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Reducing Stress

What is stress?

The word “stress” is commonly used to express the feeling of having too many things such as responsibilities and work loads weighing us down, and when we are wondering if we are able to cope with these pressures. In fact, stress can refer to anything that poses a challenge to us, or if it threatens our well being.

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Stress is a very common phenomenon. It is the body’s way of responding to external demands. When external factors cause a person to feel stress, their bodies release chemicals into the blood, which can give the person more energy and strength, hence enabling them to overcome the said external factor. However, there is good stress and bad stress. Stress can be good in the sense that it helps one to overcome difficulties. In fact, a life without any stress at all could turn out to be rather boring. Some might even say that it would be pointless. But if the cause of the stress is emotional, hence leaving the person with no available outlet for his or her extra strength and energy, the stress can be considered bad. Of course, if stress is too extreme or is too long term, it is considered bad stress as well, as the body will eventually be worn out. This article will be focussing on ‘bad’ stress, its causes and some suggestions to reduce stress.

When a person is stressed, the following biological changes take place

  • Breathing becomes more rapid, some times resulting in hyperventilation
  • Digestive system slows down
  • Heart rate (pulse) rises
  • Immune system becomes less effective against viruses and bacteria
  • Muscles become very tense
  • Heightened state of alertness

It is important to be able to identify when the stress levels that you are suffering from is too high. Being able to recognize and manage your own stress level can greatly improve the quality of your life.

What causes stress?

In order to treat your stress and to learn to deal with it better, the first thing you need to do is to be able to identify what exactly is causing your stress. Stress can be due to many different factors. It can be due to physical factors (such as when you feel fear of or are threatened by something dangerous) or emotional factors (worrying and being nervous about things such as a job interview).

The following are several basic types of stress, and when they are most likely to occur:

  • Survival Stress - This is a rather common type of stress. It can occur in all living things that are able to experience emotion, such as animals. When you are faced with danger or fear, your body will naturally respond with a burst of energy and adrenaline. This extra energy will allow you to better survive whatever dangerous situation you are facing. As such, this is a good type of stress that enables you to fight or flight.
  • Internal Stress - Internal stress is a type of stress that people impose on themselves. For example, if you have ever caught yourself worrying about things that you have no control over, or worrying at no reason at all? If you have, let us tell you now that that is internet stress. It is one of the most important but difficult types of stress to manage since you have to change your mind set. Which is a lot more difficult that changing your external stress factors.
  • Environmental Stress - Environmental stress is a type of stress where things around you (in your environment) cause you to feel stressed. This can include stress from loud noises, and even pressure from your work or family. Peer pressure is another common type of environmental stress.
  • Overwork and Fatigue - If you have overworked yourself to the point that you are fatigued, you are actually imposing some stress on yourself as well. For example, if you work too much or too hard, you are causing stress to yourself. This type of stress usually builds up over a long time and can cause quite a lot of harm to your body. However, it can easily be avoided by changing some lifestyle habits. For instance, you could take some time each day to do something relaxing such as exercising or watching your favorite television program.

Common facts about stress

  • It is a very common phenomenon, but it often goes unnoticed and untreated, causing the condition to escalate, sometimes until the point where it develops into depression.
  • Billions of people around the world suffer from stress each year.
  • Three out of four people state that they experience stress at least twice a month.
  • Stress can be a contributing factor to high blood pressure, heart disease, and strokes. It can also weaken your immune system, hence causing you to be more susceptible to less serious illnesses such as the common cold. In fact, stress can also be a contributing factor to alcoholism, obesity, cigarette use, drug addiction, depression, and other harmful behaviors. This is because stress affects your mind and ability to think well.
  • In the last twenty years, there has been a great increase in the number of people who report that stress affects their work. Specifically, the number has increased by more than four times over the past twenty years.
  • A fourth of all the drugs prescribed in the United States of America are for the treatment of stress.

The dangers of stress

Some types of stress can be beneficial in small amounts, but once too much stress accumulates, it becomes bad for you. Not only can it lead to depression, and in worse cases, suicide, but it can also affect your ability to think. This causes your judgement to be impaired. That is why stress has been said to be a contributing factor to the formation of harmful behaviours such as drug addiction and alcoholism. Stress also takes a toll on your body physically, weakening your immune system and making you more susceptible to both minor and major illnesses.

How to reduce stress?

