1. Identify Your Stress Type

Unless you live in a cave without a television (actually, not a bad way to eliminate stress in your life), you’ve probably heard quite a bit about stress in the media, around the coffee machine at work, or in the magazines and newspapers you read. So, what exactly is stress? Stress comes in several guises, some more obvious than others. Some stress is acute, some is episodic, and some is chronic. Acute stress is the result of change. Episodic stress is the result of lots of acute stress—one change after another after another. Chronic stress, on the other hand, has nothing to do with change. Chronic stress is long-term, constant, unrelenting stress on the body, mind, or spirit.

“Stress comes in several guises, some more obvious than others.”

2. If Your Stress Is Acute, Identify the Cause

Acute stress is something that disturbs your body’s equilibrium. You get used to things being a certain way—physically, mentally, emotionally, even chemically. Your body clock is set to sleep at certain times, your energy rises and falls at certain times, and your blood sugar changes in response to the meals you eat at certain times each day. But when something happens to change your existence, whether that something is a physical change (like a cold or a sprained ankle), a chemical change (like the side effects of a medication or the hormonal fluctuations following childbirth), or an emotional change (like a marriage or the death of a loved one), your equilibrium is altered. You’ve experienced change, and with that upheaval comes stress.

3. An Acute Stress Example

Acute stress is hard on our bodies and our minds because people tend to be creatures of habit. And habits don’t just mean that morning cup of coffee or a favorite side of the bed. They include minute, complex, intricate inner workings of physical, chemical, and emotional factors on our bodies. Say you get up and go to work five days each week, rising at 6:00 a.m., downing a bagel and a cup of coffee, then hopping on the subway. Once a year, you go on vacation, and, for two weeks, you sleep until 11:00 a.m., then wake up and eat a staggering brunch. That’s stressful, too, because you’ve changed your habits. You probably enjoy it, but if you are suddenly sleeping different hours and eating different things, your body clock and blood chemistry will have to readjust.

4. See What Works for You

Humans desire and need a certain degree of change. It makes life exciting and memorable. So here’s the big question: How much change can you stand before the changes start to have a negative effect on you? This is a completely individual issue. No single formula will calculate what is “too much stress” for anyone because the level of acute stress you can stand is likely to be completely different than the level of stress your friends and relatives can tolerate. Essentially, this is a “see what works for you” kind of scenario. If staying out late on both Friday and Saturday night every weekend leaves you feeling depleted on Monday morning, you’re upsetting your routine too much, thus causing stress. Dial it back to just one night out per weekend and see if that suits you better.

5. If Your Stress Is Episodic, Identify the Cause

People who suffer from episodic stress always seem to be in the throes of some tragedy. You’ve likely known people who are episodic-stress poster children. They tend to be overwrought, sometimes intense, often irritable, angry, or anxious. If you’ve ever been through a week, a month, or even a year when you seemed to suffer personal disaster after personal disaster, you know what it’s like to deal with episodic stress.

6. An Episodic Stress Example

Imagine this scenario: First, your furnace breaks down, then you bounce a check, then you get a speeding ticket, then your entire extended family decides to stay with you for four weeks, then your sister-in-law smashes into your garage with her car, and then you get the flu. Just one stressful episode after another!

But episodic stress, like acute stress, can also come in more positive forms. For example, a whirlwind courtship, a huge wedding, a honeymoon in Bali, and finally a new home with your new spouse, all in the same year, is an incredibly stressful sequence of events. Fun, sure. Romantic, yes. But it’s still an excellent example of episodic stress in its sunnier, though no less taxing, manifestation.

7.Don’t Worry!

Sometimes, episodic stress comes in a subtler form: worry. When you worry about things, you invent stress, or change, before it happens. Excessive worry could be linked to an anxiety disorder, but even when worry is less chronic than that, it saps the body’s energy, usually for no good reason. Worry is usually just the contemplation of horrible things that are unlikely to happen. Worry and the anxiety it can produce can cause specific physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms, such as heart palpitations, dry mouth, hyperventilation, muscle pain, and fatigue, leading to fear, panic, anger, and depression.

8. Are You a Worrywart?

Ask yourself how many of the following statements describe you?

• You find yourself worrying about things that are extremely unlikely, such as suffering from a freak accident or developing an illness you have no reason to believe you would develop.

• You have trouble falling asleep because you can’t slow down your frantic worrying process as you lie still in bed at night.

• When the phone rings or the mail arrives, you immediately imagine what kind of bad news you are about to receive.

• You feel compelled to control the behaviors of others because you worry that they can’t take care of themselves.

• You are overly cautious about engaging in any behavior that could possibly result in harm or hurt to you or to those around you, even if the risk is small (such as driving a car or visiting a big city).

If even just one of these characteristics describes you, perhaps you worry more than you have to. If most or all of these statements apply to you, worry is probably having a distinctly negative effect on you.

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