Before we talk about stress, I ask that you please answer these two questions:

1.       On a scale of 0 to 10, rate your average daily stress level over the past month.  0 is no stress, and 10 is maximum stress.  Please write your answer down.

2.       Do you believe that your own personal stress level could be impacting your physical or mental health?  Please write your answer down, YES or NO.

Yesterday I was sitting at the hair salon reading a book that I had downloaded to my phone while I waited for my highlights to take effect.  After a brief chat with my hairdresser about how great it is to read a book on your phone, she asked, “So, what are you reading?”

I stammered for a few seconds, during which I was thinking, “Should I tell her what I’m reading?  Maybe I should tell her I’m reading that other book I downloaded that’s about tips for authors, since at least it would show I’m accomplishing something.”  In the end, since I’m not one to lie, I told her the truth: that I was reading a book by Ann Rule about a series of real life murders that took place in the Seattle area.  Brain candy.  Embarrassing!

That experience came to mind later that day when I started reading a new study about stress.  I felt surprised at myself for actually having considered lying to hide my leisurely reading, and I wondered why we humans so often feel a need to present a striving, productive face to the world. Do we not feel worthy unless we are busy and industrious?  Isn’t this discomfort with being idle a tremendous source of stress for all of us?

A 2011 study conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the American Psychological Association showed that many Americans are living with high levels of stress every day.  The average daily stress level reported (on a 10-point scale, where 0 is none and 10 is maximum),  was reported at 5.2.  22% reported extreme levels of average stress, which they defined as a level of 8, 9 or 10.

In a way, I think it’s a good thing that at least Americans are aware of their stress and are willing to admit to it.  Unlike other emotions, like sadness, anger, jealousy, fear or even anxiety, stress is more acceptable in today’s world.  In fact, it’s almost valued, like a Badge of Honor in our society.  For example, when a friend says, “How are you?” we are not likely to say, “Oh, good, kinda bored actually, not much going on.”  Instead, we search our brains for all the social events, child-centered activities and work projects which we hope will prove how busy and productive we are.

In general, the more stressed you are, the better life you are supposedly living.

Now here comes the really interesting part.  In the same study, 9 out of 10 adults said that they believe that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression and obesity.  But 31-36% of those same people believe that stress has only a slight or no impact on their own physical or mental health.  In other words, yes it’s a problem, but only for other people.

Now let’s go back and look at your answers to the questions above.  I asked you to write your answers down so that you couldn’t go back and change them.  Is your answer to #1 higher than 3?  If not, congratulations!  You are doing something right.  But if it is above 3, then your answer to question #2 becomes more important.

If your average stress level is over 3 and your answer to #2 was ‘NO’, I encourage you to give this some thought.  It is difficult to see how stress affects us personally.  But studies show that sustained high stress levels can cause physical problems like weight gain, sleep disruption, cardiac issues, and lowered resistance to disease.  The fact that you can’t see it happening doesn’t mean that it’s not happening.  Chances are, your sustained stress level is taking its toll on you.

If your average stress level is over 3 and your answer to #2 was ‘YES’, this would suggest that you are aware that your stress is a bad thing for you, and that is a good start.  But please do not stop there.

Your stress will probably not go away on its own.  Rather than letting it control you, you must take control of it.  This will require taking action to change some aspects of your lifestyle.  Here are some suggestions to help you do that:

1.       See the value of down-time.  It’s not just okay to relax, do nothing, or read a meaningless book, it’s essential.
2.       Make a list of all of the factors in your life that contribute to your stress.  Go through the list and put a check-mark on any items that could be eliminated or reduced.  Then make a plan for how you are going to do that. Many highly stressed people have actually invited a fair amount of their own stress by taking on more than they can handle.  Now’s your chance to get rid of some of the excess baggage.
3.       Plan a vacation or some sort of break for yourself.
4.       Ask for help.  Chances are, there are people around you who will help and support you if you ask for it and let them know what you need.
5.       Pay more attention to meeting your own physical and emotional needs.  Eat healthy, exercise daily, and make sure you get the amount of sleep that your body truly needs.
6.       Find a creative outlet that allows you to express and expand yourself.  Learn to cook, redecorate a room, take up painting or guitar.  Creative outlets will reduce your stress level.
7.       Here’s the most important one:  use your relationships to calm you.  Studies show that when we are in the company of people we like or love, our brains excrete oxytocin, a neurochemical that is relaxing and gives us a feeling of well-being.  What a great natural and healthy “medicine” that we can give ourselves.

I hope that you will try these ideas for at least one month.  Then come back and re-take the Real Stress Test.  See if your scores have improved.  Don’t expect a miracle.  It’s a work in progress.  The important thing is that you be aware of how you are living, face the reality of it, and work to make it better.