Are you looking to reduce the stress levels in your life? You should know that it is easy to do so, as long as you put your mind to it. We know that sometimes you may feel like it is impossible to deal with the stress and definitely no way to put a stop to it or even reduce it, but when you feel that way, just try to change your mind set. The simple realisation that you can be in control of your own life is the first and most fundamental step towards managing your stress well. Managing your stress levels, in a nutshell, is simply taking charge of your own life. This includes taking charge of your thoughts, your emotions, your lifestyle and schedule, and also the way you think or and deal with problems.

It is also useful to get some close friends or family members that you trust and commit to be accountable to them, because moral support from these people can go a long way in the management of stress levels. They can be there to encourage you and pick you up should you happen to falter halfway.

The first thing you need to do to manage your stress is to identify what exactly are the things in your life that are causing you stress. Only then can you take steps to correct these things. To do that, examine carefully your habits, attitudes, and lifestyle. Think of when exactly you feel stressed, and look at each individual event that takes place. Pin point the culprit, and then you can take steps to rectify the problems.

It is also important to look at how you currently cope with stress. A lot of people have ‘bad’ habits of dealing with stress. Most just brush it off as a temporary thing, which it is really not. Some also turn to damaging behaviours to deal with stress. The following are some of the bad habits with which people turn to deal with their stress. Do keep in mind that these are bad examples that you should not follow.

  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Alcoholism
  • Over eating or under eating
  • Abusing drugs in order to relax
  • Spending lots of time in from of the television or computer, zoning out
  • Sleeping too much
  • Procrastinating
  • Always keeping yourself completely occupied for the entire day in order to avoid facing or thinking about problems
  • Withdrawal from other people, such as your friends, family or colleagues. This includes any activities or interactions with these people.
  • Turning to violence as a way to let off steam. This can refer to violence on yourself or on others. It also includes both physical and verbal violence.

If you are guilty of any of the above habits, we want you to know that not all is lost yet. In fact, it’s a good thing that you have been able to identify these bad habits, for only then will you be able to correct it. So if you are guilty of any of the above habits, or even if you are not, it is good to learn some healthier methods of coping with stress.

Stress management

There are some general guidelines to stress management. However, there is no one size fits all strategy, so you need to experiment around to find which method suits you best. In general, just make sure that no matter what method you choose, it makes you feel calm and in control.

Basically, you can choose from four different methods of dealing with stress. They are: Avoiding the stressor, altering the stressor, adapting to the stressor, and accepting the stressor. They can be classified into two categories. The first two can be classified as methods to change your situation, while the latter two can be classified as methods to change your reaction to the situation, both of which are viable solutions to stress management.

  • Avoiding the stressor

This is a very common method of managing stress. By avoiding unnecessary stress, you will be able to reduce your stress level drastically. There are a few ways to do this. You can either learn how to say no to bad influences or things that stress you out, such as added responsibilities in your personal life or professional life, or you can simply completely avoid people who stress you out. If that is not possible, then limit the time that you spend with those people. If environmental factors such as heavy traffic or crowded places stress you out, you can avoid those as well. Simply take a longer but less congested route home, and avoid crowded places by doing your grocery shopping and other miscellaneous chores online. Also, if certain conversational topics get you all stressed up, try to minimise the amount of time that you spend with people who often bring up those topics. Alternatively, you can excuse yourself politely when people bring the topic up. To do all these, simply jot down your daily schedule, responsibilities, and tasks. From there, pick out the things that you feel stress you out. Or you can take note of things that stress you out throughout the day, and jot them down when you have the time to. Then, take steps to avoid these things, if it is possible.

  • Altering the stressor

In some cases, it will not be possible to avoid the situation completely. In these cases, you can try to alter the situation. For example, express your feelings instead of bottling them up. Let’s take the example of uncomfortable conversation topics as an example. If someone often brings up topics that you are not comfortable with, but you are unable to avoid the person, try pointing out politely to the person that you are not comfortable with those topics. Perhaps if the person was aware of your discomfort, he or she would stop bringing up those topics in future, and your situation would be altered. Of course, that is the best case scenario. In some cases, the person may not be willing to change their behavior for you. If that is the case, try to find a middle ground. Discuss and reach a compromise which will make both of you happy. For example, you could agree that the person can still bring up the topic, but that he or she minimize the frequency of bringing it up. On your end, you could try to at least tolerate it at times, since the person is already willing to change a little for your sake. Be a little assertive and not too passive, though. Because if you are too passive, the person is likely to just ignore your request as he or she will think that it isn’t a big issue for you anyway.

