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Last Updated on May 18, 2018

How to Manage Stress (A Step-by-Step Guide to Turn Stress Into Success)

How to Manage Stress (A Step-by-Step Guide to Turn Stress Into Success)

Stress is something I’ve faced in a deep and personal way, and have overcome successfully. Living with stress is surprisingly common – according to the American Psychological Association, approximately 60% of Americans are stressed with concerns over money, job pressure and health contributing to 76% of stress.[1]

Numerous studies have shown that stress has a strong negative impact on well-being and prolonged stress has been associated with anxiety, depression, coronary diseases and sleep problems.[2]

It’s clear that to live a happy and fulfilled life, we need to learn how to respond to life’s challenges without getting overly stressed. However, stress itself is complicated. There are many different types of stress and there is no easy one size fits all solution.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper to examine the real cause of stress and how to manage stress and turn it into success.

Where does stress come from these days?

Stress is an evolutionary response to a threat in our environment. In our caveman days, stress helped us survive by triggering our ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response to help us run away from wild animals or fight to defend our territory.

In today’s modern world however, stress has evolved as a coping mechanism to help us manage mental and emotional overwhelm such as dealing with demanding bosses, managing our finances or surviving health issues.

As these are daily problems, we simply do not have the emotional strength and mind space to respond effectively each and every day – this is how stress becomes chronic and starts to interfere with our lives.

Symptoms of feeling stressed

Symptoms of stress can be very obvious or buried deep in our psyche depending on how we’ve dealt with stressful experiences through our lives.

Overt (or obvious) symptoms of stress

Symptoms of stress commonly manifest in terms of physical, mental or emotional discomfort.[3]

  • Physical signs include headaches, tiredness, an upset stomach or an inability to sleep well
  • Mental signs include feeling overwhelmed, being ‘down in the dumps’ and unable to enjoy yourself or switch off
  • Emotional signs include being irritable, impatient, anxious, nervous, depressed, lonely and feeling like there’s no way out

Deeper (or not so obvious) symptoms of stress

Many times, we tend to avoid dealing with stressors head-on, thinking that avoiding problems will make them go away or keep us from getting anxious. In psychological terms, this is known as avoidance coping a.k.a “What you resist, persists”.

Avoidance coping doesn’t work in the long-term because not dealing with our problems only increases anxiety instead of diminishing it.

We also tend to adopt other not so obvious ways of coping which can be even more detrimental to our health and well-being such as:

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  • Emotional eating or overeating – Turning to food when we are stressed is very common because food helps us feel better in the moment by triggering our brain’s reward system. Often, we end up overeating to numb our feelings so we can avoid thinking about them. This often ends up leading to compulsive or binge eating where we can feel that we don’t have any control over our food choices.
  • Reliance on substances like alcohol – Similar to food, some of us turn to alcohol or other substances to help us relax in the moment. However, by doing this over and over again, it can easily become an addiction.
  • Nervous behaviors like chewing nails – Since we are not dealing with stress directly, we end up releasing our nervous energy by biting nails or pinching our skin.
  • Procrastination – One of the most common consequences of avoidance coping is procrastination which only serves to increase our anxiety and makes us feel even worse than we started with. We end up questioning our motivation, willpower and discipline which can lead to low self-esteem and feeling stuck in life.
  • Passive aggressiveness – The stress of being stressed makes us irritable and more aggressive than normal as we usually want to be left alone and don’t have patience in dealing with other people or routine tasks during the day. Often, this can lead to us pushing away the people we most love and makes us feel even more lonely and depressed.
  • Rumination – Some of us keep thinking about the same negative stressors over and over again wondering why this is happening to us and brooding over the circumstances. This sends us even more into a negative spiral and unable to respond to life’s challenges in a proactive way.
  • Chronic Illnesses – incidences of autoimmune illnesses such as IBS, Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis affect about 50 million Americans and is only increasing each year.[4] Studies have shown that up to 80% of patients have reported high levels of stress prior to diagnosis leading researchers to hypothesize that increased production of stress-related hormones. This leads to immune dysregulation and cause auto-immune illnesses.[5]

In a nutshell, not dealing with stress directly leads to what we commonly perceive as self-sabotage – engaging in behaviors seemingly against our own will and feeling a lack of control over our lives.

This lack of control damages self-esteem and can send us into disordered patterns of behavior including anxiety, depression and binge eating.

