The Doctor Told Me That My Stress Caused My....
(Headaches, Insomnia, Burning Stomach, Or Whatever Your Symptoms Are)
If you have a stress-related symptom, you're not alone! Nearly 85 percent of visits to doctors (and nearly as many to psychologists) are for stress-related problems. Read on to understand how reacting to stress with physical tension can lead to headaches, ulcers, insomnia, excessive fatigue, high blood pressure, sore shoulders, or any stress-related disorder. Learn how you can begin doing something about it right now -- even while reading this article.
Remember how you felt the last time you were under extra stress? Maybe you were giving a speech, taking an especially important test, speaking up in a large class. Your heart pounded, your hands got cold and clammy, you began to sweat, your muscles got tense.
These biological responses were critical to the survival of our ancestors, who were constantly faced with physical threats: tigers, bears, prairie fires. Each physical threat set off their fight-or-flight response for 20 or 30 minutes while they defended themselves. Then they had a recovery period -- two or three hours to slow down (no assignments, no telephone calls, no tests) while their bodies returned to a more normal, relaxed state.
Today, however, few of us live in fear of constant physical danger, but we still react with our bodies as if we did. And we react between 50 and 200 times a day.
That's right--50 to 200 times daily. Not as much as we would to a tiger -- more at the cub level. But we do react. And that's where our problems begin.
Researchers who study stress say that you react to things that happen to you daily, to your thoughts, to other people. When you wake up and remember a paper that's due, you react. The clothes you were going to wear today have a spot on them. You react momentarily. Where are the car keys? A slow checkout line. A book you need for the paper that's due isn't in the library. Your mind wanders in class and you realize that you've missed a key point the instructor just made.
You react so often that you've eliminated that needed recovery period. So the tension builds and builds all day long and day after day.
Why? Because you've never been taught skills for dealing positively with nonphysical events, hassles, or threats. Fortunately, it's not too late to learn!
Learning to be too tense early in life causes stress problems later. Through childhood experiences you were led to believe that to succeed you needed to put yourself in high gear or psych yourself up in order to perform well. Perhaps it was on your first test in the second or third grade. You got a little nervous. Took the test, and passed it. During the next test you got a little psyched up and got a good grade, too. In junior high and high school you got good at that pattern - when taking tests, giving a speech, doing all kinds of things.
In college you fine tune your skills and become a real pro at getting at least a little tense and psyched up when given the right performance cues -- a book to be studied, a test, the thought of a paper that's due, or a design project.
You are probably convinced that stress and performance go hand in hand, convinced that you need to psych yourself up to perform well. Most people believe this. Seems reasonable. After all, it worked in the past and you've never learned any other way. As a result, tension and stress are the motivators you know best.
Remember that most of us react about 100 times each day with modest fight-or-flight responses. We usually have one biological system that reacts more strongly than the others. It's the system that eventually shows signs of wear.
For example, many of us react a little more with our muscular system in times of stress. We wake up, think of the paper that's due, react a little with our bodies, and our shoulder muscles tense a little more. We can't find the keys to the car, and our shoulders tense up a little extra. We can't find a book in the library, and our shoulders tense up. A hundred times, day after day.
When a muscle is tensed, it takes 20 minutes for it to relax completely. When we're reacting many times a day, there isn't that recovery period that our bodies need. So the tension builds. Muscle reactors might hurt from tense shoulders and neck, tension headaches could begin as the day progresses, lower back problems might occur, or you could be overly tired at the day's end. Those tense muscles are like driving a car with the brakes on--it runs out of gas. And so do our bodies.
Are you a "cardiac reactor?" If so, your heart rate speeds up under stress. Or maybe it's your blood pressure that increases those 100 times a day, so your high blood pressure eventually is high all the time. Some people dump extra acid into their stomachs and have burning sensations or ulcers. Stress also results in depressed immune systems, resulting in more frequent illness.
Some reactions are more psychological: insomnia, getting depressed or overly anxious, constantly worrying.
Migraine headaches follow a different pattern. They usually happen on weekends after the stress is over. You take your last final exam, and then you get a migraine. But this is understandable. Fifteen thousand years ago, after fighting a tiger, persons recovered for two or three hours. During this recovery time, blood vessels expanded to carry more blood for carrying away lactic acid and other products produced during the high-energy, fight-or-flight phase. In migraine-prone people, there is an initial constriction of blood vessels in the scalp, followed by over-dilation. This excessive dilation sets off nerves around blood vessels. The overly expanded vessels pulsate as the heart pumps, irritating surrounding tissue so that more chemicals are produced, contributing to the pain and nausea.
All these reactions can be minimized or avoided if we learn to master our biological reactions to stress. Learning to be more relaxed during the many daily stresses is the key.
