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Stress Triggers: How to Identify Yours

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Each of us has situations that can make our heart race, our blood boil -- deadlines, interviews and teenagers, to name a few. Knowing what causes you stress is vital and powerful information and the beginning steps toward living a healthier, stress-reduced life.

Stress is the body's reaction to a mentally or emotionally disruptive or upsetting condition; to adverse external influences capable of affecting our physical health. Many of us are so accustomed to stress that we are blind to the effects it has on our bodies. In an article entitled "Stress and Health," published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Peggy A. Thoits, a professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, examined four decades of sociological stress research and offered five major findings. Of note was the first finding, which showed the damaging impact on our physical and mental health from stressors such as traumas, negative events and chronic strains.

Traumas represent extreme threats to a person's physical or psychological well-being, and as Thoits writes, they may include "combat, natural disasters, sexual or physical assault or abuse, witnessing violence done to others, and parental death during childhood." Recovering from a traumatic event takes time and can be frightening, painful and potentially re-traumatizing. Thus, it is best to seek professional help from a trauma expert.

Negative events that can trigger stress include divorce, job loss and the death of a loved one. Chronic strains or ongoing difficulties center around "financial concerns... caring for a disabled child or frail parent, and troubled relationships with coworkers" (Thoits).

By recognizing your physical reaction to negative events or chronic strains, you can then take steps to metabolize the harmful buildup of stress hormones in your body. Here are a few tips to help you manage your stress and build the resilience skills and attitudes necessary to living a healthier life.

Know your body's stress response. When we are under stress, our body sends us signals -- our heart beats rapidly, we begin to sweat, our respiration increases, our digestion decreases. What signals do you recognize?

Let your words be your guide. Do you sometimes say things like, "My head feels like it's in a vise," or, "My heart is banging out of my chest," or, "My blood is boiling"? When we refer to someone as a "pain in the neck" or a "pain in the a--," often we are feeling muscle tension in the neck or lower back. So listen to your language. You are telling yourself you are under stress.

Keep a stress-awareness journal. By noting your stress triggers and your body's response to them, you will develop a better ability to take action to reduce those stressors.

Strengthen resilience skills and attitudes. How quickly we bounce back from crises is dependent on how resilient we are. People who can deal with their emotions, who are flexible in their thoughts and actions, who are resilient, are able to rebound faster.

Commit to the change process. Change is not easy; old habits die hard. Change is especially hard when a behavior or attitude is longstanding or involves an addictive substance. (Just ask anyone attempting to quit smoking.) And change is stressful. It requires thinking differently, acting differently and commitment. For more than a decade, James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente of the University of Rhode Island have been studying the change process, looking initially at how people change health habits, such as smoking. They concluded that people cycle through a five-step change process called the Transtheoretical Model of Change:

  1. Pre-contemplation: In this first stage, we are not thinking seriously about changing and are not interested in any kind of help. There is a tendency to defend the current bad habit(s), and we do not feel that the behavior (or attitude) is a problem. We may exhibit defensiveness, feeling that change is being imposed upon us.
  2. Contemplation: In the second stage there is some awareness of the personal consequences of the bad habit. At this point we consider the possibility of changing, although we are ambivalent. We will cycle through weighing the pros and cons of quitting or modifying the behavior (or attitude), at times doubting that the long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term costs.

    On the positive side, we are more open to receiving information about the bad habit, and are more likely to reflect on our own feelings and thoughts concerning the habit and seek some form of intervention.

  3. Preparation and decision: In this stage, we are getting ready for, and have made a commitment to, making a change. We are no longer ambivalent: "I've got to do something about this; this is serious. Something has to change. What can I do?"
  4. Action: In stage four, we have come to believe that we have the ability to change the behavior, and now will be actively involved in taking the necessary steps. At this point in the process, we need specific information, tools and guidance for implementing change. We may seek a therapist or attend a self-help group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The key to success at this stage is to analyze and understand behavior change efforts in a way that enhances self-confidence and sustains motivation.
  5. Maintenance: The final stage focuses on maintaining new patterns of behavior. When the response becomes automatic, we are then able to successfully avoid any temptations to return to the bad habit. By this point in the change process, we have reformulated the rules of our life and have acquired new skills for dealing with life and avoiding relapse.

Hang tough during difficult times. Sometimes things just don't go our way. We anticipate certain outcomes, and then life throws us a high-speed curve ball. It's okay to wallow in a little self-pity -- temporarily. This allows the negative thoughts and emotions to flush out of your system. How quickly you extricate yourself from the muck and mire of negativity depends on the strength of your resilience skills.

Accept what is not in your control. The frustration or anger that wells inside us from situations not only out of our control but which have nothing to do with us, chips away at our peace of mind and releases stress hormones. The capacity to manage strong emotions and impulses involves taking action without being impulsive and putting emotions aside when clear thinking is required. Resilient people stay calm under pressure and persevere, and keep their focus on the goal for the long haul.

As Kenny Rogers said: "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away."

Rita Schiano is an adjunct professor at Bay Path College, where she teaches philosophy and stress management courses. She is the founder of Live A Flourishing Life™, which melds her three professions: philosophy instructor, stress management instructor and resilience coach, and freelance writer. Her book, "Live a Flourishing Life," is used for the college program and in private training programs. Rita also conducts stress management and resilience-building workshops funded by the Massachusetts Dept. of Industrial Accidents, and she is actively involved with Maine Resilience, a program coordinated with the effort, materials and information offered by the American Psychological Association and the Maine Psychological Association through their Public Education Programs. Rita is an Associate Member of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). Visit her online at www.ritaschiano.com and Red Room, where you can read her blog.

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