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Stress is not a Four Letter Word

A ScooterLink Publication
A column for today's seniors by Cyn LoPinto, M.A., Gerontologist

Few of us are able to get through a day in our personal or professional lives without some form of stress creeping in. This is especially true in today's hectic and fast-paced lifestyle.

What exactly is stress and is it really necessary to our survival? According to Webster's Dictionary, stress is defined as "a specific response to the body by a stimulus." According to world-renowned biologist and stress expert Dr. Hans Selye, "Stress is the spice of life." The only way to be totally without stress is to be dead. Not much of an option, is it?

Basically there are two forms of stress, positive and negative. Positive stress can actually enable you to concentrate, focus and perform at your peak. A lot of us do our "best work" when under this type of pressure. An example here would be giving a presentation at work or hosting a large dinner party for friends and family. There is often a build-up to a specific event followed by a period of relaxation (with feelings of accomplishment after the task is completed). This calmed-down aspect is essential for building up the reserve needed to face the next challenge. Short-term duration is the key element in defining stress as being positive.

Negative stress is quite different. Stress is considered negative when you stay in this "geared-up" mode for long periods of time. You either do not, or can not, relax after getting through a challenge. The body never moves into a "relaxation phase" and therefore, is unable to re-charge itself. This constant state of anxiety can often result in both physical and emotional health problems. While it may be easy to embrace the positive stress in our lives, how can we handle the negative stress that will inevitably enter our daily routine? Management is the answer. There are many things in our world that we have no control over. We do, however, have enormous control over how we react and deal with our problems.

The first key to managing stress is to identify the specific things that push our buttons and stress us out. These "stressors" vary greatly among individuals. For example, while your spouse may repeatedly look over his shoulder fidgeting until the waiter finally serves his food, you don't even notice the lapse in time. Learning what your stressors are, is the first ingredient in the recipe for emotional and physical well being.

After you have identified what makes you tense, you need to see how stress affects your body. Do the muscles in your shoulders and neck tighten up? Do your palms get sweaty? How about headaches and stomach pains? All of us have areas of the body that carry the burden of our anxieties. If we become aware of these symptoms, we can quickly identify when we are under stress.

Once we know what causes our stress and how it affects us physically, we then need to strategize on how to manage it. Coping mechanisms need to be put into place, so that when a situation arises, we can handle it. One example of a coping mechanism can be as easy as learning some simple relaxation exercises. These could include deep breathing techniques, progressive muscular relaxation intervals, biofeedback, visualization and even simple stretching exercises. There are shelves and shelves of books devoted to this subject, as well as information online to help people calm down.

Another strategy is avoidance. If you are the type of person who "gets crazy" rushing in traffic, try taking public transportation or leave earlier to avoid such confrontation. Small changes can make a big difference here.

Taking a time-out or grabbing a little distance from a situation is another way of coping. If the grandkids are screaming, running around and trying your patience, walk away and take a break. Sometimes a little distance is all that is needed to adjust your attitude. Time away allows you to re-group and come up with a fresh approach.

During a major lifestyle change, putting the rest of your life in order is essential. This will help to make the unwanted stress bearable. If you are having trouble adjusting to retirement, for example, make sure you do not change the other things in your life that have meaning. Just because one variable in your daily life has changed, doesn't mean you should alter other variables. Continue to do the things that bring you pleasure and try new things to fill any void.

Asking for help is another great strategy for handling stress. Feelings of helplessness can result in both physical and emotional decline. Assistance from friends, family and often professionals is a logical and often necessary coping mechanism. Caregivers can surely attest to that!

Positive self-talk is a must in handling stress too. Most of us carry on a silent conversation with ourselves throughout the day. These secret dialogues greatly affect the way we think and behave. If we could learn how to be as kind to ourselves as we are to the people we care about, our mental and physical health would drastically improve. These conversations often reflect childhood issues and our current level of self-esteem.

A healthy lifestyle is key when discussing stress management. Those who are physically fit are generally more able to handle their stress with ease. Whatever your physical situation is, there are ways to get some exercise into your life. There are exercise programs especially adapted to people who are confined to a wheelchair, as well as programs for various other health issues. Check with your doctor to find a regiment that will work for you. Eating a balanced diet is another essential factor in fueling the body for tense situations. Also remember to get plenty of rest and relaxation so you are ready for what may lie ahead.

Lastly, a positive outlook is important in any stress management program. While we all get depressed and go through tough times, those who continue to see the "light at the end of the tunnel," fare a lot better. These individuals have the qualities needed to adapt to upcoming challenges and both their minds and bodies enjoy the benefits of such an outlook.

Stress is an inescapable part of life. We can either choose to look upon these daily situations with dread or to deal with them. It is up to us to take control of our own challenges and to make changes. With piece of mind being the prize at the end of the day, it is well worth it!


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