Feeling stressed? You’re not alone! How to deal with stress.

Feeling stressed? You’re not alone!

How to best deal with stress during these difficult times.

Posted at 11:00 - 31st July - Francesca Block

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted families all over the world, increasing individuals’ anxieties and stress levels. Oftentimes when stress takes over, it can feel difficult to know how to move past it. Stress affects our ability to sleep, it affects our work, and it even affects our relationships with others. If you’re struggling with how to handle heightened emotions and anxiety during these unbelievably stressful times, do not worry because you are not alone!

I was able to catch up with Matthew Zilboorg, a clinical psychologist, and Katherine Zilboorg, a social worker, to learn about how stress affects our bodies and our sleep, and how to recognize and handle stress in work, life, sleep, and relationships.

Matt is a licensed Clinical Psychologist who has been in private practice since 1981. He is licensed in the Psychology and Addiction fields in both Vermont and Florida. He specializes in treating PTSD, Addictions, and Couples Treatment.

Kat is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with 40 years of experience working with Addictions, Trauma and Mood Disorders. She has worked in residential treatment and psychiatric hospitals as a clinician, supervisor and Interim Clinical Director and now is in private practice.

What are different ways in which stress can manifest itself? How does it affect the body, one’s personality or mood, and overall health?  

Kat: Stress affects people emotionally and physically, and it also affects their actual cognitive functionings. People might recognize some signs of stress if they start to feel disorganized and forgetful. Having trouble focusing and difficulty making decisions are also signs. People may also have physical complaints, such as low energy, headaches, upset stomachs, tension, and insomnia.

It is really important to recognize these symptoms are not all in your head. Our bodies produce hormones, and when people are under stress they tend to go into “fight or freeze” mode. The body begins to overproduce hormones such as cortisol and underproduce melatonin, causing anxiety and insomnia. All of these symptoms are related to actual physical changes in the body.

How stress affects sleep

How does stress affect someone’s sleep/ability to sleep?

Matt: When we are stressed, we can develop symptoms of depression that might not meet a normal diagnosis. Stress decreases the serotonin in our bodies, which is the neurological agent that allows us to stay asleep during REM sleep. If we don’t get REM sleep, we tend to have all of the symptoms Kat has spoken about such as low energy, agitation, and other emotional and physical issues.

What happens to your body when you don’t get enough sleep?

Kat: Sleep is our body’s regeneration time. It is when our bodies are given a break from the day. During sleep, the body releases muscle tension and blood pressure and heart rates tend to be at their lowest. When we don’t get enough sleep, those reparative processes are no longer happening. Our brains start to make connections and our thinking processes become skewed. If you have serious sleep deprivation, you will start to experience hallucinations. You will be more sensitive to heat, cold, and light, which increases your body’s agitation and your body interprets that as being in danger.

"Acknowledge that we all have stress in our lives. In this way, we can become a part of each other's support system and learn to be kind to each other. The message then becomes, “we are all in this together.

How to get better sleep when stressed

What are ways to combat these effects? Talk us through different techniques for sleeping better at night.

Kat: It is important to develop an understanding of what helps your body relax and unwind. Things like making sure you are eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated and are avoiding too much caffeine all help one’s sleep. Setting up a routine also helps. Brush your teeth and wash your face at the same time every night. People tend to stay up later and sleep later at times like on the weekends, but that doesn't necessarily help their bodies catch up with the sleep they lost earlier in the week. Meditation, down time and exercise can also help people learn to balance physical and quiet times throughout the day to sleep better at night.

I find it helpful to consciously start and end your day with things you are grateful for. Even if life is really stressful, you might have seen a pretty sunrise, had a nice conversation with a friend or family member, or eaten a really delicious chocolate dessert. Make this a daily practice to help promote better sleep.

Matt: Avoid activities such as watching TV, reading books, or doing other common activities while in bed. One should develop the mattress or bedroom as being a “trigger” for sleep (obviously other than physical intimacies which are normal and actually stress reducing!), to help develop more routine sleep habits.

How stress affects work

How does stress affect one’s ability to focus?

Kat: When people become very stressed they have difficulty remembering things they know really well. People get more disorganized or do not feel like themselves.

Stress lowers our inhibitions and actually can kill brain cells, particularly in the region of the hippocampus (which is the area responsible for memory, emotions, and some learning). That area becomes very agitated and people then struggle internalizing and retaining new information.

What tips do you have for managing stress to help people better focus and do their work?

Matt: You can do two things to improve your work and performance when stressed.

1) Don’t isolate. It is really important to share with someone else, especially in covid times. We tend to think we are unique when we feel really stressed. When a person finds that there are all these other people having similar feelings, they begin to feel a part of a community. Particularly in teams at work, this helps people who are stressed feel more engaged and productive.

2) Take a break. Maybe that means a walk or exercise, mediation, talking to a friend or family member, whatever you can do to relax.

Kat: Remember that how I handle stress is going to be different than how someone else handles stress. Acknowledge that we all have stress in our lives. In this way, we can become a part of each other's support system and learn to be kind to each other. The message then becomes, “we are all in this together.

We need to give ourselves permission to have hard times, and recognize that it is okay to feel stressed. In particular during covid, bosses and employees must recognize that this is an extremely stressful time and that everyone has different responses and ways of dealing with this stress. By promoting an attitude of “we are doing the best we can,” the work space becomes less stressful and people function better.

What are key indicators to look for in family members or friends who may be experiencing stress?

Matt: Look for whether or not family members are acting like they normally do. Are they doing normal activities? Are they getting flustered or talking about certain topics for too long? Whether or not they are hungry, angry, lonely or tired can all be symptoms of stress. When you notice these traits in friends and family, do not try to solve their problems for them. Instead, make sure they feel heard.

How to deal with stress during COVID

How can we maintain positive lines of communication during the covid-19 pandemic?

Matt: Covid is a real test for relationships. The research so far shows the pandemic is actually making relationships much stronger. I think the reason for that is it forces people to be more tolerant of each other because they need to be.

To maintain strong relationships, particularly in this time of covid, respect your partner's fears. They may not be your fears, but in recognizing your partner’s fears, it makes them feel less stressed and isolated.

It is a mistake to think we can recognize stress in someone else and fix it for them. What people really want is to be heard. People want to hear things like “That does not sound comfortable” or “What does it feel like?” These types of responses open up positive lines of communication.

 

How can people best support their friends and family during this pandemic and during stressful times?

Kat: Be willing to listen to someone without trying to fix anything. Ask them “how does that feel?” or “Is there anything else I can do to help?” In addition, if someone is talking about their own anxiety, do not confuse it with your own. Focus on listening and expressing you have had similar feelings, but do not try to compete for who is most stressed or anxious. Lastly, don’t be dismissive of someone else’s concerns even if they do not make sense to you. They may not even make sense to the other person, but they are still having them.

Supporting someone is just letting them know you care. If they are looking for help, offer practical advice such as encouraging them to accomplish small tasks like washing the dishes. These can help people get through intense short term crises. If you think it is right, you can ask, “do you think you need more professional help?” Do not force it upon them, but offering this suggestion can help them take action.


Meet the Psychologists

Matt is a licensed Clinical Psychologist who has been in private practice since 1981. He is licensed in the Psychology and Addiction fields in both Vermont and Florida. He specializes in treating PTSD, Addictions, and Couples Treatment. Kat is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with 40 years of experience working with Addictions, Trauma and Mood Disorders. She has worked in residential treatment and psychiatric hospitals as a clinician, supervisor and Interim Clinical Director and now is in private practice.


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