This story went around the Internet a while ago:
A Harvard psychology professor gave a lecture. She started by holding up a glass of water. The students assumed she would ask the obvious question, is the glass half full or half empty? But, she asked a different question: how heavy is the glass? People shouted out guesses. 8 ounces, 10 ounces…
The professor responded that the absolute weight of the glass doesn’t matter. “It depends how long I hold it,” she said. “A minute wouldn’t be a problem. After an hour, I would feel a dull ache. If I hold it all day my arm would feel paralyzed.” Though the weight of the glass stays the same, the longer one holds it, the heavier it becomes.
What’s the point of this? Nobody would voluntarily hold on to something so long that it caused pain, and possibly physical or emotional damage, right?
The truth is, we all do it. We hold on to stress, memories, worries, fear and all sorts of negative thoughts, sometimes for years. Those thoughts and emotions can cause us harm the longer we hold on to them.
Chronic stress has been linked to many health problems including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a weakened immune system. Studies also show a correlation between stress and the development of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. (Maldonado, 2014)
The stress reaction happens when we don’t know how to handle a problem or situation, and we can’t separate our emotional response from what is actually happening. We don’t like feeling out of control or helpless. We react as though the stressful thing is happening to us, rather than seeing it as an opportunity to learn and grow. (Gross, 2015)
Often we are reacting, consciously or unconsciously, to something that happened in the past or something that hasn’t happened yet (and may never happen). When we focus on whatever it is, however, our bodies respond as if it is actually happening right now.
So what can we do to stop the negative effects of stress? For starters, put the glass down. In other words, take a break. This can be as simple as taking a few deep breaths. Here are some other things you can try:
- Simplification. Take stock of what is working for you and what isn’t. Give yourself permission to say no to things that are not easy or possible for you to do, or that you simply don’t want to do. There are no prizes for those who have the busiest lives. There are many intrinsic rewards, however, for those who find fulfillment and enjoyment in life — at least once in awhile.
- Meditation. There are loads of detailed meditation programs out there, but you can start by finding a quiet space, closing your eyes, focusing on your breathing and clearing your mind of all those pesky troubling thoughts. When they persist, simply go back to focusing on your breathing. Doing this for just a few minutes a day can make a big difference in your well-being.
- Activity. Many activities have a meditative quality, such as exercise, art, or reading. Anything that requires some focus or energy, and allows you to forget about your daily worries can be beneficial.
- Gratitude. Finding things to be grateful for and expressing that gratitude is an excellent way to put things in perspective. Even if you only have small things to be grateful for, acknowledging them can shift your focus away from what you don’t have or from what it going wrong to what you do have and what is going right.
- Philanthropy. Helping someone else, even in a small way, can also shift your perspective to one that is more positive.
- Therapy. When life is simply too overwhelming, or your stress is more than you can manage on your own, talking with a professional can be very helpful. There are many strategies a qualified therapist can teach you for dealing with stress.
As we move into the lazy days of summer, remember to hit the pause button from time to time. Our stress levels have a lot to do with how we perceive a situation, and often taking a moment to objectively evaluate what is happening is all you need to get back on track.
If you have concerns about stress, anxiety or are feeling overwhelmed, and would like to speak with someone, contact Maria Droste Counseling Center. We are here to help. Our Access Center can be reached at 303-867-4600.
Maldonado, M. (2014). How Stress Affects Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 22, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/02/25/how-stress-affects-mental-health/
Gross, S. (2015). What Is Stress?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 22, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-stress/