April, stress, and helicopters

Photograph by Jordan McQueen on Unsplash

You may have wondered why I put these three things together in the title. Well, in this article I talk about stress because in April takes place the stress awareness month to make people aware about its causes and effects. And if you keep reading you can see an awesome exercise to manage stress by taking a helicopter view…

We all feel stress differently, what for one person may be exciting it may be frustrating for another. For this reason and because stress is related to physical (e.g., insomnia) and mental health (e.g., anxiety and depression), it is important to know how to manage it.

The negative effects of stress can affect:

• Behavior (e.g., isolation from others, demotivation).

• Cognition (e.g., difficulty concentrating, and making decisions).

• Emotions (e.g., irritability, frustration).

• Physical health (e.g., indigestion, or hypertension).

It is often said that someone is stressed when is having a negative experience if for instance, a person feels that s/he has too many professional or personal demands and “cannot handle everything”. However, what is actually meant is that s/he is experiencing the type of negative stress also called: distress.

Stress is the reaction (physiological, cognitive and emotional) to a change in a person’s environment. There are two types of stress: distress, which is negative stress and is shown by displaying symptoms like feeling overwhelmed, or irritable; and eustress, which is positive stress and causes pleasant experiences such as excitement.

The difference between experiencing distress or eustress lies in the nature of the stressor, the concept we have about the stressor and our perceived abilities. If, when evaluating a change, we see that we have enough resources and options, for example: relevant skills and social support to overcome the new situation, it is most likely that we will perceive the situation with eustress. On the other hand, if in the evaluation we see that the situation itself is important to us, and that we do not have enough resources to cope, we will most likely experience distress.

Some examples of negative stressors can be losing contact with loved ones, suffering an injury, or having interpersonal conflicts. Positive stressors can be starting a new role on the team, receiving a promotion at work, or being on vacation.

Although these examples are from external events, distress can also be caused internally by our thoughts and feelings. For example, when we worry about waiting for a doctor’s note, or when we set perfectionistic expectations, or when we fear failure. Even our behaviors can lead us to suffer distress in situations when we do not plan tasks well in advance, or if we commit to doing too many activities, or when we do not communicate assertively.

One way to manage distress is to try to put the situation in perspective. To do this, imagine that you board on a helicopter.

1. From the helicopter high up in the air, observe the situation and see the larger picture.

2. Now reflect on the situation: What is happening, with whom, how? What does this situation mean to you? What does this situation mean for the other people in the situation? How important is this situation going to be in 5 days, in 5 months, in 10 years, and in 20 years?

Another way to manage distress is to do a breathing exercise like the following:

1. Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds.

2. Hold the air for 4 seconds.

3. Exhale through the nose for 4 seconds.

4. Wait 4 seconds before breathing in again.

Finally, some other ways to relieve distress include:

• Acknowledging the feelings of distress and its bodily sensations.

• Practicing self-compassion, showing empathy with oneself.

• Accepting that there are things that are out of our control.

• Practicing mindfulness.

• Finding ways to experience positive emotions such as: exercising, laughing with friends, practicing gratitude, listening to music, or enjoying nature.