Stress Management

Musicians are often under high amounts of stress. Gaining a better understanding of stress can help you learn to manage it. Stress management is a lifetime commitment, but you will be hard-pressed to find something else with as much of a pay-off for your quality (and perhaps even quantity) of life.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical professional. Nothing in this post should be taken as medical advice. Please consult with your doctor before trying any of these recommendation.

What Is Stress?

The stress response is a psycho-physical reaction to triggers (stressors) that elicit fight-or-flight. The “fight-or-flight” response is an adaptive mechanism where our brains perceive a threat and respond to it with a hormonal reaction (including a release of adrenaline and cortisol) that prepares us to fight or to flee.  Cortisol, the body’s principle stress hormone, “also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.”  (source)

The everyday stress response many of us feel is essentially an outmoded reaction mechanism. Our bodies are responding to the stress of deadlines, job responsibilities, financial worries, etc. with a response that was developed evolutionarily to handle a predatory attack that requires us to fight or flee.  Stress is a normal reaction, but unlike our ancestors who might take a breather once they escaped a predator, many of us live in a constant state of stress that can be damaging to our bodies and our mental health.

What Kinds of Stressors Are There?

In their book Stress Management, Edward A. Charlesworth and Ronald G. Nathan suggest that there are many kinds of stressors, including change, chemical, commuting, decision, media, disease, emotional, environmental, family, pain, phobic, physical, social, work, and terrorism stressors.  (24-39) For many of us, chief among these are work stressors, and Charlesworth and Nathan report that, “the number one predictor of longevity in this country is work satisfaction.” (33)  Still, many of us tend to fixate on workplace stress at the neglect of other life stressors.

Critically, stress management training, itself, can be stressful, so you must be patient with yourself while you develop better life habits.

“Stress management training is a change stressor because training requires giving up old habits and thoughts. Stressful ways of living are harmful, but they are also comfortable and hard to exchange for healthier ways of managing stress.” (32)

Don’t Get Rid of Stress; Manage It

While some devote a lot of time and energy to eliminating stress in their lives, this isn’t always advisable.  Stress is not always harmful.  Stress can motivate us to be creative and to accomplish things we find rewarding; it is what we are seeking when we jump out of an airplane or watch a horror film.  For this reason, much of the research has turned from eliminating stress to managing stress responses.

Before You Get Started

  1. Recognize that stress management requires an investment of time and of energy and that it will ironically be, at least at first, stressful. Push through that initial stress; it’s worth it and the results will serve you for the rest of your life.
  2. Make a public commitment to practice stress management.  We’re likelier to keep commitments when we make them public. The added social pressure helps motivate us to keep with it!
  3. Work with medical professionals if you can.  If you are having medical symptoms that you believe are caused by stress, check with your doctor immediately.  If you can work with a psychologist, it may also help improve your outcomes.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been especially effective in testing for making these sorts of changes in your life.

11 Steps to Managing Stress

  1. Get Enough Sleep: It’s critically important to get enough sleep. Experts recommend 7-9 hours a night, even if you think you can function well on less.  The NIH recommends 7-8 hours for adults and 9-10 hours for teens.  (source)
  2. Relaxation Training: This is an invaluable life skill that tends not to be taught in the US.  There are many approaches to relaxation training.  If you want a good starting place, consider Progressive Relaxation.  Try to set aside about a half hour a day for this.  The results can be remarkable.  (I use this recording.)
  3. Exercise and Diet: Having a healthy, balanced diet, and getting exercise are both effective ways to help keep the stress response in check. Try to avoid drugs and alcohol and limit your caffeine intake.
  4. The (Secular) Serenity Prayer: You don’t need to be a believer to practice the excellent advice of the so-called “Serenity prayer.”  It is a good model of how to effectively use your naturally limited emotional resources.  Strive to figure out what you can change and what you can’t.  For the things you can’t change (which are far fewer than you might first think), learn to accept and live with them.  For the things you can, make good choices about when and how to change them. This requires a continued commitment on your part.
  5. Cultivate Practices of Relaxation and Enjoyment: Find a little time each day to do healthy things that you enjoy and that relax you.
  6. Show Gratitude: Mounting research (some of which is summarized here) suggests that expressing gratitude improves your mood and makes you happier and more resilient.  Consider writing in a nightly gratitude journal, where you write three things down for which you’re grateful every night.  Also, try to find ways to show gratitude to others in your life.
  7. Keep Your Friends Close: Isolation makes everything worse and often when we get stressed or depressed, we tend to push others away. Spend time with those you love and you’ll feel better and be more resilient to stress.
  8. Learn to Say No: There are a lot of reasons why we don’t say no, but learning when and how to say “no” can greatly decrease unnecessary stress.  One of the hardest things is to learn how to say “no” not just to the things you don’t want to do, but to say “no” to some of the things that you do want to do too.
  9. Be Assertive: Learn how to be assertive in your interactions rather than passive or aggressive.  Section V of Charlesworth and Nathan’s book has excellent coverage of this.
  10. Correct Negative Self-Talk: What we say to ourselves shapes our beliefs and, in turn, our reactions to stress.  Try to reframe the things you tell yourself to encourage healthier beliefs and better responses to stress.  (Learn more about self talk here.)
  11. The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good: Many overly stressed people strive for perfection, sometimes without even admitting that they do.  This is a recipe for failure and can lead to unnecessary stress.  Try to be more loving of yourself and just do the best you can.  This also applies to stress management training. As with any major life change, the road to stress management is not always an easy one.  You’ll have days when you don’t get enough sleep, skip your relaxation training, eat poorly, neglect exercise, etc.  Accept these as minor setbacks and move on.  Anything you do to help you manage your stress will ultimately be helpful, but you don’t have to be perfect.

Sources and Further Reading

“How Much Sleep Is Enough?” – NHLBI, NIH. Web. 21 May 2016. (link)

“7 Ways to Boost Your Happiness.” CNN. Cable News Network. Web. 21 May 2016. (link)

Charlesworth, Edward A., and Ronald G. Nathan. Stress Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Wellness. New York: Ballantine, 2004. Print. (associated website)

“Stress Management.” Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk. Web. 21 May 2016. (link)

“Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier – Harvard Health.” Harvard Health. Web. 21 May 2016. (link)

“Stress Management.” Positive Thinking: Reduce Stress by Eliminating Negative Self-talk. Web. 21 May 2016. (link)

“Learn to Manage Stress: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” U.S National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. 21 May 2016. (link)

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What Do You Think?

Share your best stress management recommendations in a comment!

©2016 Aaron Alon. All Rights Reserved.

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