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How To Decrease Stress In Your Life

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Author: Dr. Lindsay Bira | Category: Career Development | May 03, 2016

As a clinical health psychologist, I help people work with their mind, body and environment in order to lessen the effects of stress. 

Stress has a multitude of negative effects and chronic stress carries the highest risk of harm. 

What options do you have when a period of high demand and potential chronic stress (like graduate training or other life events) cannot be avoided? You have no choice but to face it head-on and figure out how to cope.

This brings to light very important questions, including what stress during graduate training looks like and how it’s affecting our trainees. Researchers, including myself, are recently taking a closer look into this area. 

Dr. Nathan Vanderford, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, Dr. Teresa Evans, director of the Office of Career Development at UT Health Science Center,and this post’s author, Dr. Lindsay Bira, a postdoctoral resident at UT Health Science Center and consultant in the community, have launched an international, anonymous, seven minute survey to measure symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress and burnout in graduate trainees. The survey and its researchers were featured by Science Magazine.

You can take the survey to contribute to the cause and be entered into a drawing for an iPad, Kindle, or gift card. We need more respondents so that we can better understand distress and common issues related to graduate training. With that understanding, we can identify ways in which trainee needs might be better met.

Of course, research takes a long time and it’s likely that you’ll be quickly returning to the stress of your workload. To help with that, I’ve prepared “10 Mental Health Tips for Getting Through a Stressful Period.” Take a look, and reflect:

1) Examine yourself. Self-awareness is key in managing stress: know what begins to happen for you when stress increases. Do you tend to get anxious? Depressed? Procrastinate? Not eat as much? It’s easy to fall into states and coping styles that contribute to stress further. If you know what that is for you, you can flag it when it begins to happen and then make a shift.

2) Control what you can, and let go of what you can’t. If you can identify which pieces of a situation you have control over, you can actively move to solve the problem. We get stuck when we ruminate over things we cannot control and personalize events. For things we can’t control, we need to focus on how we react to them and make moves to gain control over ourselves. See #3!

3) Train your brain. Exercise those frontal lobes to improve emotional regulation and cognition. When we are stressed, we are using more emotional areas of the brain,which can negatively paint perspective and misguide behavior. Mindfulness practice has been shown to shut down the fight-or-flight response as well as improve mood and attention. Learn more at www.mindful.org or come check out my mindfulness group at The Pearl.

4) Hang out. Schedule time with your friends, or find new ones. Being social is a great buffer for stress, even when you feel you don’t have time for it. Be better balanced by scheduling social time and sticking with it. This has been shown to release endorphins and adjust perspective so that you can approach the next task in a healthier way. Check out UTHSCSA’s events or contact Dr. Teresa Evans (evanstm@uthscsa.edu) to find out about events that merge both worlds.

5) Develop a new skill. This should be something that is unrelated to your work. Is there an instrument you’ve always wanted to play? A hobby you’ve wanted to pick up? Check out www.meetup.com for people doing exactly what you want to do in your area – the best part: many things are free! Growing in an area that is unrelated to work creates balance and motivation for less enjoyable tasks.

6) Exercise. We know this is good for the mind as well as the body. There have been studies that show exercise to be equally effective as antidepressants for improving mood. Get moving and keep that as an important part of your schedule. If you can’t do it on your own, find a meetup.com group for accountability!

7) Stretch. When we take up more space, we feel more powerful and mood improves. Dr. Amy Cuddy has the 2nd most watched TED Talk based on her research in this area. Spreading out gives our brain feedback that our environment is safe and we are in control. Stretch and hold it first thing in the morning, before a stressful meeting or talk, and when you feel beaten down by your workload to adjust how you feel.

8) Communicate better. When we get our needs met, we feel good, but getting there is an art. It’s important to strike the balance of assertive communication. Being too passive (considering others’ needs and not our own) or aggressive (considering our needs and not others’) sets us up to fail. Practice communicating clearly and in a way that considers the other person while highlighting what is important for you and why.

9) Build your brand. Identify your passion, find your vision and plan a path for you to follow. Doing this can provide motivation for moving forward and comfort in knowing where to go next. Check out my previous blog post on this. I’ll be giving a talk on Professional Branding  on June 14th. Dr. Teresa Evans, Director of the Office of Career Development, also helps trainees in this area.

10) Change yourself. For the better. We can all adjust in ways that make us healthier versions of ourselves. Sometimes, this takes talking to a professional. See if your insurance plan has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which might offer a set of sessions for free.

If you are experiencing significant mental health symptoms, let a provider know --UTHSCSA’s Student Health Center is a great way to start. Make an appointment by calling (210) 567-9355 and obtain referrals from there. You can also find a mental health professional by contacting your insurance or using Psychology Today’s Therapist Finder tool. This site lists profiles of therapists in your area so you view their approach and see what best fits your needs.  

Dr. Lindsay Bira is an active member of our Career Advisory Council where she mentors UT Health Science Center trainees. Don't miss her talk on June 14 about how to prepare for your career using social media. RSVP here

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