Mental Illness: Stress Management

As I mentioned earlier, I was invited to do a series on mental health for a Relief Society activity. I chose to do four 30-minute sessions on four different topics: Depression, Anxiety Disorders, Stress Management, and Gospel Discussons on Mental Illness. I thought it all went very well, though I had hoped to have a larger group for the stress management session. It turned out that the other classes all used a one-hour format, and that worked against getting the large crowd.

Oh well… It was still a very good experience.

I’ve already posted on the other three topics, so I wanted to add only my notes on stress and stress management. There was plenty of information I hadn’t fully thought through and understood, and, even from my brief research, I found enough to easily fill the class.

What is Stress

An easy enough question, but I don’t think I ever understood the actual biological definition of stress. Stress has always been for me a level of discomfort, but stress is actually a normal part of life where your body responds to a stressor by entering a heightened state of alarm and increased adrenaline production. It’s actually a normal and natural way of coping with a situation short-term.

Before this lesson, I had always assumed that stress was bad in a more universal way, and while it’s certainly not great, it’s not necessarily unhealthy. Feeling stressed is natural and normal; the danger comes when we move beyond that initial response and then can’t eliminate the stress. The phrase short-term coping mechanism is critical to the idea of a healthy management of stress.

Symptoms of Stress

We all recognize for ourselves some of the things associated with stress: irritability, muscle tension, inability to concentrate, headaches, and elevated blood pressure being some of the most common. For me, I tend to get fairly severe muscle tension and the associated tension headaches. Courtney tends towards the irritable side and sometimes an inability to concentrate.

However, I also learned that long-term exposure to stress can have some fairly dangerous results: ulcers, depression, diabetes, digestive problems, cardiovascular problems, and even increased susceptibility to other mental illnesses. It seems to me that a healthy response to stress would be one of those critical pieces in practicing preventative medicine.

Stages of Stress

I found the GAS model to be particularly enlightening as a definition for stress. It includes the following stages:

  • Alarm–This is the point where the stressor is identified, and the body begins to exhibit stress as a means of coping. This is where we see adrenaline start to flow into the body as part of the natural fight or flight response.
  • Resistance–If the stressor continues to affect us, we eventually move into a resistance stage. This is where stress starts to become a problem for us simply because our bodies start to try to adapt to the consistent presence of the stressor. After time, our body is unable to maintain the heightened state of alarm as well as the adrenaline production. To put it another way, we run out of gas.
  • Exhaustion–By this time, stress has reached unhealthy levels. Our bodies are depleted and exhausted, and we start compensating for the stress in other ways. According to the GAS model, long-term damage to our bodies, particularly the adrenal gland, is possible as well as decreased efficiency in the immune system.

While unfamiliar to me before this weekend, I readily identified situations in my life where I’ve gone through all three stages of stress. I can clearly recall the absolute exhaustion of stage three and the resulting crashes afterwards.

Stress Management

So stress is bad.

Duh, you say, and well you should. We all recognize stress as bad, and it seems that we are constantly told that our society is over-stressed. I had a friend in college who was walking stress. Seriously. He always seemed more susceptible to illness and when he would get sick, he’d get a lot sicker than most. At the time, I was Mr. Cool (more a description of my attitude about life than any actual “coolness” on my part), and I’d work with him on stress management. Some things worked better than others, but the thing I have learned is that stress management, like the symptoms of stress, is  individualized to the person.

Following is a list of the techniques I use or am aware of. It’s not a complete list by any means, and the important thing to remember is that finding what works is far more important that what you actually do.

  • Time Management
  • Lifestyle Change
  • Learn to say “No” (this is often a serious problem for members of the Church)
  • Meditation
  • Deep Breathing
  • Relaxation
  • Massage
  • Exercise
  • Artistic Expression
  • Natural Medicines
  • Music
  • Hobby
  • Spas

For me, meditation and artistic expression are two of my favorites as well as two of the most productive. When I’m stressed, I write and I write a lot.

Remember that no one ever talks about stress prevention; stress is as natural and normal in your life as breathing. The point here is that you need to effectively manage your stress. Properly managed stress doesn’t inhibit your life or your ability to function.

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4 Responses to Mental Illness: Stress Management

  1. Sarah L. says:

    Thanks, Dave! I’ve had some pretty long-term stress and trying to learn to manage it the best I can. Because I already have an intestinal disease, that’s the area stress seems to hit first and can make my life quite miserable when the stress is prolonged. Hate it. I’ve been saying no a lot more, which is helpful. People try to give me guilt-trips for not doing one thing or another, but they’ll just have to get over it. I need sleep. I don’t get enough and if someone is upset I don’t want to go to choir practice at 9am on a Sunday or I don’t want to do a girl’s night that lasts until late, that’s too bad. I have a baby and my priorities will change again later to include those things.

  2. Sarah Bailey says:

    I read what you wrote and I am still all for stress prevention, lol! I guess it’s more like stress reduction. Rather than learning to cope with more stress, I’d rather just eliminate unnecessary stresses (i.e. intense job, home size, social interaction).

    Just like Sarah L., Ammon’s intestinal disease limits the stressors we allow in our lives. We’re pretty good at saying no. We’re exercising and Ammon practices tai chi, yoga, meditation, and trigger point therapy; he also takes mega vitamins (zinc, fish oil, B-complex, etc).

    As for the hobby – it’s usually computer related which doesn’t help because that’s usually what causes the stress.

  3. daveloveless says:

    Sarahs… I truly know way too many Sarahs to keep track some times. 🙂

    It’s true. Stress avoidance is a wonderful practice. I guess what I was trying to say is that stress happens, and it’s important to know how to handle it when it does come.

  4. nosurfgirl says:

    yes… it’s true, especially because life surprises you sometimes. there are some stresses that you cannot prevent or expect.

    But let me add my vote to the “as little stress as possible” list. I see all these moms dashing around in their minivans crammed with kids and juiceboxes and graham cracker crumbs and I’m sooooo glad I don’t feel pressured to be like the Joneses. I’ll be the strange, democrat, hippy, vegetarian homeschooling mom that only has her kids in church programs + maybe 2 extracurricular activities, maximum, at any point in their lives and I’ll be fine with that 🙂

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