  • Adapt to the stressor

In some cases, you will not be able to change the situation. As such, you will have to adapt to it. This can be done by changing your attitudes and mind sets. For example, try to view whatever stresses you out from a different, more positive perspective. Let’s take the heavy traffic as an example. If heavy traffic frustrates you and you are unable to find a different route to take, why not view it differently? See it as a time to pause and relax. Listen to some of your favorite songs on the radio, and enjoy the alone time. It is also a good idea to adjust your standards. If you are constantly demanding perfection from yourself, try to lower your expectations. You will find that your life will be a lot more relaxing and bearable. Perhaps look at the big picture instead. When beginning on a task, ask yourself if it will really matter in a year’s time and if it is worth it. If your answer is no, then focus your time and energy elsewhere.

  • Accept the stressor

Sometimes, the only choice we have available to us is to simply accept the things that cause stress to us. Instead of always fighting against it and complaining about it, why not try to accept it and move on? Yes, we know that it is much easier said than done, but why not give it a shot? Anything is possible as long as we set our minds to it and we have support from friends and loved ones. In the long run, you will be glad you did it. So how is this done? Look at the things in your life that stress you out. Try to access them one by one. Decide if they are truly controllable. If they are not, then don’t bother trying so hard to control it, because that will only cause you more frustration and stress. You can also try to look at the positive side of things. Find something about those stressful events that you can be thankful for. Most importantly, you need to try to change your mind set. Learn to forgive and forget. It is also very helpful if you can find someone you trust, whom you can open up to and talk to. You will be surprised how big a difference it makes to be able to confide in someone instead of bottling everything up.

Tips to reduce stress

Aside from the above mentioned four main strategies, there are many tips and methods that you can use to reduce stress levels as well.

  • Make some time for fun and relaxation regularly

This is especially so for those who are always busy with work or other responsibilities. It is important to make some time to rest and recharge. Even if it is only 15 minutes a day, you will be surprised at how much difference it can make. Perhaps take some time off in the evening to go for a jog. Or watch some of your favourite television programmes. For others, it may be reading a book or spending time with your friends.

  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle

Strong physical health is actually one of the factors you need to reduce stress. Some ways to do so would be to exercise regularly (a rough guide would be about 30 minutes of exercise, three times every week), having a healthy diet (balanced, nutritious meals three times a day), and reduced intake of addictive substances such as caffeine, sugar, alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. These things may make you feel high for a while, but it often ends with a crash, which will have you feeling worse than you did before. You should also ensure that you get enough sleep, because you need rest to fuel your mind and body. If you are deprived of sleep, your judgement and ability to think may be impaired. This causes you to think irrationally, hence increasing your stress levels.

  • Keep a stress journal.

Have a small notebook with you throughout the day. Or you can also choose to use your smartphone for this purpose. As the day progresses, note down things that stress you out. From there, you will be able to identify the stressors in your life and take steps to correct it. You can also jot down things that you find helps you to relieve stress.

