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Stress and Happiness - Keeping your cool

Your body is hard-wired to react to stress in ways meant to protect you against threats from predators and other aggressors. Such threats are rare today, but that doesn’t mean that life is free of stress.

On the contrary, you undoubtedly face multiple demands each day, such as shouldering a huge workload, making ends meet and taking care of your family. Your body treats these so-called minor hassles as threats. As a result you may feel as if you’re constantly under assault. But you can fight back. You don’t have to let stress control your life.

Understanding the natural stress response

When you encounter a perceived threat – a large dog barks at you during your morning walk, for instance – your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

Cortisol 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.

When the natural stress response goes haywire

The body’s stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.

But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.

The long-term activation of the stress-response system – and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones – can disrupt almost all of your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

That’s why it’s so important to learn health ways to cope with the stressors in your life.

Why you react to life stressors the way you do

Your reaction to a potentially stressful event is different from anyone else’s. How you react to stressors in your life is affected by such factors as:

Genetics. The genes that control the stress response keep most people on a fairly even keel, only occasionally priming the body for fight or flight. Overactive or underactive stress responses may stem from slight differences in these genes.

Life experiences. Strong stress reactions sometimes can be traced to traumatic events. People who were neglected or abused as children tend to be particularly vulnerable to stress. The same is true of people who have experienced violent crime, airplane crash survivors, military personnel, police officers and firefighters.

You may have some friends who seem laid-back about almost everything and others who react strongly at the slightest stress. Most reactions to life stressors fall somewhere between those extremes.

Stress relief

Do you know anyone who isn’t at times stressed out these days? The pace of modern life makes stress management a necessary skill for everyone. Many people juggle multiple responsibilities, work, home life, caregiving and relationships. Learning to identify problems and implement solutions is the key to successful stress reduction.

The first step in successful stress relief is deciding to make stress management an ongoing goal, and to monitor your stress level.

Once you start monitoring your stress level, the next step is identifying your stress triggers. When or under what situations do you experience the most stress? Some causes of stress are easy to identify, such as job pressures, relationship problems or financial difficulties. But daily hassles and demands, such as commuting, arranging child care or being overcommitted at work, also can contribute to your stress level.

Positive events also can be stressful. If you got married, started a new job and bought a new house in the same year, you could have a high stress level. While negative events in general are more stressful, be sure to also assess positive changes in your life.

Once you’ve identified your stress triggers, you can start thinking about strategies for dealing with them. Identifying what aspect of the situation you can control is a good starting point.

For example, if you have a difficult time falling asleep because you’re stressed out, the solution may be as easy as turning off the TV when the evening news is too distressing. Other times, such as high demands at work or when a loved one is ill, you may only be able to change how you react to the situation.

And don’t feel like you have to figure it out all on your own. Seek help and support from family and friends. You may want to ask them what stress-relief techniques have worked well for them.

And many people benefit from daily practice of stress-reduction techniques, such as deep breathing, massage, tai chi or yoga. Many people manage stress through practicing mindfulness in meditation or being in nature.

And remember to maintain a healthy lifestyle to help manage stress – eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get enough sleep. Having a healthy lifestyle will help you manage periods of high stress.

Stress won’t disappear from your life. And stress management isn’t an overnight cure. But with ongoing practice and incorporation of resiliency into your lifestyle, you can learn to manage your stress level and increase your ability to cope with life’s challenges.

Relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques are an essential part of stress management. If you’re an overachiever, you may put relaxation low on your priority list. Don’t shortchange yourself. Everyone needs to relax and recharge.

Relaxation is invaluable for maintaining your health and well-being, and repairing the toll that stress takes on your mind and body.

Almost everyone can benefit from learning relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques can help to slow your breathing and to focus your attention on the here and now.

Common relaxation techniques include meditation, tai chi and yoga. But there are more-active ways of achieving relaxation. For example, walking outdoors or participating in a sports activity can be relaxing and help reduce stress.

