Put Stress in Its Place

November 25, 2013

stress free zone By Lauren Berger, MSW, RSW

November is Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Month.  If you or someone you know suffers from Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis, you probably recognize that symptoms seem to worsen during periods of stress.  Whether you’ve got a work deadline, relationship trouble, exam time, or even stress related to your health concerns, chances are your symptoms (cramping, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, and many more “fun” examples) may be exacerbated.  No one likes stress, but when it aggravates your illness, you may find yourself increasingly frustrated; this leads to a vicious stress cycle!

To break this cycle, consider adopting new ways to cope with stress and notice if your symptoms minimize.  Stress is typically divided into two main categories: environmental and internal.  Environmental factors include “outside” stressors such as work, relationship issues, and parenting struggles.  Internal factors are attributed to “inside” stressors such as fears, negative thoughts, or struggling with the idea of life changes.  Stress manifests both physically and emotionally.  If you’ve ever noticed your heart racing, excessive sweating, unexplained muscle tension, and yes, tummy troubles, these can possibly be chalked up to stress.  (Always consult with a medical professional to rule out any potential health issues.)  Emotionally, you may notice symptoms of depression or generalized anxiety, unhappiness, sadness, frustration, anger, confusion, and/or indifference.  Recognizing your particular symptoms of stress can help you identify when intervention is necessary.  That said, it seems more effective to avoid stress from the get-go than to correct stress after it has occurred.

Chances are you have at least some coping mechanisms in place for coping with stress.  Some may be healthy and helpful, and others may not.  If you recognize any coping mechanisms from the following list, it may be time to find new ways to release your stress.

Unhealthy Stress Coping Mechanisms:

–  Smoking, excessive alcohol intake, or illegal/recreational drug use

–  Overeating or under-eating

–  Withdrawing from friends and family

–  Avoiding people/activities you otherwise enjoy

–  Taking your frustration out on others

Try replacing these ineffective coping strategies with some new ideas.  For healthier, long-term coping, consider:

Minimizing stressful environmental factors

–  Avoid taking on too many work projects by learning how to respectfully say “no.”  We “tell” people how we expect to be treated, but not always with words.  For example, if your boss heaps deadline after deadline on you, and you never decline the project, how will she know that she is asking too much of you?  People aren’t mind readers and often figure that if you haven’t spoken up, you don’t have a problem with the work load.  Consider finding a time to speak with your supervisor and let her know that you are being stretched a little too thin.  Tell her that you want to provide her with excellent work, and the amount you’ve been given concerns you as you do not want to supply her with sub-par results.  Go into your meeting armed with a couple of solutions, such as enlisting fellow co-workers to help with the workload, and also ask if she has any advice for you.

–  Learn to say “yes” to the support of trusted family members and friends.  Sometimes it’s the small things they do that can ease your stress.  Maybe your sister can make you a couple of her famous casseroles that you can freeze, ensuring you have some tasty, nutritious meals on hand for days you just don’t have the energy to cook.  See if your friend who knows a thing or two about cars can come with your when you check out pre-loved autos so that you’re not anxious about being sold a lemon.  Discover the strengths of the people around you and ask them for help.  You may be surprised at people’s willingness to lend a hand, especially if the situation is of particular interest to them.

–  Be kinder to yourself!  This one blurs the lines between environmental and internal factors of stress.  What kinds of expectations have you put on yourself?  Are you telling yourself that you must hit every holiday party this year, when deep down you already know that three is your max before you’re exhausted?  This type of mentality is doing nothing but setting yourself up for failure.  If your expectations of yourself are too high, you can expect feelings of failure, depression, and anxiety if you don’t achieve your goal.  Who needs that?!  Instead, try to set realistic expectations of yourself, and view anything additional as gravy.  Using this example, the reality of the situation hasn’t changed — you’ve hit three holiday parties.  If you were planning to attend ten parties, you may be left feeling bummed, anxious that you’ve let down some friends, or even angry at yourself for not keeping commitments.  If you have told yourself that you will make it to two parties, and make it to three, well hey!  You’ve exceeded your expectation of yourself!  You’re a rockstar!  Look at all your energy!  You’ve had a blast!  Now remember: the scenario has not changed.  You’ve attended three parties.  But see how you can feel disappointed and upset versus happy and proud of yourself?  Adjust your expectations, and notice the emotional outcome.

Minimizing stressful internal factors

–  Breathe, breathe, breathe.  Yes, you’re breathing every minute of the day, but are you breathing effectively?  Have you ever noticed how when you’re anxious or upset, you may breathe in a shallow manner?  Take notice; chances are you’re breathing into the upper part of your chest when you’re stressed or upset, not nice and deeply into the bottom of your lungs.  Breathing deeply offers a sense of calmness that is not easily matched.  Try it right now.  Breathe slowly for a count of four to five seconds, feeling your lungs expand like balloons.  Now exhale just as slowly, approximately four to five seconds.  Repeat ten times.  How do you feel?

–  Give visualization a whirl.  Find somewhere quiet and comfortable when you have a few minutes to yourself.  Close your eyes, and put your imagination to work.  View yourself on vacation, in your old childhood bedroom, in an imaginary place, or anywhere else that makes you feel relaxed and happy.  Take it in with as many of your senses as possible.  What do you see?  What do you smell?  What sensations do you notice?  Sounds?  Try this for about ten minutes, and chances are you’ll feel relaxed, calm, and happy.  Hello, free vacation!  No airport lineups.

–  Consider other exercises known for relaxation and stress reduction.  Give yoga a chance, or visit with me to learn about self-hypnosis.  You may be surprised at the relief you experience.

No matter what course or combination of stress relief you choose, choose something.  You are important and do not deserve to feel unhappy and stressed!  Whether you have IBD or not, being overly stressed is not healthy.  You have options.  Visit me at the Integrative Health Institute, and together we can create a plan of attack to keep stress at bay.


Lauren Berger is a Registered Social Worker providing counselling and psychotherapy at IHI.  Check her out at www.laurenberger.ca, drop her a line at lauren@laurenberger.ca, or follow her on Twitter: @LaurenBergerMSW.

image via thornypup via Compfight

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