Tips to reduce stress

  • Go for a walk
  • Spend time in nature
  • Call up a good friend and have a chat, or go out and have a drink together
  • Have a warm cup of coffee or tea, but avoid using this method too much, as these beverages contain caffeine, which can cause stress and prevent you from having a good night’s rest.
  • Spend time with your companion animal
  • Work in your garden (by this we mean gardening, not doing your work in the garden)
  • Have a soothing and relaxing massage
  • Go for a run or some other form of exercise. This can help you to sweat out your tension
  • Write in your journal, express your feelings
  • Take a long, warm bath
  • Light some scented candles. The pleasing aroma can help to calm your nerves. Essential oils will work for this purpose as well
  • Curl up with a good book
  • Listen to some relaxing music
  • Watch a comedy
  • Meditate. No, we don’t mean twisting your body into uncomfortable positions. Any repetitive action can be a source of meditation, according to experts. This can include swimming, walking, painting, knitting, or any other activity that helps you to keep your attention calmly in the present moment instead of wandering off and thinking about things that upset you.
  • Picture yourself relaxed. Have you ever been in a hot place and then closed your eyes and imagined that there were lots of fans surrounding you, blowing towards you and keeping you cool? If you have, you will find that it actually does help. So the next time you are feeling stressed, picture yourself relaxed. Imagine yourself in your favorite vacation spot, be it on the beach or having a relaxing massage. Basically, take your mind off the current situation and replace it with an image that helps you to relax.
  • Take deep breaths. When you are stressed, you will tend to have tense and shallow breathing. This causes further tension in your body. So the next time you are feeling stressed, focus on slowing down your breathing and taking deeper breaths. You can try letting out a great big sigh and exhaling gently. Stay focused on breathing this way for a while, and you will find that you will start to feel better. In fact, this can be a form of meditation as well! Because as you recall, meditation is simply any repeated activity that helps you to take your mind off the current situation.
  • Take a good look around you. This may seem incredulous, but taking a good look around you and having your mind focused on other things will help to reduce your stress levels as well. With greater awareness and mindfulness, you will have a richer and more meaningful life. This also helps you to focus less on the little things that stress you out and more on life as a whole. Again, it’s the idea of looking at the big picture.
  • Show some love and affection. Be it to your pet or to a loved one, showing some love actually helps to reduce stress hormones. According to experts, social interaction can help your brain to think better and encourage you to see new solutions to situations that you would never have thought of before.
  • Try to give yourself a little massage. Follow the following instructions by Darrin Zeer, author of Lover’s Massage and Office Yoga Relax: Place both hands on your shoulders and neck. Squeeze with your fingers and palms, then rub vigorously, making sure that you keep your shoulders relaxed the whole time. Next, wrap one hand around the other forearm and squeeze the muscles with your thumb and fingers. Move up and down from your elbow to your fingertips and then back again. Then, repeat with the other arm.
  • Take a time out. Whenever you feel that you are about to cross the threshold, simply take a breather. Just take about 5 minutes to have a walk or to take a few deep breaths. Whatever you choose to do, concentrate on releasing tension and calming yourself down while doing it. It is also a good idea to try to focus on other things instead of spending the whole time out thinking and fuming about the stressor.
  • Listen to some music. When you feel that you are stressed out, why not try to listen to some calm and soothing music? Find a nice song with a slow tempo, and close your eyes and listen to it. Classical tunes are great for this purpose. You will be surprised to find that it really works. In fact, researchers have found that listening to 30 minutes of classical music may be able to produce the calming effects equivalent to that of taking about 10 milligrams of Valium.
  • Marijuana has been found beneficial in studies to induce relaxation.
  • Take small meals regularly throughout the day instead of having three big meals. This helps to keep your blood sugar level stable throughout the entire day, as opposed to the highs and lows you get when you have three big meals a day. When it is unstable, your mental, physical and emotional energy will decrease, and this causes your stress levels to increase.

Foods that reduce stress

There are lots of types of foods that have been said to be useful for reducing stress levels. The following are just some of these foods:

  • Oranges – oranges are high in vitamin C, which has been said to be helpful for reducing stress levels and normalizing blood pressure.
  • Sweet potatoes – sweet potatoes are a good source of carbohydrates and sweets. They also contain a lot of beta-carotene and other vitamins, and the fiber in the sweet potatoes help your body to process the carbohydrates in a slow and steady fashion. This helps to stabilise your blood sugar levels, and also to reduce your stress.
  • Dried apricots – apricots are a rich source of magnesium, which is a well known stress buster and muscle relaxant
  • Nuts such as almonds, pistachios and walnuts – many types of nuts are packed with vitamins B and E, which can help to boost your immune system. Others have also been known to be good for lowering blood pressure. All these will help to reduce stress levels.
  • Turkey – turkey contains an amino acid known as L-tryptophan. This amino acid has been shown to trigger the release of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a feel good brain chemical that has a documented calming effect.
  • Spinach – spinach is a type of leafy green vegetable that is high in magnesium. Magnesium is essential for having good concentration and energy levels. A lack of magnesium can result in migraine headaches and fatigue, which contribute to stress levels.
  • Salmon – salmon is a type of fish that is high in omega 3 fatty acids. It not only protects you against heart disease but also keep stress hormones known as cortisol and adrenaline from rising to extremely high levels.
  • Avocados – avocados contain a lot of monounsaturated fats and potassium. These help to reduce blood pressure. Bananas are another great source of potassium.
  • Leafy green vegetables – leafy green vegetables such as broccoli and kale are great sources of vitamins that help to replenish and nourish your bodies in times of stress.

References


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