Introducing the 3R Strategy for Reducing Stress
We all know that stress is bad for our health. But did you know that even too much of a good thing can cause stress?
It is not just about the tragic events in life. Even happy events, like getting married, having a child, or getting a promotion at work can cause the body to go into overdrive.
Has this ever happened to you? Life handed you a great opportunity for growth and change, and you immediately went into a nosedive of self-doubt, fear and anxiety?
Recently, I received a coveted promotion at work. I got the offer on a Thursday, and had a long week-end to decide whether or not to accept.
While all my friends were busy congratulating me, I found myself feeling out of focus and low on energy. My stomach was fussy, I was having trouble sleeping, and I couldn’t motivate myself to do much of anything. What in the world was going on?
Those are the classic symptoms of garden variety stress, and they are responsible for everything from obesity and heart disease to acne and other skin problems.
Before we talk about how to turn this situation around, let’s take a few minutes to understand how stress works in our minds and our bodies.
Understanding the Natural Stress Response
Our bodies are hard-wired to react to protect us from perceived threats. In the early days, stress was caused mostly by physical threats like an attacking bear or impending thunderstorm. But in today’s world, stress is more often caused by modern demands like multi-tasking, long commutes and the economic downturn.
No matter the cause, our bodies react to stress with a natural alarm called the “fight-or-flight” reaction. Our brains trigger our adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that put us on the alert so we can protect ourselves from danger.
If we need to run long distances, jump the highest mountain, or wrestle a gorilla, this surge in hormones comes in handy.
But if we react to every minor life aggravation with the fight or flight response, it can lead to serious health problems.
The Effects of Stress on the Body
The adrenaline caused by stress increases your heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increase sugars in the bloodstream and enhances the brain’s use of glucose. It also alters immune responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes.
When you experience prolonged periods of stress, the fight or flight reaction stays turned on. Overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including heart disease, sleep problems, digestive problems, depression and obesity.
Coping with Stress
We’ve all heard the typical advice for managing stress, and these strategies truly do help.
- Eating a healthy diet
- Engaging in regular exercise
- Getting plenty of sleep
- Deep breathing and meditation
But today we are talking about not just coping with stress, but transforming it into a positive life experience.
That will take more than a healthy body. We are going to have to engage our hearts and minds.
This post introduces you to my new 3R Strategy for Reducing Stress, a simple but effective program that will help you turn unexpected challenges into potential opportunities.
The primary feeling behind stress is fear. And what we fear most is the unknown.
When I was stressed out about accepting the promotion, I found myself thinking about all the good things I would be giving up … the comfort of knowing I was good at something, the freedom of not answering to others, the satisfaction of being appreciated by my students and colleagues.
But lingering behind those good things was a hairy monster … fear of change, fear of not being good enough, fear of letting myself and others down in the new position.
It was a challenge to reframe those fears into an opportunity. I had to get out of my comfort zone, face down my own insecurities and self-doubt, and see the potential for growth hidden behind the challenge.
You might be thinking, that is easy to do when the event causing the fear is really an opportunity. But what about when the event is truly devastating, like losing a job in the downturned economy?
I am not asking you to be a Pollyana here. The fear of being unemployed and unable to pay your bills is real and legitimate. But stressing out about it is not going to help.
The point of reframing is to get another perspective, one that can lead to new approaches that might help solve the problem.
For example, what if extended unemployment gave you the opportunity to finish that degree you’ve always wanted? What if you use this time to turn your beloved hobby into a thriving business?
Reframing in this way may not eliminate the stress, but it will give you breathing space to figure out how to respond to the stressful event.
When we are in a stressful situation, it is easy to lose focus on what is important. All of a sudden, our job or relationship or health or whatever area of life is causing the stress becomes all-consuming.
Getting caught up in a doom and gloom mentality can lead to high levels of anxiety and bad decision making. It is easy to overreact…or take the opposite approach and just bury your head in the sand.
The best antidote to this kind of hyperbolic thinking is to reconnect with your values. What was most important to you before the stressful life event took place?
For me, it was liberating to take a step back and put the job in its proper perspective. Before this turning point in my career, I was careful to cultivate good friends, a loving family, and an active online social media presence.
Once I realized that those connections would still be there for me, no matter what career moves I might make, I was able to see that my professional life was only responsible for a small portion of what I valued in life. Even if I made the “wrong” decision, I would still have a full and meaningful life.
It all boils down to focusing on what you do have, instead of what you might have lost. People who cultivate an attitude of gratitude live immeasurably happier lives…and improve their health in the process.
When you are feeling tapped out, it is counter-productive to keep trying to push your heavy burden up a hill. You need to take some time to “refill your well” with people, places and activities that nurture your mind, body and soul.
Over my week-end of decision-making, I had intended to write a few blog posts, take an online web class, and work on an upcoming teleseminar. These are all activities I generally enjoy, but they draw down my mental and emotional reserves.
Instead, I found myself indulging in some “retail therapy,” taking long walks along the Bay with my dogs, and cooking nurturing meals for my family and friends. I didn’t “accomplish” anything, but by the time Monday morning rolled around, I jumped out of bed eager to face the challenges of the day.
People under stress are more likely to turn to unhealthy activities like smoking, drinking, gambling or emotional eating. These may provide temporary relief from symptoms of anxiety, but they are a poor substitute for more soul-fulfilling activities.
Recharging your batteries does not have to be expensive or time consuming. A simple walk, a home cooked meal, a back rub or a hot bath are all low-cost alternatives that will leave you feeling healthier rather than more depleted.
The secret to the REFRAME, RECONNECT, RECHARGE strategy is to take your mind off your troubles and create a more balanced vision of what is possible in your life. It only takes a few minutes to create a whole new reality that acknowledges…but does not glorify…the challenging circumstances that are causing your stress.
These are three simple things that you can implement TODAY. But they only work if you do them and do them right.
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