How to manage stress (a step-by-step guide)

To deal with stress in a healthy way, we need to understand what causes stress at the deepest level so we can deal with the root causes rather than just the symptoms.

Part A – Decode the 4 real causes of stress

Stress as we learned previously is primarily a threat to our survival, and these threats in the modern world occur in four different dimensions according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Identifying which of these are the biggest stressors for us can help us formulate an effective response instead of relying on ineffective coping mechanisms.

1. Safety threats

The first rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs states that we all have a basic desire for safety in terms of good health, financial freedom and a stable job. If any of these are missing from our lives, it is perceived by the body’s evolutionary system as a threat to survival which triggers our stress response.

At this point, ask yourself if you are facing any safety threats:

  • Work pressure – Do you have a too demanding boss? Are you overloaded with work? Do you have annoying co-workers? Are you fearful of losing your job?
  • Financial freedom – Are you anxious about having enough money to take care of yourself and your family? Do you not have a stable income source? Are your expenses more than your means?
  • Health issues – Do you or anyone in your family have a health crisis or chronic illness? Do you feel like your health is not good enough to fully live life on your terms? Are you dependent on other people for optimum health?

2. Love and belonging threats

The second rung of Maslow’s needs states that we are all seeking to belong to a social group and that love is an important human need.

Are you feeling a sense of love, intimacy and belonging or is this something currently missing in your life?

  • Do you have a happy marriage or relationship with a partner that fulfills you?
  • Are you happy with your role as a wife, mother, daughter and sister? Or do you feel like you aren’t able to give your all to your family?
  • Do you have friends or a social circle that you feel connected to?
  • Do you experience feelings of loneliness or lack of love and support?

3. Self-esteem threats

The third rung of Maslow’s needs are a key motivator for many of our actions – our need for self-esteem. This is reflected in our confidence, achievement and the respect we receive from others.

If your self-esteem is affected:

  • You maybe constantly seeking for validation from external sources, not from within yourself
  • Your confidence and belief is high when you are praised or when you achieve something, otherwise you feel depressed.

Are you experiencing any of these feelings?

For many of us, our self-esteem can also be low because we are too tough with ourselves – for example, we may have many achievements but we judge ourselves based on our weight, our clothes size or what we didn’t get done instead of recognizing what we are doing well.

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Dictated by societal pressures and our own perfectionism, this leads to artificial stress which we create for ourselves. Often escaping from this stress makes us so obsessed with the task at hand.

For example, to lose weight, we may go on extreme diets that we end up self-sabotaging (for example, binge or emotional overeating to stop feeling stressed about our weight) which then makes us even more stressed and creates a vicious cycle (diet – binge – diet cycle for example).

4. Self-actualization threat

The final rung of Maslow’s needs is the ultimate goal of all human existence – to fulfill our potential and be our best selves. When we are able to do this, we can chase our dreams and have the autonomy to be creative, spontaneous and engage in activities that are meaningful to us.

If self-actualization is your biggest cause for stress, ask yourself:

  • Do you feel like you are holding back? Do you feel like you are not living up to your full potential that you could be so much more?
  • Is there a dream, a deep desire to change the world that you’ve been holding back on?

If you feel like you are holding back either because you don’t know what to do, you’re experiencing a mid-life crisis or because you’re valuing stability over chasing your dreams, then finding a way around this is your biggest challenge.

Summing it up

Once you’ve gone through these 4 causes and the related questions, identify your biggest stressor and which bucket it falls into.

In the next section, we will talk about how to manage the stressor without getting stressed.

Part B – Change your mindset to turn stress into success

There are two key mindset changes that are crucial to not only overcoming stress, but using it to turn a stressor into something successful.

1. Use the “thinking brain” not the “primitive brain”

Like we saw before, stress is our primitive brain’s response to survival which activates our fight or flight systems. While this was incredibly useful for our survival as a species in caveman times, it’s this very response that causes us to freeze, feel overwhelmed and unable to think when we are in a stressful situation today.

When we can’t think, we respond to stress unconsciously – with negative feelings of anxiety, worry, sadness or anger.

While we can’t stop the primitive brain from responding to stress with such emotions, we can simultaneously engage our thinking brain to decide how to respond to these emotions.

Our “thinking brain” can make reasonable and conscious choices in regulating our response to stress.

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It can help us decide that although we are experiencing emotions of anxiety (which is a biological response), we can choose not to feel anxious. As feelings are a result of how we respond to our emotions, we are fully in control of how we feel when we are confronted with a stressful situation.

