Let’s talk about the ‘S’ word: Stress

By Jill Pariera, LCSW, Guest Columnist

Before you can manage stress, it is essential to understand what it is. To put it simply, stress is how your brain and body respond to strain, tension or a demand. Some people experience acute stress, while others experience chronic stress. Acute stress is generally a brief stress response to an event, while chronic stress is prolonged exposure to stress.

Chronic stress has many negative health repercussions, so it is critical that people manage it in ways that are healthy. This stress response involves chemicals that can have long term damaging effects on our bodies, minds and spirits. You may have heard of cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone. A healthy amount of cortisol helps to regulate metabolism, blood sugar levels and your body’s immune response. People with chronic stress have too much cortisol, which means their cortisol is no longer regulating those important functions. Put simply: This is really bad for us. People with high levels of chronic stress are more likely to develop diabetes, serious illness, heart disease and cognitive impairments.

Nobody is immune to experiencing stress and not all people experience stress-related symptoms in the same way. Some examples of common symptoms include: insomnia, increased levels of chronic pain, muscle tension, headache, loss of appetite or over-eating, frequent colds and even issues with cognition and memory. Many people who experience stress engage in unhealthy coping strategies such as alcohol misuse, over-eating, smoking cigarettes or zoning out and watching television for hours on end, which means they are sedentary. These activities negatively impacts our health even more.

Managing stress with built-in tools

The key to stress management is self-care. Self-care is about taking care of yourself by nurturing your body, mind and spirt.

There are simple and effective stress management techniques that you can do anytime and anywhere. One technique is breathing. Take a moment and pay attention to your breathing. Now place a hand on your belly and breathe in so you can feel your hand rise and fall with your breath. This rise and fall is deep breathing. As you breathe in, count to five, hold for just a moment. Now exhale and count to six. If five and six counts seem too fast or too slow for you, then try a count that is more comfortable. Think about this: Deep breathing is a built-in tool that we can access any time and any place, and when we are intentional about using this tool, it can make a positive impact on how stress affects us.

Besides breathing, there are many other activities we can do to help decrease cortisol levels and impact the negative effects of stress. It is valuable to engage in activities that are meaningful to you. Here is a list of stress-reducing activities and ideas: Go for a walk, ride a bike, participate in yoga or stretching activities, practice meditation, get proper nutrition, practice good sleep hygiene or take time to smell the roses (figuratively and literally).

Lastly, reflect on the cause of your stress. What kinds of activities in your life can you take off your plate? Be honest with yourself about this as you reflect on it. For many people, it helps to write a list of things that may be causing their stress. Once you have an idea about what you can do to remove stressors, set a goal. I recommend SMART goals: Specific. Measurable. Achievable. Relevant. Time-bound.

Ultimately, it is up to you to manage your stress in ways that are healthy and meaningful to you.

Jill Pariera graduated with master’s degree in Social Work in 2012 from Portland State University. She is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in Washington and Oregon, and has a long history of working with children and families in the Head Start system, where she held positions of teacher and family advocate. Jill’s post-graduate experience includes working with chronically homeless veterans suffering from a variety of mental illnesses and working with military members and their families. Jill owns Mindful Healing Counseling in Washougal, where she provides mental health counseling. Jill is passionate about growing her private practice, and providing quality mental health services to members of her community with the goal of promoting mental wellness and positive coping strategies. Jill can be reached at www.mindfulhealingcounseling.com.