercising. But physical activity is a huge stress reliever, and you don’t have to be an athlete or spend hours in a gym to experience the benefits. Exercise releases endorphins that make you feel good, and it can also serve as a valuable distraction from your daily worries.
While you’ll get the most benefit from regularly exercising for 30 minutes or more, it’s okay to build up your fitness level gradually. Even very small activities can add up over a day. The first step is to get yourself up and moving. Here are some easy ways to incorporate exercise into your daily schedule:
- Listen to audio quranic recitation or zikr/meditation clips
- Use the stairs at home or work rather than an elevator.
- Park your car in the farthest spot in the lot and walk the rest of the way.
- Pair up with an exercise partner and encourage each other as you work out.
- Play an activity-based game with your kids. (Ping-Pong, cricket etc.)
While just about any physical activity can help burn away tension and stress, rhythmic movements are especially effective. Good choices include walking, running, swimming, cycling, kickboxing and aerobics. But whatever you choose, make sure it’s something you enjoy so you’re more likely to stick with it.
While you’re exercising, make a conscious effort to pay attention to your body and the physical (and sometimes emotional) sensations you experience as you’re moving. Focus on coordinating breathing with movements or notice how the air or sunlight feels on your skin. Adding this mindfulness element will help you break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that often accompanies overwhelming stress.
There is nothing more calming than spending quality time with another human being who makes you feel safe and understood. Face-to-face interaction triggers a cascade of hormones that counteracts the body’s defensive “fight-or-flight” response. It’s natural to stress reliever (as a bonus, it also helps stave off depression and anxiety). So make it a point to connect regularly—and in-person—with family and friends.
Keep in mind that the people you talk to don’t have to fix your stress. They simply need to be good listeners. And try not to let worries about looking weak or being a burden keeps you from opening up. The people who care about you will be flattered by your trust, and it will only strengthen your bond.
Of course, it’s not always realistic to have a pal close by to lean on when you feel overwhelmed by stress, but by building and maintaining a network of close friends, you can improve your resiliency to life’s stressors.
TIP 4 FOR BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS
- Reach out to a colleague at work.
- Help someone else by volunteering.
- Have lunch or coffee with a friend.
- Ask a loved one to check in with you regularly.
- Accompany a friend to taalim a talk or programme.
- Call or email an old friend.
- Go for a walk with a workout buddy.
- Schedule a weekly dinner date/catch uptime
- Meet new people by taking a class or joining a different social circle
TIP 5: MAKE TIME FOR RELAXATION
Beyond a take-charge approach and a positive attitude, you can reduce stress in your life by carving out “me” time. Don’t get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of life that you forget to take care of your own needs. Nurturing yourself is a necessity, not a luxury. If you regularly make time for “me time” and relaxation, you’ll be in a better place to handle life’s stressors.
Set aside leisure time. Include relaxation in your daily schedule. Don’t allow other obligations to encroach. This is your time to take a break from all responsibilities and recharge your batteries.
Do something you enjoy every day. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, for example, quality time with your kids.
Keep your sense of humour. This includes the ability to laugh at yourself, and the act of laughing helps your body fight stress in several ways.
Take up a relaxation practice. Relaxation techniques such as zikr/meditation and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness opposite the fight or flight or mobilisation stress response. As you learn and practice these techniques, your stress levels will decrease, and your mind and body will become calm and centred.
TIP 6: MANAGE YOUR TIME BETTER
Poor time management can cause a lot of stress, and it’s hard to stay calm and focused when you’re stretched too thin and running behind. Plus, you’ll be tempted to avoid or cut back on all the healthy things you should be doing to keep stress in check, like socialising and getting enough sleep.
Don’t over-commit yourself. Avoid scheduling things back-to-back or trying to fit too much into one day. All too often, we underestimate how long something will take.
Prioritise tasks. Make a list of tasks you have to do, and tackle them in order of importance. Do the high-priority items first. If you have something particularly unpleasant or stressful, get it over with early, and the rest of your day will be more pleasant as a result.
Break projects into small steps. If a large project seems overwhelming, make a step-by-step plan. Focus on one manageable step at a time, rather than taking on everything at once.
Delegate responsibility. You don’t have to do it all yourself, whether at home, school or on the job. If other people can take care of the task, why not let them? Let go of the desire to control or oversee every little step. You’ll be letting go of unnecessary stress in the process.
TIP 7: MAINTAIN BALANCE WITH A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE
In addition to regular exercise, other healthy lifestyle choices can increase your resistance to stress.
Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress, so be mindful of what you eat. Start your day right with breakfast, and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout the day.
Reduce caffeine and sugar. The temporary “highs” caffeine and sugar provide often end with a crash in mood and energy. By reducing the amount of coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and sugar snacks in your diet, you’ll feel more relaxed, and you’ll sleep better.
Avoid intoxicants, cigarettes, and drugs. Self-medicating may provide an easy escape from stress, but the relief is only temporary. Don’t avoid or mask the issue at hand; deal with problems head-on and with a clear mind.
Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep fuels your mind, as well as your body. Feeling tired will increase your stress because it may cause you to think irrationally.
TIP 8: LEARN TO RELIEVE STRESS IN THE MOMENT
When you’re frazzled by your morning commute, stuck in a stressful meeting at work, or fried from another argument with your spouse, you need a way to manage your stress levels right now. That’s where quick stress relief comes in.
The fastest way to reduce stress is by taking a deep breath and using your senses—what you see, hear, taste, and touch through a gentle movement. By viewing a favourite image of nature, smelling a specific scent, listening to a favourite quranic reciter, tasting a piece of gum, or hugging a pet, for example, you can quickly relax and focus yourself.
Of course, not everyone responds to each sensory experience differently. The key to quick stress relief is to experiment and discover the unique sensory experiences that work best for you.
IN A NUTSHELL
Stress can be a short-term or long-term problem, depending on what changes in your life. Regularly using stress management techniques can help you avoid most physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms of stress.
Stress is a recurring condition within our lives. But it doesn’t need to become a long-term problem. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
By looking for ways to reduce our stress by developing good habits and stress management techniques, we can reduce the chances of suffering from the long-term health impacts of tension.
If you feel that you can’t manage your stress or stress-related symptoms, it’s crucial to obtain professional help.