Whether it is a deadline or an important life event, we all experience stress from time to time. According to Hans Selye, who is considered to be the first to demonstrate the existence of biological stress: “Stress is a positive or negative reaction occurring when there is a substantial imbalance (perceived or real) between environmental demand and the response capability of the individual”. Experiencing some stress is inevitable, even preparing for good events can cause us stress.
Symptoms of stress can be physical or emotional. Physical signs include: headaches, chills, skin flushing, dry mouth, stuttering, nausea, loss of appetite, muscular tightness, tics or twitches, and rapid heartbeat. Emotional signs of stress include: sadness, frustration, anxiety, irritability, poor focus, and feelings of failure. To deal with stress, it is best to practice strategies that deal with both the physical and emotional aspects.
Strategies to deal with physical symptoms of stress
Deep breathing, stretching, yoga, guided imagery, and meditation are some ways to reduce the physical symptoms of stress and induce relaxation.
Guided imagery – Falling leaf
Try the following guided imagery exercise. Stare at a point on the wall across from you. Visualize a leaf on this spot. With each breath, count backwards from 20 to 1 as you watch the leaf slowly drifting to the ground. At 1, the leaf reaches the ground and you are deeply relaxed.
Imagine a tree standing beside you. Breathing deeply, feel your feet rooted into the ground. Imagine the depth of the roots and the strength under you, supporting you. Imagine your body is a solid trunk, but one that is flexible and giving. Allow it to sway, slightly bending in the breeze, your arms open like branches, your hands turned like leaves towards the sun. Breathe deeply and think about the strength and beauty of the tree. Feel the depth of the ground and all its support.
Strategies to deal with emotional symptoms of stress
Examining and being aware of your thoughts and feelings can help deal with emotional symptoms of stress and point your mind to more constructive ways of thinking.
Stop, calm, and switch
Notice your automatic negative thoughts. Say “Stop” when they happen. Think about something pleasant and say “Calm”, then switch your thinking to a positive thought. An example could be “Nobody is perfect and I am doing my best.” Keep practising this as you go through your day.
Understand distorted thinking patterns
There are many examples of distorted thoughts such as:
- All or nothing thinking – Thinking in black or white categories. For example, a straight-A student who receives a B on an exam concludes “Now I’m a total failure”.
- Overgeneralizations – Using words like always and never. For example, a person asks someone out on a date and they decline, the person concludes “I’m never going to get a date. No one will ever want me”.
- Mental filters – Ignoring positives and dwelling on negatives. For example, if you lose your spot in a presentation for 30 seconds but the remaining 20 minutes goes really well and you conclude “I gave a horrible presentation”.
- Jumping to conclusions – Mind reading or making assumptions about outcomes without evidence.
More realistic thoughts offer options and possibilities and can help us feel better.
Taking time to practice self-care and slow down can help you reduce your symptoms of stress. For ideas of self-care and distraction activities, see our Big List of Self-care Activities (PDF). For more guided imagery and relaxation exercises, see our Videos section.