Wellness Wednesdays, presented by Stanford Health Care

Stress Management

Throughout the remainder of the 2017-18 NBA season, the Official Team Physicians of the Golden State Warriors, along with Chelsea Lane – the Warriors' Head of Physical Performance & Sports Medicine – and various Physicians at Stanford Medicine will provide input and suggestions on some of the most common health problems facing everyday people today.

Last time, we covered cardiovascular health, and the steps we can take to ensure we're living a heart-healthy lifestyle. In this installment of Wellness Wednesdays, Lane and Dr. Valerie Hoover tackle the subject of stress management.

In less than a month, the Warriors will enter the postseason, and along with greater stakes comes greater stress.

The players feel it, but so can the fans. It's that palpable tug on your heart, the anxiousness of caring so much, yet being in control of so little. It's the part of being a sports fan that makes everything seem so worth it in victory, and so gut-wrenching in defeat.

But as we know, stress is not limited to playoff games, or even sports for that matter. Stressors are incorporated into our daily lives, affecting what we do, when we do it, how we do it and why. They can be subtle or obvious, easily managed or a constant detriment, and the fact that all people experience stress to some degree speaks to why stress management has become such an important topic in our modern world.

In order to understand how to deal with stress, we must first understand the nature of stress and how it manifests:

"Excessive stress is incredibly pervasive," says Lane. "It can show up in your body, with things like elevated blood pressure, stomach pain and nausea, difficultly sleeping or headaches. But it can also affect your behavior and mood, for example increasing your tendency to drink or smoke or reducing your desire to exercise, or making you feel anxious or withdrawn."

And, as Dr. Hoover explains, not all stressors are created equal. In fact, stress – to a certain extent – can be a good thing:

"A certain amount of stress is a good thing and can actually enhance performance (called ‘eustress'). Physiological arousal increases and with it our thinking and senses become more engaged and our reaction time is quicker. This is true whether you're a professional athlete, or giving a presentation in class or at work. However, when stress increases past a certain point it can impair performance (called ‘distress'). In this state performance can break down and we may feel burned out or fatigued."

Once we recognize that we are stressed, we can then get to the bottom of discovering its source. "It's much easier to tackle a problem if you know what it is," says Lane.

And when that source is identified, we can curtail our behavior to address that stressor, and with any luck, diminish or even eliminate it:

"Identify what sources of your stress you can actively change, and set yourself achievable steps to work on reducing those stressors," says Lane. "Understand that not all sources of stress are within your control, however. In those situations, while you may not be able to remove the stressor, you can make yourself more resilient and capable of coping with the stressor."

So, what actions can we take to be more resilient to and capable of coping with our stress? The opportunities are actually bountifully present throughout our daily routine, and Dr. Hoover has a few specific recommendations to counteract the negative effects of stress.

For instance, exercise can be an effective de-stressor, particularly when it involves the outdoors: "Move your body," says Dr. Hoover. "Go for a walk or jog, head to the gym, whatever you most enjoy. To reap extra emotional benefits take your exercise outdoors...spending time in nature is associated with enhanced feelings of well-being."

A by-product of exercise is fatigue, and on the subject of sleep, Dr. Hoover suggests not only being consistent with our sleep patters, but also maintaining our bedrooms as de-stressed sanctuaries:

"Prioritize sleep. Get up and out of bed at the same time to build consistency in your sleep schedule. Keep the bedroom for sleep and sex only, and do any other activities (especially those involving technology or work) in another room."

Finally, the concept of mindfulness – the psychological process of bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment – has proven to be an effective method of minimizing stress:

"Just be," urges Dr. Hoover. "There's a lot of talk in the media about being ‘present' and ‘mindful.' And research supports taking time to practice mindfulness and the benefits for our emotional and physical well-being. One simple way to be present is to check in with your senses moment-to-moment. What do you see...hear...feel...smell? When thoughts cross through your mind, just say to yourself ‘thinking' and return your attention to your senses. Repeat this again...and again...and again."

So, whether you're shooting a free throw with the game on the line, finishing a term paper or simply just trying to get the house in order ahead of a family visit, stress comes for all of us, and it always will in some form or another. But by diagnosing the causes of our stress and developing a better understanding of where it comes from and why we're experiencing it, we can counteract the stress in healthier, more effective ways that can improve how we see and interact with the world around us.

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