Try this simple, beginning exercise to check WHERE DO YOU HOLD YOUR TENSION.
You have to believe that you can be just as productive when you are more relaxed. You need to understand that you do not need to get yourself so psyched up to succeed.
There is considerable research evidence that if we are relaxed we can
(a) perform at least as well
(b) perform better.
You've experienced that when giving a talk. As you relaxed, you spoke more effectively. The same holds for relaxation and performance. As you relax, you read faster, remember more, do better on tests, and improve your performance in many areas. And you do it without spending (wasting?) as much energy.
So it's true. You can be less tense and more relaxed while continuing to be as productive as ever -- perhaps more so.
Relaxation is hard for many of us because we do not equate it with success. We are afraid to change the psyched-up behavior that has helped us succeed in the past (and also has resulted in tension, headaches, insomnia, etc.). Yet those who take the time to practice and learn relaxation strategies are rewarded in two ways:
- they perform better (remember more of what they read, concentrate better, read faster) and
- they have fewer stress problems and more energy.
Take a moment to try another brief exercise: SEATED TWIST.
The key is active relaxation: learning to go through the day getting things done in a more relaxed style.
Learning active relaxation takes practice, as does learning any skill, be it writing, tennis, or speaking in public. Be patient with yourself as you practice your new skills over the next few weeks. Six weeks or so is not much time compared to the many years you've been learning to get more psyched up than necessary.
Three related strategies will help you learn active relaxation:
Remember that you react 50, 75, or 100 times every day with modest fight-or-flight physical responses. So your tension builds all day long, unless you do something often to break the build-up. And what you do has to be something that does not interfere with getting done what you have to do.
Brief strategies are the answer, if done frequently at all those brief natural breaks in your activities. Throughout this page, you are given an opportunity to practice some brief relaxation strategies. Do these really work? YES! And there's been research to support their success. The critical factor is doing them several times a day.
- As tension begins to build: take a quick break and lower the tension level.
- When it builds again, try another brief exercise: TOE TENSE.
There are many natural breaks in your day when you can practice relaxing. Work these brief exercises into your routine. For example:
- While waiting for the instructor to begin lecturing,
- Begin every study session with a 1-2 minute relaxation,
- Do one before every meal,
- When using the restroom,
- Waiting for class to start,
- When at stop lights,
- Standing in a check-out line, etc.,
- Let the phone ring one more time and do a quick exercise,
- When you get books out to study.
Doing brief strategies many times a day is the most important method for controlling stress levels and eliminating your stress symptoms.
When you first do them, you'll find that your old, too-tense habits take over just as soon as you turn your attention back to the instructor, to the books, or whatever you were doing. But practice maintaining the more relaxed state for longer periods of time. Just keep at it. You'll begin to catch your tenseness sooner, to let the tension go, and to become more comfortably productive.
You'll need reminders to help you remember to do many brief strategies. Otherwise you'll act out of habit with the old, too-tense reaction. Put reminders where you'll see them many times each day:
- on your backpack zipper,
- around your desk,
- on your watch,
- on the rear view mirror of your car,
- on your refrigerator.
The reminders can be:
- colored ribbon
- stick-on smiling faces
- a watch set to beep every hour
- ads from magazines (a tranquil lake from a travel ad; "Keep Cool" from an air conditioner ad)
Reminders are important. Use them. And make them fun.
Your brief strategies during the day will work better if you spend time training more intensely at relaxing. A basketball player might shoot foul shots for 20 minutes every day in order to do well for a few seconds during a game. ln the same way, if you practice getting more relaxed for 15-20 minutes a day, you'll do better during those brief moments when you do a quick relaxation exercise (your "game").
Do you play your guitar to relax? If so, play it for a while. Then sit quietly while maintaining that inner calm state. It's the state you want to get good at approaching with your brief strategies during the day.
Or do you have a favorite "quiet spot?" It can be a real one you've used in the past or an ideal place you've created in your mind. Go there just in your mind. Achieve the calm feeling and practice maintaining it. Or perhaps you use calm music to quiet yourself (but not music with favorite lyrics or a real beat that tends to capture your thoughts).
Check online (e.g., YouTube.com for music or videos for relaxation or meditation skills. Your local bookstore will also have resources for you to consider. Try them and see if there's one you can do on your own. You'll probably find that just parts help you. That's okay. Use what works for you.
Train as regularly as possible. Eventually you will be able to cut your training time down to one or two five minute sessions every day or two. And you'll have that longer strategy to use when you "lose it" and get uptight.
Begin Now. Do It!!!
- Other Counseling Services brochures on stress:Check our LINKS page for additional information. You may also want to do a web search for other sites dealing with stress and relaxation.