Our feelings are not our emotions. Our feelings are how we choose to respond to our emotions.

Recognizing that we are in fact in control of how we respond to a stressor is a key realization necessary to manage stress better.

2. Use stress as an incentive to be better

The second mindset change needed is to recognize that stress is just a symptom and not a cause of our anxiety or unhappiness.

When we start looking at stress as a way to diagnose what’s missing in our life, we can then use it to make changes that will help us live more satisfied, calm and relaxed lives.

Stress then gives us an opportunity to have better careers, more loving relationships and to fulfill our potential without which we might have never done and just “settled” for whatever life threw our way.

Part C – A step-by-step guide to manage stress

With the key stressor identified from Part A and the new mindsets adapted from Part B, you now understand that you are in control of how you respond to and feel about the stressful events in your life.

The following four simple steps can help you fully manage stress positively:

1. Accept the stress instead of avoiding it

The first step to managing stress positively is to accept it. By accepting the stress, we can be fully present and connect with our emotions. This is when we recognize our emotions and know that we can decide how to respond to stress in a healthy manner.

Avoiding stress effectively negates any positive impact from dealing with stress and instead only hides it temporarily. In most cases, it leads to vicious cycles like binge eating, procrastination and self-sabotage that we learned about in the previous sections.

Effective therapies like ACT (used in depression, anxiety and addiction) also tell us that acceptance is the key to healing.

2. Be proactive in making a change

The second step now that we’ve accepted the stress is to do something about it if it’s in our control.

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For example, from Part A, if you realize that your biggest stressor is that your self-esteem is mostly dependent on your weight and body image, you can decide to focus more on your other achievements. Maybe you also developed emotional or binge eating as a coping response to this stressor, then you can get help from mentors who’ve been through the same experience.

Taking an active part in changing the conditions or environment that cause the stress will reduce stress.

3. Practice the “Circle Of Influence” mantra

Popularized in Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Circle of Influence” tells us that focusing on the things we can control – i.e., what we eat, who we spend time with, – will make us more effective in making proactive changes.

Instead of worrying about or reacting to conditions over which we don’t have much influence, the third step to managing stress is to focus on the activities that we can actually change.

This means we can stop comparing ourselves to others or worrying about what others think of us. We can focus on doing our best and being motivated internally – all positive and healthy habits.

4. Develop grit

Dealing with any stressful situation requires a keen interest to make a change and tenacity to push through difficult challenges. This combination of passion and perseverance is the key to success according to psychologist Angela Duckworth.

Passion is a combination of chasing a meaningful goal and being internally motivated to keep chasing it. Passion is not just a fiery burst of energy or willpower but an internal drive that will help us push through challenges.

At the same time, persevering through difficulties requires us to be aware of our blind spots. It’s important to be realistic to set achievable goals, prioritize, focus and motivate ourselves by recognizing our efforts. For high performers who are used to instant results and achievement, this can be very difficult.

Understanding ourselves and our blind spots can help us persevere in the face of challenges.

With these 4 steps, we can now start to not only manage stress but thrive under it and use it to become even more successful.

Turning stress into success

Stress is our response to how we deal with life’s pressures. We can change stress from being an unconscious behavior to a conscious response by using our “thinking mind”.

By re-framing stress to be a positive tool for self-improvement, we can use it to identify our biggest need (safety, belonging, self-esteem or self-actualization). Then, use the 4-step process to accept the stress and be proactive about dealing with it to turn stress into success.

Even though you may feel like you are not stressed, but you’re dissatisfied with life or having coping mechanisms like binge eating or procrastination, your stress is just hiding beneath the surface. Use this 4-step process to build a happier, relaxed and more satisfied life starting today.

Featured photo credit: Kaboompics via kaboompics.com

Reference

[1]American Psychological Association : What is Stress?
[2]International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology: The link between stress, well-being, and psychological flexibility
[3]Mind: What are the signs of stress?
[4]Scleroderma News: 10 Facts and Statistics About Autoimmune Diseases
[5]NCBI: Stress as a trigger of autoimmune disease

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Sai Khanna

Hi, I’m Sai and I I know first hand what it feels like to turn to food to cope with life, especially when it takes away time and energy to do the things we most want - like being a better mom, chasing our passions and living a more complete life. My mission is to help you enjoy food without obsessing over it, to help you deal with stress better and to empower you with the tools and mindsets so you can chase your dreams. Start your journey today by getting my free guide on how to stop overeating at http://www.myspoonfulofsoul.com/lifehack. See you on the other side!

