Stress management is probably the subject I feel like the biggest hypocrite about anytime I lecture on it. As the Wellness Coordinator this probably seems like an oxymoron, but many of you know me so I know I can’t fool you either. I get stressed. My office is a mess. Occasionally I feel overwhelmed, or (regrettably) I’m late to meetings. And I don’t always do the yoga, mindfulness or downshifting that I encourage everyone else to do. It really doesn’t matter if you have your dream job, a comfortable living space and paycheck, a loving family and a fulfilling lifestyle: I haven’t met one person yet who has reached “expert-level” on the game of SIMS: Stress Management. Particularly in the last few years – or let’s just take the last couple weeks even – so many things have happened in the political, social and environmental spheres in California that stress is something no one is immune to.
Although some stress is good, like that motivating stress that helps to boost performance (at work, school or sports) we also know that negative and chronic stress can become debilitating, and it seems like American’s stress levels have been rising. (Kind of like that aggravating roommate that you had to take in in order to afford an apartment in LA.) And perhaps the key to combatting it isn’t to try to eliminate stress – a futile battle – but to try to find a way to live with it and make it work for us. According to psychologist Kelly McGonigal, stress can become healthier (see the link to her TED talk at the end) – and here are a few tips to help us befriend it.
Change the story. Telling ourselves we are stressed out can actually add to it. Since we’ve been inundated with information on how stress is bad for our health, we can start repeating that story to ourselves whenever we feel overwhelmed. And although it’s good to be honest and self-aware (so we can eliminate unnecessary stress – see below), a better approach might be to recognize the stress as a teammate rather than an opponent. When you feel your breath start to quicken, your pulse speeding up, remind yourself that this is your body getting you ready to go – kind of like an internal “warm-up” before you run a race. Retraining your response could actually have a physically beneficial effect too, by helping calm muscle tension, relax blood vessels and spark your brain energy to help you concentrate rather than distracting you.
Trim the excess. Identify those stressors that you can reduce or eliminate, like a cluttered desk or overscheduled calendar. Setting aside a day to clean your space and get rid of things and information you don’t need anymore can be cathartic and helps you prepare for the stressors that really do need your attention. And this includes your desktop! Organizing documents in specific files on your computer or in your email can help reduce the anxiety of the hunt-for-that-thing-from-last-semester when you need it right away. Personally, I like to schedule myself a day after finals are over to come into the office and do nothing but clean and sort and un-bury myself. I’m thinking Thursday 12/13... anyone else want to join?
Be kind. To yourself, and to others. Something amazing happens when disaster strikes: people come together, connect and support total strangers, give and volunteer. When you get a hug, a friendly smile, a well-timed word or even time sitting in silence next to a friend, this helps both your brain and body become resilient to the stressors in your life. The brain releases oxytocin, which bolsters your emotional health and also boosts cardiovascular and metabolic health. And it doesn’t matter if you are the giver or the recipient – you both reap the benefits of connecting. You can practice kindness to yourself too: make time for those things that you know reduce your feelings of stress, connect you with people who love you and promote healing, rest and resilience in your body.
I hope you find this as helpful as I found the act of writing it. The practice of changing our self-talk, of reducing unnecessary stress and finding new ways to care for ourselves and others is in and of itself a healthy act, not just a means to an end. Perhaps we are stressed from realities outside our control: that people aren’t kind, society is stacked against those less fortunate, and nature is unpredictable and merciless. Yet we probably have more power than we think. Your thoughts and actions can change at least one life for the better (yours) and will probably affect many, many more.
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