As a life coach who has given workshops on stress over the last 25 years, I am always confronted with clients who need ways to cope with stress. There are a lot of ways to approach stress proactively. 

It is a very rare thing indeed that someone advocates for the stress in their life. But stress is an important, and in many cases a positive, influencer in our lives. The biggest benefit derived from stress is motivation.

Stress as Motivator

Physically, when you’re under stress, your body secretes adrenaline and large amounts of cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts your energy. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases the glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of that glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair damaged tissues.

These chemical changes within us drive us to action. We are ready to move forward, to focus on important details, and increase our energy levels. If you think about the details of that, we are in fight-or-flight mode.

Robert M. Sapolsky talks about this in his fantastic book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. On the level of pure biology, this physiological response is the ideal chemical boost to help zebras avoid physical danger.

Humans too are prone to the same physiology of fight-or-flight. The essential difference is the intellectual capacity of the human mind can initiate an identical physiological response to non-physical and non-life-threatening stimuli.

The advantage of our response to these stressors is that it motivates us to move past the physical state of stress. Pressure at school can have us better focused when we are taking tests, studying, or working on a big project. We are more motivated to ask for that date. We want to reach our goal and return to our relaxed state.

Stress as Idea

Sapolsky also states that his zebra, once it has reached safety, immediately calms itself and allows the adrenaline and cortisol levels to lower. In short, the danger is gone, and that means the stress goes with it.

Remember that essentially different human mind? Remember how we can manifest the same physiological response by merely thinking about stress?

The world we live in does little to treat us as prey. Most of us don’t encounter life-and-death situations during our daily lives, but our human-made stressors abound.

I’m writing this article in mid-April. In the United States, this month is recognized as a very stressful time. So much so, in fact, that it has been declared National Stress Awareness Month. Income taxes are due on the 15th. Many schools administer state-mandated testing throughout this month. High school seniors are waiting for college acceptance letters, deciding what they want to do with their futures, or even just hoping to graduate.

Even as these events come to pass, they often lead to new decisions to make, new demands to satisfy, and new stressors that are all too happy to replace the old ones.

Stress as Killer

We keep stress in our body. Or, more accurately, we keep our body in a stressed state. Unlike Sapolsky’s zebra, we are not giving ourselves the chance to relax and clear the cortisol from our bloodstreams.

The physical toll of living in stress is varied. Our hearts are at greater risk because of the increased heart rate it's subjected to regularly and without rest. Other physical manifestations are ulcers and compromised immune systems, allowing us to get sick more easily. There are even studies that show prolonged exposure to stress can increase your likelihood of cancer.

We can kill ourselves with stress.

Recognizing Stress

Even if we don’t readily see these ailments, there are often physical signs.

We each keep stress in our body in different ways. My neck and lower back are my weak points. They get tense and ache. Some people get sweaty palms or have stomach issues. Each of these are physical manifestations of our stress.

Many of us don’t even recognize we are living with stress until we are physically feeling the effects. I liken it to the analogy of boiling a frog.

If you drop a frog into a pot of hot water, its first instinct is to hop out as fast as it can. There is a jarring stimulus that immediately triggers the frog's fight-or-flight mode.

However, if you drop that same frog into a pot of lukewarm water, and slowly adjust the heat higher and higher, it doesn’t notice the signs of distress until it is far too late. It boils.

We do the same thing. We let the stress build around us until we can't handle it, or until we are feeling the tell-tale effects of living with stress.

What we need to do first, is recognize the physiological signs of our stress. As I said before, my neck and lower back are my weak points. I know when I get tension there, some of it may be physical. But the discomfort automatically triggers my thoughts and makes me evaluate what else may be causing it.

So, evaluate what your body tells you when you’re feeling stressed, and watch for those signs. Constant stress influences our comfort and quality of life. Recognizing this can help you lessen its impact.

Making Stress Less

Managing our stress isn’t as simple as it is for that zebra. As soon as the predator leaves the herd alone, the zebra's motto is, "Out of sight, out of mind." We tend to dwell on those things that cause us duress. It’s not easy for us to eliminate the stressors in our lives. If it was, they wouldn’t be very stressful.

There are three key things to think about when you're trying to lessen the impact of negative stress in your life.

1. Identify and recognize your physiological and physical stress responses

We covered this earlier, but it is essential and bears repeating. Take inventory of your body and what it feels like during moments of stress. Know how you tense up, ache, get queasy, sweat, crave chocolate, or laugh nervously.

There are physical signs right there for you to take stock of that can help you identify when you need to take action.

2. Take advantage of regular activities that help you build up a resistance or resiliency to stress

In addition to the big things in life that cause us stress, there are many small stressors that fall well within our control. Things we can do to keep our bodies more relaxed. Thus, we will be more prepared for moments of stress.

Some things you can do include:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat regular balanced meals
  • Engage in physical activity
  • This doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym, just get out and move
  • Practice yoga or meditation
  • Strike a healthy balance of social interaction
  • Seek professional help from a therapist or life coach

Some people are very resilient to stress. They are like a rubber band. Others snap easily. Much of this has to do with controlling those little stressors and building your resiliency.

3. Engage yourself within the moment

Recognizing the symptoms and building resiliency can go a long way to prepare you for demanding times. But there is no way to completely avoid the stresses of life.

You need to find ways to calm your body down when it is reacting to stress. There are a lot of methods, so one is bound to work for you. For some, it’s a power nap. Others like to take a quick walk around the block. Even others schedule massages, pedicures, haircuts, or some other physical treat for themselves.

One of my favorite techniques is the belly breath. In less than 15 minutes, this deep-breathing exercise helps to raise your oxygen levels and slow your heart rate. It won’t remove the stressor, but it will allow your body some recovery time, and perhaps give you a new perspective on what’s eating at you.

So, take stock of your life, welcome your motivators, and work on your stressors. Regardless of the tension you feel, you need to take care of your body.