Creating Space for Calm in a Stressed World

Are you among the majority of Americans feeling more stressed than ever?  Chronic stress has been a public health crisis for many years in the United States and the recent American Psychological Association’s annual survey reveals that it is only getting worse.  In fact, most Americans (63%) report moderate to severe stress levels in the past year.

The top stressors people identified were:

  • Money – 75%
  • Work – 70%
  • Economy – 67%
  • Relationships – 58%
  • Family responsibilities – 57%
  • Family health – 53%
  • Personal health – 53%
  • Job stability – 49%
  • Housing – 49%
  • Personal safety – 32%

Stress levels tend to be even higher among women, ethnic minorities and people with lower incomes.  Each day the news presents even more reasons to stress with reports of terrorism and mass shootings.

And stress is taking its toll on children too.  Almost one third of children report physical symptoms in the past month which are commonly linked to chronic stress, such as headache, stomach ache, and difficulty sleeping.  Parents typically underestimate how much their stress affects their kids.  Children are often all too aware of instability in the home, at school, among their friends, and as a nation.

We know that stress has a significant impact on our emotional and physical well-being.  Symptoms of chronic stress include fatigue, hopelessness, anxiety, irritability, feeling overwhelmed, poor eating habits, difficulty sleeping, and bodily pain.

So how do we create space for a sense of calm in the midst of all this stress?  It is possible.

  1. Identify your primary sources of stress. Stress is broadly defined as anything that requires us to adjust or adapt.  So stressors may be positive, like starting a new job, or negative, like a death in the family.  Recognizing your major stressors will help you develop a plan to manage them more effectively.  Write down a list of your major stressors in the past six that have caused you to make the greatest adjustments.
  2. Categorize your stress into the things you have control over and the things you have no control over. Oftentimes, we spend a great deal of mental energy worrying about issues we have little or no impact on, such as national tragedies, other people’s feelings, or fantasies about the future.  Recognizing this important difference will allow you to focus your energy on the areas where you can have meaningful influence.
  3. Practice acceptance and letting go of those stressors you cannot change. This can be one of the toughest things to do, and it takes regular practice.  You may find it helpful to limit your exposure to stressors that are beyond your control by taking a break from the news or social media.  Regularly remind yourself to let go of thoughts associated with stressors beyond your control and stay focused on the present moment.  Focusing on the present allows us to release unhelpful worries and discover our roots.
  4. Develop a series of steps to manage the stressors that are within in your control. It can be helpful to identify action steps that are realistic, meaningful, and measurable so that we can see movement toward change.  For example, if you are stressed about your health, list the action steps that would begin to make a healthy difference such as medical appointments and lifestyle changes.  Focus on taking small steps in the present moment rather than getting overwhelmed with enormous change over time.  And reward yourself for progress.
  5. Practice stress management strategies that work for you. Stress is a natural, necessary, and sometimes helpful part of life.  The goal is not to erase all stress but to cope with it.  Try exercising, listening to music, developing a hobby, spending time with friends, meditating.  Keep trying different strategies at different times to figure out what works for you.  It is not selfish to spend time on meaningful self-care.  Stress management needs to remain a priority.
  6. Get support.  Look to your friends and family to help share the load of stress.  It’s important to allow yourself to ask for help when you’re feeling over-burdened.  Give your loved ones the gift of needing them sometimes.  And look for professional help if you find that chronic stress is contributing to unhealthy habits, physical symptoms, and emotional distress.  Therapists skills in stress management can help you learn strategies to work through stress for a lifetime of benefit.

Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, postpartum issues, wellness, relationships, and parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Dr. Smith, please contact Lakefront Psychology at 216-870-9816.

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