issue Winter 2022

Stress Reduction: Recognizing Cues That Impact Your Overall Health

By Kristin L. Schneider, PhD

Lifestyle Medicine is an evidence-based intervention to prevent, treat and reverse chronic illness and population-health epidemics through healthy behaviors, including what are often referred to as the six pillars of wellness: good nutrition, regular exercise, quality sleep, stress resiliency, addiction avoidance and social connectedness. Three College of Health Professions faculty members were asked to pick one of the pillars and comment on the lifestyle modifications that can benefit individuals and communities.

Stress is a part of life and not inherently bad. Stress can connect to major life accomplishments and happy memories — I’m thinking about you marathon runners, parents, emergency department professionals, grant recipients and internship/residency match recipients.

While there is no shortage of healthy behaviors we can do to keep stress within a reasonable limit — for example, exercise, meditate, socialize, get sufficient sleep, engage in hobbies — managing stress effectively begins with awareness. What are the signs that your stress level is too high or has been persistently elevated and requires intervention?

Ideally, notice cues that highlight heightened stress before it substantially impacts your physical and mental health. Pay attention to what you stop or start doing when your stress levels rise. In graduate school, I noticed that when I was significantly stressed, I stopped listening to music and singing; those are still my cues. If you struggle with identifying cues, ask close friends or family about what they notice.

Once you are aware of your stress, create a plan, which may vary depending on the type of stress. Time-limited stressors could require short-term solutions, like reprioritizing tasks to complete necessary components, requesting extensions, enlisting assistance and recalibrating your and others’ expectations of what can reasonably be accomplished.

Long-term stressors often require contemplation about how you can adjust your workload to better manage stress. Be creative in brainstorming possible solutions. Interpersonal stressors might necessitate a conversation (or several). Before initiating a conversation, examine how your behavior contributes to the stressful relationship and what you can do to change it. Those changes alone could have a possible impact on the relationship and alleviate stress. If not, then find a time to talk and use effective communication strategies to identify and resolve the issue. If unsuccessful, try again, though you ultimately may decide that ending the relationship is necessary to resolve that particular stress. Whatever your plan, do not avoid stressful tasks since avoidance typically compounds stress.

Any approach to managing stress should be paired with demonstrating compassion for yourself, particularly when there are so many environmental stressors that can occupy our minds and sap our resources. The pandemic, climate concerns, structural racism — these and other factors can heighten stress and impede use of coping strategies. Engage your community for support, and identify actions consistent with your values when these larger stressors seem insurmountable.

If you have taken steps to alleviate stress, continuing to feel overwhelmed may be a sign of a more substantial issue that could require professional support. You can connect with RFU’s Employee Assistance Program or the Student Counseling Service. Lake County offers a 24-hour crisis line at 847-377-8088 for more immediate assistance.

Dr. Kristin L. Schneider is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and associate dean of research for the College of Health Professions. Her research interests include novel interventions to increase physical activity and relationships between physical activity, eating and mood.

Opinions expressed in "Through the Microscope" columns are solely those of the authors and are not intended to represent those of Rosalind Franklin University.