"If you're not stressed, you're not working hard enough." More and more this mantra seems to be woven into our cultural dialogue. Stress may be considered the new "normal," but it doesn't have to be that way. Simple shifts in attitude and practices can yield big benefits. April is National Stress Awareness Month, which gives us the opportunity to look at both negative trends and some signs of hope. Here's the bad news, the good news and how you can make some positive changes now.
The Bad News
The reality is that stress is a factor in most people's lives. It is not just something that shows up during traumatic life events, like a death of a loved one, job loss or divorce. Nowadays, it is palpable in the air at almost all times. Previous generations could leave stress at the office, and wind down at home. Today, with smartphones and social media, there are fewer boundaries, and less downtime. The American Psychological Association's (APA) most recent statistics show:
• 69 percent of U.S. adults surveyed reported experiencing physical symptoms of stress during the previous year.
• Of those Americans reporting extreme stress, 20 percent reported extreme stress levels of 8, 9 or 10.
• Young people are more stressed -- 39 percent of Millennials say their stress has increased in the last year, compared to 36 percent of Gen Xers, 33 percent of Boomers and 29 percent of Matures.
The Good News
Though stress is a constant companion, there are signs of improvement in how people are dealing with stress. In managing their stress, more people appear to be making choices that help rather than hurt them. Unhealthy behaviors like eating and drinking alcohol to manage stress are on a steady decline.
• More people are turning to exercise to manage their stress (52 percent compared with 47 percent in 2011).
• 25 percent of Americans report eating to manage stress compared to 34 percent in 2008.
• 13 percent report drinking alcohol to manage their stress compared with 18 percent in 2008.
• Overall stress declined from 5.2 on a 10-point scale in 2011 to 4.9 in 2012
OK, so stress is here -- what can we do? Let's look at how to alleviate stress on four levels:
Physical: It's common knowledge that exercise is key, but having an exercise buddy can make the difference to stick to it when motivation lags.
Mental: Just as the food we take in affects the health of our bodies, what we take into our minds affects the health and resilience of our minds. Are the thoughts you are thinking making you feel better (appreciation) or worse (blame)? Consider reframing your thoughts and asking, "What am I learning from the challenge at hand?"
Emotional: Emotions are contagious. Make a point of spending time with people that care about your well-being, happiness and success. Life is too short for "frenemies."
Spiritual: Find your own way to connect with something greater. That can be through spiritual practice, spending time in community with like-minded people or even being in nature.
Tips from Science:
There has been much research in neuroscience that indicates that we can actually rewire the neural pathways in our brains to reduce stress and be happier. Here are 5 ways that can help:
1. Express Gratitude:
Instead of focusing on all the things you are worried about, think of what you are grateful for in your life. By jotting down even small things (good cup of coffee, sunny day, great conversation) daily, you will train your brain to be on the lookout for the good stuff, and hence notice more of it. Try this for 21 days, the time it takes to create a habit.
2. Compliment Others:
Consider starting each day giving a compliment or recognition to one of your friends or colleagues. Not only will you enjoy their positive response, but according to Richard Davidson, you will "train your brain to see the good in people, in life and in your self." Sounds like stress-reduction to me!
3. Heart Matters:
Return your heart to a relaxed state that the HeartMath Institute defines as "coherence." Neuroscientist Rick Hanson adapts it into three steps:
1. Breath in and out to the same number of beats (say four beats).
2. At the same time, imagine you are breathing in and out through the area of your heart.
3. Keep in mind a happy moment in your life and the feelings that elicits. You may even feel this good feeling moving through your heart as part of the breath.
The GPS for the Soul App makes this available on your phone.
4. Practice Patience:
How many people are primed to want results and want them now? Unfortunately the world doesn't work quite like that. People are complex and have their own wants and needs. Under pressure, many say things that are perceived as hurtful, often not knowing the effect of their words. It's not personal! Take a few breaths and come into the present moment. Remember that you are basically all right now. There are some things you cannot control, and how you respond is a choice.
5. Get Mindful:
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction lets you take charge of your life by learning new mindful ways to relate to whatever you are dealing with. Using meditation, benefits include reduced stress and anxiety, better sleep, pain management and greater energy and enthusiasm for life. Worth a shot?
Make the choice to do some stress reducing practices, especially when looming deadlines, non-stop emails or the harsh "inner critic" voice appear. You will discover that not only will your productivity increase, your happiness levels will too.
What is the biggest source of stress in your life? How do you deal with it?
For more by Randy Taran, click here.
For more on happiness, click here.
This story appears in Issue 46 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, April 26.