‘How are you?’ is a question we can get asked several times a day. We tend to respond with a simple one-word answer. But how often do we stop and ask ourselves how we are really feeling? Many of us in the “sandwich generation” are coping with the stress of caring for aging parents, adult children, and grandchildren. We may be worried about our physical health, the health of a loved one, or any of the multiple changes that come at this time in our lives. Stress can be brought on by any situation or thought that makes us feel frustrated, angry, fearful, overwhelmed, powerless, or lonely.
Symptoms of stress may be cognitive, emotional, physical or behavioural. Cognitive symptoms include memory problems, difficulty concentrating, poor judgment, anxiety, worrying, difficulty making decisions and feelings of unhappiness. Emotional symptoms include moodiness, short temper, feeling overwhelmed, depression, panic attacks and a sense of loneliness. Physical symptoms include headaches, muscle tension, diarrhea or constipation, butterflies in the stomach, chest pain, rashes, trembling of lips or hands and susceptibility to the flu. Behavioural symptoms include changes in appetite, sleeping too much or too little, grinding teeth, nail biting, fidgeting, procrastinating, and excessive gambling or shopping.
People react to stress in different ways. Some may become angry or agitated, and in turn become overly emotional or unable to sit still. Others become withdrawn or depressed. They may shut down, space out or show minimal energy and emotion. Some people “freeze” under the pressure of stress and feel unable to do anything.
The first and most important step in managing stress is to acknowledge what you are feeling. Take time to reflect on your feelings and process them. Ask yourself if you are reacting negatively or proactively, and how your reactions are impacting yourself and your loved ones. Asking yourself these questions will help you learn to cope with stress: if you can recognize the symptoms, you can change your behaviour.
Eating healthy foods and incorporating physical activity into your lifestyle can also help you manage stress. Determine what you find relaxing and enjoyable. Meditation, yoga, breathing techniques, relaxing CDs, humour, aromatherapy, nature, herbal tea, art, spirituality, journaling, and new hobbies are just some of the practices used to manage stress.
What is relaxing for one person may not be relaxing for another, so it is important to figure out what works for you. If you can not immediately escape a stressful situation (such as work), sometimes it helps to close your eyes for a minute or close your door and take a mini-break.
In order to cope with stress effectively, it is important to talk about mental health. Do not keep your thoughts and feelings bottled up. Good mental health is the sense of well-being that comes with knowing you can cope with life’s challenges. Learning to cope with stress will help improve your quality of life and help you find a balance between all aspects of life: social, physical, spiritual and emotional.
Jennifer Spencer is the program manager for mental health, patient transport and the central relief team at Victoria General Hospital. To support the Vic’s mental health program please contact the Victoria General Hospital Foundation at 477-3513 in Winnipeg or visit online at www.thevicfoundation.ca.