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Last Updated on June 18, 2018

What Really Works: How to Relieve Lower Back Pain Effectively

What Really Works: How to Relieve Lower Back Pain Effectively

Eight out of ten adults experience lower back pain once in their lifetime. I am one of those people and I’m definitely not looking forward to my participation award. I know how it feels like to step out of bed and barely being able to put on your socks. Having lower back pain sucks. But 9 out of 10 patients that suffer from lower back pain don’t even know the primary cause of it.

Video Summary

Back Pain? Blame Our Evolution

Once upon a time in our fairly recent past, our ancestors felt the urgency to stand up and leave our quadruped neighbors behind. Habitual bipedalism, fancy word for regularly walking on two legs, came with a lot of advantages. With two rear limbs instead of four, we were able to more efficiently use our hands and create tools with them.

Sadly, life on two legs also brought along its disadvantages. Our spine had four supporting pillars previously, but now it only got two. The back is therefore naturally one of the weak links of our human anatomy. Our spine needs constant support from its supporting muscles to minimize the load on the spine. With no muscle support (tested on dead bodies) the back can only bear loads up to 5 pounds without collapsing [reference Panjabi 1989]. With well-developed torso muscles, the spine can take loads up to 2000 pounds. That’s a 400-fold increase.

Most people that come to me with a history of a herniated disc (that’s when the discs between the vertebral bodies are fully collapsed, really severe incident), tell me the ‘story of the pencil’. The injury with the following severe pain usually gets triggered by picking up a small, everyday object. Such as a pencil. Not as you may think by trying to lift 100 pounds – no, but by a simple thing – such as a pencil.

This tells us that damage in your back adds up over time, it’s a so called cumulative trauma disorder. Meaning back pain is a result of your daily habits.

Sitting Is the New Smoking

Whenever I sit for too long, my back hurts. In fact, 54% of Americans who experience lower back pain spend the majority of their workday sitting. But isn’t sitting something that should reduce the stress of your back? No, just the opposite.

The joints between the bones of the spine are not directly linked to the blood supply. These joints instead get nourished through a process called diffusion. Diffusion works because molecules (such as oxygen, important for cells) are constantly moving and try to get as much space for themselves as they can. A key element for diffusion therefore is a pressure difference. In the image below the left room contains more moving molecules than the right, that’s why the molecules from the left are moving to the right. This way nutrition gets transformed into the joints, whereas toxins are transported out of the joints.

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Sitting puts a lot of pressure on your spinal chord. The diffusion process therefore can’t function as efficiently. Nutrition and toxins can’t be properly transported, the joints get damaged.

    Sit Properly

    If sitting can play such a huge part in the creation of your lower back pain, how do you sit properly then?

    Is it better to sit with a straight back or should you rather lay back in your chair? Can I cross my legs when I’m sitting or should I have a symmetrical position with my feet? These are questions that I hear on a daily basis. The answer might shock you – according to recent science – all of them are right. The best sitting position is an ever-changing one. An ever-changing position minimizes the pressure on certain points of your spine and spreads it on the whole part.

      Credit: StayWow

      Stand Up More

      Even better than a sitting position is a stand up position. Standing dramatically reduces the pressure on your spine. If you’re forced to work on a desk the whole day though, you have two options.

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      Take breaks every hour of about 2-3 minutes.

      Set an alarm on your phone that goes off every hour! In that time you stand up and reach to the ceiling, on your toe tips with fully extended arms. You’re inhaling during the whole process. You do this activity for 20 seconds. Afterwards you’re walking through the office for the next 2 minutes. You might grab a healthy snack or some water in that time. The exercise relieves the pressure on your spine, while the walking makes sure that the joints on your spine are properly used.

      Or get a standing desk.

      One of the best companies on the market for Standing Desks, according to my research, is Autonomous. Autonomous offers a rather cheap Standing Desk, with the ability to change the height. Which means you can start the day standing and switch to sitting if you’re tired.

      Exercise for Lower Back Pain

      Sitting is an immobile position. Your joints are made for movement and therefore need movement to function properly. If humans are moving, all moving parts: e.g. the joints, bones and muscles get strengthened. If you’re in a rested position for too long, your tissues start to deteriorate. You have to get the right amount of activity in.

