We each have specific ways of coping with overwhelming information, stressful situations, or bad news. There are two approaches to handling these stressors in life: In a productive, healthy manner or in a potentially damaging way. Not dealing effectively with stress can impact your overall health, so it is important to learn healthy coping skills when life throws you curveballs. This is particularly important in the lives of caregivers.
The Effects of Prolonged Stress
Prolonged exposure to stress is physically and mentally exhausting. Although your body uses the stress response—increased heart rate, reflexes and mental clarity—to protect you, it can have the opposite effect when you are exposed to ongoing stressors. When your body is exposed to stress long-term it can manifest as depression and physical illnesses such as high blood pressure or stroke.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
If you turn to alcohol, drugs or smoking in times of stress, you are tangibly harming your health. Other less positive approaches to dealing with stress are escapes like “zoning out” with hours of TV or computer games, excessive sleeping, overeating, shopping sprees, or “bottling up” feelings. These approaches do nothing to alleviate the stress itself, but instead use gratification techniques or denial to mask the core issues causing the stress.
Better Ways to Cope
Most of us have heard the “eat better, sleep more, and exercise” spiel to combat stress. While these lifestyle changes are vital to reducing stress and maintaining your physical health, they can be overwhelming to contemplate when you are already under stress. Concentrating first on techniques you can use immediately to alleviate stress in a healthy way will provide a change of attitude that can allow you to introduce long-term, healthier, lifestyle choices.
“Train” Yourself to Relax
Although many people automatically think vacation when they hear the word relax, it is an activity that should be incorporated into your daily life, not relegated to once or twice annually. It doesn't have to take up a lot of time or be expensive. And what you find relaxing may not be the same for everyone else. It may be meditation or yoga, a massage or bath, gardening, taking a walk in nature, cooking or baking, playing with a pet, reading a relaxing book or listening to soothing music. The key to the activity is that it should release your tension and provide you with a sense of peace and joy. Set some time aside for yourself every day, no matter how brief.
Once you become accustomed to relaxing your body on cue, try initiating that response the very next time you get stressed out. Remember what you felt like immediately following that activity and go there mentally. You can train your body's initial reaction to stress, but it takes some practice.
Attitude is Everything
“So What?” These two little words can keep your challenges in perspective. If no one's life is at risk, consider reframing the current scenario that is causing so much stress in your life. Will it matter five years from now? Bills, work, and even friends can cause harmful stress in our life—but only if we let them. Chronically suffering stress over things that we have no ability to change depletes our mental and physical energy reserves.
Share the Load
Whether it be talking your challenges out with a loved one, friend or even a therapist, or asking for help to handle a load that is too much for you to bear by yourself, sharing a burden is one of the fastest, most effective ways of relieving stress. It may not “solve” the issue causing the stress, but having help and knowing you are not alone can ease your burden significantly.
Making Healthy Choices
It may sound narcissistic, but pay attention to yourself and your mental health first. Caregiving is a heavy load in itself, so if you find yourself in a situation that adds to that burden, whether in your other relationships, your workload or any other obligations where you can say “no” to additional responsibilities, make sure you look out for your own welfare. You can learn to reduce the controllable stressors in your life—starting right now.
—By Caren Parnes, for The Senior’s Choice