Health and Well-being Reducing stress

Peace of mind

Arantxa Valverde recalls a particularly stressful day at work: “I was crawling on the ground, sniffing around like a dog,” she said. Valverde, an advisor for the Loyola Limited Program that operates six student-run businesses on campus, works with over 80 students and must be able to switch gears at any moment, responding to even the most unusual circumstances. In this case, it was an odd smell that she was trying to identify the source of, and time was of the essence.

“Most days I feel stressed because, while I am juggling several tasks at once, the thing that goes wrong is usually something that is out of my control,” she said.

Valverde is not alone. The American Psychology Association finds that 64 percent of adults say work causes unwanted stress in their lives, and 44 percent of Americans report that their stress has increased over the past five years. Without healthy methods to combat this stress, people may end up suffering from fatigue, headaches, and other undesirable physical manifestations of their worries, according to the American Heart Association. Outside of physical health, stress is a well-known agent behind anxiety and depression.

“We often use stress and anxiety interchangeably,” said Dianna Stencel, a licensed clinical social worker at Loyola’s Wellness Center. “People are experiencing more intense anxiety than ever before.” According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults in America suffer from an anxiety disorder. “Anxiety can impact our mood and we can end up becoming depressed and even suicidal. Not dealing with it properly effects our relationships with loved ones as well,” Stencel said.

The mindful approach

All hope is not lost. Stencel recommends using the practice of mindfulness as an everyday method to keep stress at bay. “Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose in a particular way to our experiences,” said Stencel, who is a trained mindfulness stress-reduction teacher through the Center for Mindfulness. The practice, she said, can help to “develop and nurture our ability to have a non-judging attitude toward our experiences and we are able to allow the experiences to be as they are.”

The idea is to experience life with a “beginner’s mind.” That is, to take each moment fresh and approach situations with an open mind. With more mindful practice, Stencel said, it becomes easier to tackle stress and focus on the matter at hand. Practicing mindfulness can feel like a daunting task, however. Stencel recommends seeking out a mindfulness teacher or group to jump-start the process.

“It’s easy to push away self-care practices, and going to a group or getting an app that has a teacher or community aspect to it can be tremendously helpful.”
—Dianna Stencel, licensed clinical social worker at Loyola's Wellness Center

But she also cautions that mindfulness is not about a quick-fix and requires practice. Over time, you can begin to identify patterns that happen in your mind and recognize that stress is a normal human reaction. Mindfulness is, above all, about understanding our reactions to our experiences and learning to be less critical of ourselves. “If you develop a practice and you are working with a teacher,” Stencel said, “it really can be transformative.”

If a mindfulness community is not within reach, meditation can be practiced alone as well. In fact, meditation has proven to be a key element in rewiring the mind to be more apt at mindfulness. “The more people meditate, the bigger the impact it has on the brain,” said Stencel. “Studies show that we need 11 minutes a day of meditation—at a minimum—to see real changes.” If 11 minutes seems low to you, Stencel suggests pushing that to 20 minutes. “In a recent study it was found that students that did three 20-minute meditation sessions a week had lower cortisol levels—one of the hormones that causes stress—and less cognitive degeneration over the course of a semester” Stencel said.

Spiritual exercises

Mental health is not the only aspect of our lives that suffer at the hands of stress. Father Scott Hendrickson, S.J., a chaplain and assistant professor of modern languages at Loyola, recognizes the effects stress can have in our spiritual lives as well.

“Stress can be damaging because we tend to react negatively to stressful circumstances in our lives,” he said. “These negative reactions often cause us to complain about, and to, other people, which is destructive in maintaining meaningful relationships—including our relationship with God.”

Hendrickson suggests taking part in a Taizé prayer service as a way to counter stress. “Taizé prayer is relaxing because it is based in song and chant. The verses are melodious and repetitive; singing them allows us to concentrate on the beautiful expression of the words,” he said.

If music isn’t your thing, he recommends trying the Daily Examen of St. Ignatius, which offers an opportunity to reflect on the day and look ahead to the next. “The Examen helps remind us of what we are grateful for and gives us the ability to appreciate even the small parts of our day that are easy to overlook,” said Hendrickson. “This allows us to recognize God's grace where we might not readily perceive it, and helps us be able to maintain our positivity even in stressful times.”

For Valverde, dealing with the unknown at work and staying ahead of stress is all about being prepared. “I need to keep lists of everything I have to do and prioritize the tasks that need immediate attention,” she said. Communication with co-workers—who also act as a support system—is key. “I have to communicate at a high level with my supervisor so she knows where my stress level is at,” Valverde said. “It helps to talk things through with someone who knows what I am working with so I can gain a new perspective on the matter at hand.”

5 tools to help tame your daily tension

  1. Mindfulness apps: Insight Timer and Stop, Breathe & Think, recommended by Stencel, both offer free methods of employing mindfulness and practicing meditation to iPhone and Android users alike. Stencel recommends carving out as little as five minutes a day, plugging into one of the apps, and focusing on your breathing. Allow the apps to keep track of time for you while you center yourself and let the day’s stress fall off your shoulders.
  2. Yoga: Yoga is a common way to practice mindfulness. You may be able to find a yoga studio near you, or if you would rather practice on your own time, YouTube offers a variety of guided videos by trained instructors. When practicing, let the flow of your body distract from life’s most stressful moments. Concentrate on your breathing at each pose, taking the time to feel the deep stretch of each one and as you release the pose, release your worries.
  3. Walking meditation: Find a quiet place and walk 10-15 steps, paying attention to each individual action as you lift your foot and place it back on the ground. Stress will dissipate as you turn your focus away from what is worrying you and to the actions of your body, from your feet to your lungs.
  4. Taizé prayer: Many Catholic churches, including Loyola’s Madonna della Strada Chapel, offer the prayer service to anyone who is interested. When you arrive at Taizé, leave the stress from work, school, or your relationships behind and sit in silence. As the chants begin, turn your mind towards the repetition and allow yourself to forget your worries.
  5. Gratitude journaling: Like praying the Examen, keeping a gratitude journal helps pull focus away from stress in our lives and bring it back to the blessings we have been given. It’s easy to start—just write down what you are grateful for at the start or end of your day (or even during your lunch break for a moment of mindfulness).
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