      But not too much activity. There’s a chance that going to the gym may even increase your risk of lower back pain. I know plenty of friends with chiseled bodies that suffer from pain in the spine regularly. Huge muscles do not prevent you from back pain. In your training you should focus on building up the muscles that are stabilizing your back and relieve pressure. Squats with 400 pounds don’t do the trick.

      The more weight you carry around, the more weight your spinal chord has to bear on a regular basis. That’s one of the reasons why huge, muscular guys can suffer from back pain too. One of the most important goals of your exercise regimen should therefore be weight loss.

      Here are some important tips for you to consider when starting an exercise regimen:

      Make sure you implement cardiovascular training in your workout routine.

      This will not only help you lose weight, it will also make sure that your arteries, which flow to the tissue next to your spinal discs, are free of placque and can therefore transport nutrients properly.

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      Important: If you have rather strong back pain, maybe even an herniated disc, don’t start running on a threadmill. Running is an high-impact exercise. Which means there are continuous, reocurring high pressure points on your spine. Your endurance training should therefore either be fast-paced walking or a training on the elliptical trainer for the beginning, because both have little to no stressful impact on your backbone.

      Focus on developing your whole core if you want to minimize your pain.

      There are some people that do hundreds of sit ups a day. While sit ups are a good exercise for your abdomen, it also puts pressure on your spine due to the bending movement. A sixpack workout routine is one-sided. Your abs may become overdeveloped in comparison to your back muscles. You’ve created an imbalance. A great way to train your abdominal muscles and back muscles simultaneously, is holding the plank position.

      Stretch only if you have tight muscles.

      I remember stretching every morning after I woke up. I took 10 minutes out of my day to just work on my flexibility and prevent injuries. Little did I know that I was actually promoting an injury, by doing so.

      Contrary to common belief, stretching is only partially beneficial to treating lower back pain. Stretching makes sense if tight muscles (such as the hamstrings) are forcing you to constantly bend your back. Stretching to treat pain doesn’t make sense if you’re already on a good level of flexibility. Hyper-mobility may even enforce back pain.

      If you found out that you had tight muscles that you need to stretch, try to stretch them at least three times a week. Don’t stretch your muscles right after you wake up in the morning. This is because your spinal discs soak themselves up in fluid over the nighttime. Every bending and excessive loads on your spine is much worse in that soaked-up state. Postpone your stretching regime to two-to three hours after you’ve woken up.

      Where to Start

      The key to improving your habits is awareness. Try to get aware of your back while you’re sitting down, laying down or lifting an object next time. This awareness of your body is called proprioception. For example, you have to be aware whether your back is bended or straight in this very second. Trust me, it is harder than you might think. You may need to ask a friend for the first few tries. But the change that this awareness can make in your back pain is absolutely fascinating. This consciousness of your body is one of the most important things in your recovery or prevention.

      Here are a few behavioural tactics that you need to be considering:

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      If you’re leaning forward more than 30 degrees with your upper body, support your spine with your arms.

      Ever tried to show a colleague of yours a complex issue and found yourself awkwardly leaning forward on their desk, pointing with your fingers to his paper? If that ever happens again, make sure you’re using the not-pointing arm to support yourself on the desk.

      Keep a straight back.

      Be it while exercising, stretching or standing. If you’re bending your back you’re putting stress on small areas of your spinal chord. A straight back redistributes the force to a bigger area. You’re minimizing the pressure. Remember this whenever you’re at the gym and reracking your weights, focus on having a neutral spine.

      Put symmetrical loads on your spine.

      I used to play the trumpet when I was a child. The instrument is pretty heavy. The trumpet gets transported in a big, metallic suitcase – with no wheels. Being the nature of suitcases, you only carry it with one arm, on one side of your body. This forced me to constantly lean on the other side with my upper body, while transporting the instrument from A to B. Not really the healthiest activity for your spine as you can imagine.

      If you have to carry heavy objects, carry them with both arms. Put the object in the middle of your body and keep it as close to your mass of gravity as you can. If this is not possible, try to carry the same amount on the left side than you do on the right side. This puts the stress vertically on a fully extended spine. The load is much better bearable for your spine.

      Stay Away From the Back Pain League

      Our world is getting more sedentary. We will continue to develop faster transportation, more comfortable houses and easier lives. While our technological progress definitely has its amazing benefits, it sadly has its downsides too. The danger for back pain will continue to rise on our ever-increasing motionless planet. It’s time to raise awareness.

      Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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