From Stress to Serenity | Chaim Moshe Steinmetz, LISW

We hear all the time about stress and how bad it is. Stress is known to cause all sorts of physical as well as mental health problems. Although stress is a commonly used word, its definition is not always clear. This article will focus on clarifying what stress is as well as what you can do about it.

Stress is the body’s reaction to pressure or challenge. When any pressure or challenge is present, the brain releases stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine). These hormones have a physical and mental effect. Physically, our heart rate quickens, our energy rises, and our bodies tense up. Mentally, we may be more focused (temporarily) but also more anxious, our thought process may be quicker but less rational. Stress hormones will be released regardless of whether the stressor is positive or negative. For example, planning a vacation can be both positive but stress inducing as well. Stress is a normal response and is not harmful in moderate amounts and if dealt with. When stress becomes chronic and is not dealt with it wears out the brain and body and leads to serious physical and mental health problems. Some of the mental/emotional symptoms of stress include irritability, anger, fatigue, anxiety, low mood, low energy, overwhelm, inability to focus, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, forgetfulness, insomnia and many more. There are also many physical symptoms of stress including back pain, stomach issues, headaches and more.

What are examples of stress? Stress can be induced from both internal or external sources. External sources of stress include financial difficulties, marital problems, parenting issues, work, any life change such as marriage, divorce, moving etc.. and many more. Internal stressors are stress caused by anxiety, depression, low self esteem, self doubt, trauma etc. These stressors don’t have an external trigger, they are caused by what’s happening internally.

As is obvious, there is no way to avoid stress. The good news is that you don’t need to. There are many ways to reduce or eliminate the negative effects of stress and sometimes transform it something positive. Stress affects us on 3 levels, physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s helpful to have methods of stress reduction that intervene at each level. Below are a few of the most effective stress reducing strategies for each level. Each of these are based in scientific research and have been very beneficial to myself and my clients.

Mental: Our thoughts and perspectives determine whether we view any given situation as stressful or positive. But what dictates what thought or perspective we will have? Values. Values are the things we consider important to us, what we value. Getting clear on what your values are is one of the most effective antidotes to stress. Why do you wake up every morning? What’s the point of everything you do? What do you care about? Most stress comes from being involved with things that we really care about. Once you realize that, it radically reduces the stress caused because you realize how much you value it. Contextualizing the “why” behind what you are doing creates fulfillment and meaning in that activity, effectively transforming something stressful into something positive. For example, let’s say you have to wait for half an hour in the carpool line on Sunday to pick up your kids. That can cause irritation, frustration and annoyance, all stressful states. But why are you even there? You value your frumkeit, that’s why your kids are in a frum school that has class on Sunday. You are waiting in the carpool line because you really value what that line is about. You are sacrificing for something you care about. That can eliminate the stress involved and transform the wait into something meaningful.

Emotional: Stress affects our moods. Stress can make us feel anxious, tense, sad, burnt out, lonely etc.. Part of stress management is combating those effects by both reducing negative emotions and increasing positive ones. There are many ways to do this. One of the easiest and most effective ways of raising your mood and increasing positive emotions is through gratitude. Gratitude has an incredibly potent effect on mood. Studies show that writing down just 3 things daily that you feel grateful for has a profound long term effect on happiness, mood, and life satisfaction. These 3 things do not need to be important. It can be as mundane as gratitude for the ice cream in your freezer. The key point is that it’s something that makes you feel gratitude.

Aside from increasing positive emotions, it’s important to decrease negative ones. While it’s often impossible to stop the situation that causes the negative emotions, you can clear out the negative feelings from your brain and body which will help you feel better regardless. An easy way to do this is through what I call “ Rant and Rave Writing”. At the end of each day, take a few minutes to rant and rave on paper about everything that bothered you that day. This writing should be uncensored, don’t mitigate, censor or lessen the feelings, write it exactly how you feel it. Even if you are annoyed that you feel that way, write it anyway, and write that you are annoyed at yourself for feeling that way. Write everything. When you are done, you will feel great! Try it, you’ll be amazed!

Physical: There are many physical interventions that are effective for stress management. Diet has a profound effect on stress and overall mental health. Certain foods have an inflammatory effect on the brain and body. This will cause many symptoms, including a significantly higher level of stress. Reducing or eliminating sugar and white flour can have an enormous effect on overall mood and stress levels.

Exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, has been shown to be as effective for mental health and stress as psychotropic medication. Exercise boosts the anti stress chemicals in the brain and reduces stress hormones. 20 minutes of brisk walking ( sweat inducing) will dramatically lower stress, improve mood, raise energy levels and increase focus.

This last one is unconventional but it’s worth it! Recently there has been a lot of data on the positive benefits of cold water exposure. Taking a (very) cold shower can dramatically improve mood, focus and energy as well as decrease stress, anxiety and enhanced resilience. I personally do this daily and have recommended it to clients with phenomenal results. I feel a huge increase in energy, focus and better mood and the effects last most of the day. It will help you deal with all of your daily stressors with much less stress!

Chaim Moshe Steinmetz, LISW

Chaimmoshesteinmetz.com

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