It doesn’t matter which relaxation technique you choose. What matters is that you select a technique that works for you and that you practice achieving relaxation regularly.

How to be happy

Do you know how to be happy? Or are you waiting for happiness to find you?

Despite what the fairy tales depict, happiness doesn’t appear by magic. It’s not even something that happens to you. It’s something you can cultivate.

So, what are you waiting for? Start discovering how to be happy.

What science tells us

Only a small percentage of the variation in people’s reports of happiness can be explained by differences in their circumstances. It appears that the bulk of what determines happiness is due to personality and – more importantly – thoughts and behaviors that can be changed.

So, yes, you can learn how to be happy – or at least happier.

Although you may have thought, as many people do, that happiness comes from being born rich or beautiful or living a stress-free life, the reality is that people who have wealth, beauty or less stress are not happier on average than those who don’t enjoy those things.

People who are happy seem to intuitively know that their happiness is the sum of their life choices, and their lives are built on the following pillars:

  • Devoting time to family and friends
  • Appreciating what they have
  • Maintaining an optimistic outlook
  • Feeling a sense of purpose
  • Living in the moment

Practice, practice, practice

If you’ve been looking for happiness, the good news is that your choices, thoughts and actions can influence your level of happiness. It’s not as easy as flipping a switch, but you can turn up your happiness level. Here’s how to get started on the path to creating a happier you.

Invest in relationships

Surround yourself with happy people. Being around people who are content buoys your own mood. And by being happy yourself, you give something back to those around you.

Friends and family help you celebrate life’s successes and support you in difficult times. Although it’s easy to take friends and family for granted, these relationships need nurturing.

Build up your emotional account with kind words and actions. Be careful and gracious with critique. Let people know that you appreciate what they do for you or even just that you’re glad they’re part of your life.

Express gratitude

Gratitude is more than saying thank you. It’s a sense of wonder, appreciation and, yes, thankfulness for life. It’s easy to go through life without recognizing your good fortune. Often, it takes a serious illness or other tragic event to jolt people into appreciating the good things in their lives. Don’t wait for something like that to happen to you.

Make a commitment to practice gratitude. Each day identify at least one thing that enriches your life. When you find yourself thinking an ungrateful thought, try substituting a grateful one. For example, replace “My sister forgot my birthday” with “My sister has always been there for me in tough times.”

Let gratitude be the last thought before you go to sleep. Let gratitude also be your first thought when you wake up in the morning.

Cultivate optimism

Develop the habit of seeing the positive side of things. You needn’t become overly optimistic – after all, bad things do happen. It would be silly to pretend otherwise. But you don’t have to let the natives color your whole outlook on life. Remember that what is right about you almost always trumps what is wrong.

If you’re not an optimistic person by nature, it may take some time to change your pessimistic thinking. Start by recognizing negative thoughts as you have them. Then take a step back and ask yourself these key questions:

  1. Is the situation really as bad as I think?
  2. Is there another way to look at the situation?
  3. What can I learn from this experience that I can use in the future?

Find your purpose

People who strive to meet a goal or fulfill a mission – whether it’s growing a garden, caring for children or finding one’s spirituality – are happier than those who don’t have such aspirations.

Having a goal provides a sense of purpose, bolsters self-esteem and brings people together. What your goal is doesn’t matter as much as whether the process of working toward it is meaningful to you.

Try to align your daily activities with the long-term meaning and purpose of your life. Research studies suggest that relationships provide the strongest meaning and purpose in your life. So cultivate meaningful relationships.

Are you engaged in something you love? If not, ask yourself these questions to discover how you can find your purpose:

  1. What excites and energizes me?
  2. What are my proudest achievements?
  3. How do I want others to remember me?

Live in the moment

Don’t postpone joy waiting for a day when your life is less busy or less stressful. That day may never come.

Instead, look for opportunities to savor the small pleasures of everyday life. Focus on the positives in the present moment, instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.