The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 22, 2001
Keeping fit

How to cope with stress
By Dr N.N. Wig, Professor Psychiatry, PGI, & Dr B.K. Sharma

BEFORE we consider how to cope with stress, it is important to first understand what happens in our body and mind when we are confronted with stress. The process begins with a source of stress or a stressor, which may be a conflict in the office or home, a financial loss or broken love affair or any such thing. As a result of this, things start happening at four levels in our body and mind.

These are: Thoughts, bodily sensations, feelings and emotions and behaviour.

The chain of thoughts is the first troublesome thing which starts under stress. "Why does my boss always pick on me? I should have told him there and then that I don’t like his attitude". Many such troublesome thoughts start repeating themselves in our head.

Rather than helping us, such repetitive negative thoughts add to our misery and further increase stress. Along with the chain of thoughts, we also start feeling many odd sensations in the body. There is tension in the limbs, pain in head and neck, pressure over chest, an upset stomach, inability to sleep and so on. Most of us, mistakenly, consider it signs of an illness and an additional process of worry and stress begins.

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Along with bodily sensations, another important process that we need to recognise is our psychological feelings or emotions during stress. Mostly, when we are under stress we get angry, agitated, anxious, depressed or suspicious. These negative emotions in turn, add to our stress. Lastly, it is important to recognise how we behave during a period of stress. Here also most of us choose unhealthy ways of coping. We adopt unhealthy dietary habits, we start missing our exercise, start smoking and drinking excessively, drive recklessly and so o n. All these negative behaviour-patterns add to our ill-health and start another vicious cycle of stress.

If we have to develop a strategy to cope with stress, we must learn to act at these four levels — thoughts, bodily sensations, emotions and behaviour — so that they do not add to your existing stress. The first important thing is recognition of what is happening at these four levels and then reversing the process.

Thoughts: The negative habit of brooding and worrying does not help anybody. We must make an effort to stop this chain of thoughts. It is better to start at the source of stress. Suppose, it is a conflict with the boss at office. Ask yourself "is today’s event really important in my life?" If not, then stop thinking about it. If it is important, can something practical be done about it? If yes, go ahead, do not vacillate, take necessary action. If action is not practical, stop brooding. It is also important to direct your mind. Get busy in something else. Go and see a friend or do some fast walking or watch a movie etc. Do not allow repeated negative thoughts to become an additional source of stress for you.

Bodily sensations: Learn to recognise how our body behaves during stress. Each one of us has a unique individual pattern. Some get a headache as the first sign of tension. Other get a stomach upset, a sensation of pressure over their chest and difficulty in breathing and so on. Recognise your own pattern. It is a kind of a personal thermometer of stress. If you feel such symptoms, do not get panicky or repeatedly run to doctors. Instead, to undo the tension do some exercise, play sports, do yoga or meditation. All these will reduce bodily sensations of stress.

Emotions: Stress always generates negative emotions such as anger, irritability, anxiety, hopelessness, depression etc. It is important to recognise your feelings and the source of such feelings. If you are getting angry with your children, it may not be what they have done but it may be because you have come home feeling irritable from your office. The best way to reduce negative emotions is to replace them with positive emotions. Learn to relax. Listen to some nice music or watch your favourite TV programme or visit some friends you like. Try to be nice and good to other people; help them whenever you can. It always gives a happy and positive feeling of self-worth and confidence.

Behaviour: During stress, it is very easy to fall into the negative habits of excessive smoking, drinking, over-eating,or popping sedatives. These are bad habits; they may help initially but create bigger problems later. Instead, cultivate good friends, join a club or an association, go to a religious place regularly or take up some social service work or some creative activity.

Preventing stress: It is not possible to prevent stressful life events. Crises comes in everyone’s life. We can, however, prepare and train ourselves in such a way that whenever a stressful event comes, we manage to cope with it in a satisfactory way. What has been mentioned earlier about coping with stress is also relevant and important in our day-to-day life. In addition to that, the following long-term measures may be kept in mind:

Developing a healthy lifestyle: It is important to organise your life from early years in a disciplined and balanced way in which there is place for both work and play. There must be good nutrition, sleep, interpersonal relationships, a healthy sexual life, avoidance of excessive smoking or alcohol.

Facing stress in small measures: It is important to train our children to face small day-to-day stresses in life. It is not wise to totally protect them from an exposure to unhappy life events. A child who grows up facing daily doses of stress is better equipped when bigger crises of life come.

Support of family and friends: Perhaps the most helpful thing at the time of a stressful crisis is the possibility to reach out to someone, to share our worries, our concerns, our suffering. We must develop a network of family members and friends. The most important in this group is of course your wife or husband. We must learn to share our life with our life partners.

Relaxation and a sense of humour: It is important to keep some time for relaxation in our busy schedule of life. Each one of us has his or her own style of relaxation be it reading a book, listening to music, developing a hobby or playing a sport. When we are happy, our body’s defence mechanisms work better. In this context, many people give great importance to developing a sense of humour and a capacity to laugh, especially over our own misfortunes.

Spiritual values in life: Most of us feel that there is more to life than only eating, drinking, working and producing children. There must be a greater purpose to life. Religious faith plays an important place in the life for most of us. In times of stress, religious faith plays a very important support for many of us.

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