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You may find it helpful to be able to practice by closing your eyes and listening to an audio version of this instruction. Click here to access the audio file for "WHERE DO YOU HOLD YOUR TENSION"
Note what part of your body has some unneeded tension in it right now -- jaws? feet? neck? eyes? forehead? shoulders? tongue? back? stomach? hips? legs? Move that part slowly, stretch it out gently. Then just let it relax and let that tension go. Keep it relaxed while taking several deep breaths in and out, slowly.
You may find it helpful to practice by closing your eyes and practicing while listening to the audio version of this instruction. Click here to access the audio file for "SEATED TWIST".
Check that part of your body for tension again -- let it go. While it's relaxed, while you are seated, slowly turn the upper half of your body to one side, arms out a bit, and look over that shoulder. Take a deep breath and let it out as you slowly turn to the other side. Breath deep and turn back. Repeat.
You may find it helpful to close your eyes and practice while listening to the audio version of this instruction. Click here to access the audio file for "TOE TENSE"
First, tense all your muscles by raising your toes as if to touch your shins. Hold it while tensing your legs and buttocks, clenching your fists and jaws, closing your eyes tight, taking a deep breath and holding it, so you are tense all over. Then let go all at once.
"Current research shows that some people whose lives are extremely busy do not feel overwhelmed by stress."--Pelletier says. "While at work, they work very hard, but at other times of day they operate in another mode. Modern society does have its chronic stresses. But there's usually a way to break that frantic cycle and build some islands of peace and tranquility into our lives...."
Tom Ferguson, M.D. "Dr. Pelletier's Guide to Do-lt-Yourself Stress Management. Medical Self-Care, September-October, 1986.
- Schedule time for phone calls to people you enjoy.
- Have lunch once a week with a special friend.
- Sign up for a recreation class in guitar playing, bird watching, juggling, or some fun activity. You'll probably enjoy the other people who also chose it.
- Enroll in one "different" University class each year.
- Enroll in an aerobics class.
- Have a five-minute stretching routine and use it daily. Learn a different one each month.
- Get or give a back rub.
- Go feed some grass to the horses at the University farms.
Take a few minutes now. Brainstorm and generate a list of some things you'd enjoy. Put the list on your refrigerator and add to it.
Each Sunday make sure you have some "island of peace" planned for the week. Also, feel free to grab some five- or ten-minute extras as opportunities appear.
Deep Breath. Click here to access the audio file for "DEEP BREATH".
Take a deep breath. Hold it for about three seconds. Then let it out all at once (with a sigh, if you want). As you exhale, let your jaw relax, your shoulders relax, and think "calm." Let your teeth remain slightly apart (we should go through the day with a slight space between our jaws!) .
Cool Air In, Warm Air Out. Click here to access the audio file for "COOL BREATH".
With your eyes closed. Shift your attention to the tip of your nose. As you breathe in become aware of the air coming into your nostrils. As you breathe out be aware of the sensations of the air passing back out. Notice that the air coming in tends to be cooler and the air breathed out tends to be warmer. Be aware of cool air in, warm air out. Feel loose and heavy as you are doing it. Do this several times.
Shoulder Roll. Click here to access the audio file for "SHOULDER ROLL".
Raise your shoulders as if trying to touch your ears with them. Then move your shoulders back; then let them drop. Up, back, down, and around. Do that about five times. Some persons find it helps more if they roll their shoulders forward rather than backward. Experiment to see which works best for you. Keep your jaw relaxed and breathe easily.
Stand And Reach. Click here to access the audio file for "STAND AND REACH".
Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Put your arms over your head and interlace your fingers. Turn your palms toward the ceiling and stretch, trying to reach the ceiling. Stand on your toes and stretch if you can. Remember to breathe deeply and calmly.
Sample Self-Directed Visualization
Re-create a Favorite Calm Scene. Click here to access the audio file for "VISUALIZATION".
Take a deep breath. As you let it out, let your eyes close. Imagine snuggling down in a warm bed. Or lying on a beach at a favorite lake. Or taking a luxurious warm bath. Maintain the feelings of calm as you gently activate yourself.
Create a Feeling: Calm, Serene.
One woman helped rid herself of migraine headaches by recalling a serene grandmother. When everyone else seemed to be frantic, or when life became hectic, the grandmother remained calm. So several times a day the woman visualized her serene grandmother, and it made her feel more serene herself.
Originally written in 1989 by David G. Danskin, Ph.D., Counseling Services; modified and updated in 8/2000 by Dorinda Lambert, Ph.D. for inclusion on the Internet; updated in 5/2015.
Help Yourself is created by Kansas State University Counseling Services
© 1989, 1997 Kansas State University