Did you ever think that if you could get rid of the causes of stress in your life, you would be happy?  That is what I thought when I retired a little over a year ago. Instead, a “taking-care-of business” mindset followed me from the workplace into retirement.

Imagine my surprise when I realized that I was still experiencing stress. I was relaxing on the couch one evening when my iwatch alerted me to “breathe”. WHAT?! Tense muscles affirmed this message. I was forced to acknowledge stress and act to calm myself.

What is stress, and what causes it?  According to Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski in their book The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle, stress is a biological response cycle that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Stressors are explained as external forces that elicit a physiological response. We often think of the fight or flight response to a big stressor, like encountering a Michigan black bear. However common examples include caregiving, finances, school, time, traffic, and work. Additionally, stressors we place on ourselves, called internal stressors, can also trigger a stress response.  Worrying about the future, self-criticism, body image, and painful memories can also catapult you into the stress cycle.

What is the physical response to stress?  When exposed to a stressor, blood flow is shifted to areas of the body that are needed to confront the stressor. The heart beats faster; breathing increases; muscles tense; palms sweat; sensitivity to pain diminishes; alertness and sensitivity heighten; and organ systems slow down. Women and men experience stress in different ways, and women are much more likely to feel overwhelmed and exhausted than men.

How can you successfully navigate stress?  Emily and Amelia assert that you cannot ignore the stress and may not be able to get rid of the stressor. What you can do is change the pathway of the stress response. I use 3 A’s to help successfully maneuver the stress cycle, and hope this tool will help you, too.

  1. Acknowledge you are under stress.
  2. Affirm what your physical response looks like.
  3.  Act in a way that works for you to relieve the response.

Here are some actions to consider: 

  1. MOVE. Any body-based activity like progressive relaxation, breathing exercises (can be paired with meditation), imagination, prayer, biking, walking, running, and yoga.
  2. MAKE CONNECTIONS with animals, acquaintances, family, friends, nature, or a higher power.   Laugh; cry; reminisce; share affection. Try a 20 second hug with someone you trust.
  3. CREATE. Immerse in self-expression through art, knitting, puzzles, singing, etc.
  4. SLEEP. Aim for 7-8 hours per night, going to bed and waking up at the same time. Try an App like Calm to help fall asleep and stay longer in deep sleep.

Moving forward through life’s stressors.  We aren’t intended to handle stress alone, especially when stress levels lead to burnout. Listen to your body. If you are handling stress well, thoughts become calm, breathing is better, and muscles relaxed. If not, enlist people who share concern for you to help you rethink your responses to the stress cycle. Dealing successfully with the inevitable stress in our lives leads to greater well-being.

Stephanie Leibfritz and Peggy Sczepanski are two of over 100 local residents who earned a certificate in the science of wellbeing. Leibfritz is retired from MyMichigan Health, where she served as the Manager of Community Health. Sczepanski is a life-long Midland resident and serves as the Global Wellbeing Program Manager for Dow, Inc. This year, the Wellbeing Coalition is again providing a series of monthly articles with practical ways to increase wellbeing.

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