Reflections from the Field: Managing Stress

By Dr. Jacqueline Mondros

At the end of this academic year, I will be a practicing social worker for 40 consecutive years! I’ve worked in four cities, in residential care with youth, with the homeless, in community organizing, and I’ve been in top administrative posts in four schools of social work.

Like most people, I keep an awful lot of plates in the air.

Still, like so many of us, I always feel that there is more to do. One of the questions I’m asked most often is “How do I handle the stress?”

In order to answer that question, I have to define stress. We know that stress is related to control. The more control you have over your environment, the less stressed you feel. That’s why people living in poverty have greater levels of stress than do wealthy people; and it’s why people in jobs with little authority feel more stressed than the boss. Powerlessness is stressful.

The second thing to know is that some stress (or anxiety, really) is productive.  Worrying about an assignment ensures that it gets done. Worrying about our boss gets us to work on time. When anxiety becomes unmanageable, interfering with our capacity to carry out daily obligations, that’s when it’s problematic.

Stress over time impairs our health and ability to cope. Over time stress shortens our brain synapses, making us unable to learn and forgetful. There is some evidence that long-term stress even changes our blood chemistry, suggesting why some people may be more prone to chronic illness. For these reasons, it is important to manage our stress and take care of ourselves. It is now popular to call what we do for ourselves “self-care.”

For most of us, stress is a fact of life, and you just have to learn to manage it. I offer you a few rules I’ve learned about self-care:

  1. Eat regularly and eat right. Blood sugar levels tend to drop when we go without eating. We’re more likely to feel angry, tearful, and nervous when we are hungry  and our bodies don’t have the energy they need to manage stress. So, don’t skip breakfast to tackle that big project; the combined physical toll of managing stress and fighting hunger are not good for productivity.
  2. Call it a day. Sleep! Many studies now show that we all need at least 8-10 hours of sleep a night. A good night’s sleep adds to our productivity because it helps us to think, focus, and make decisions.
  3. Build a network, not just on Facebook. Studies show that people get both practical and emotional support from their social networks.  The most useful networks are those that include personal connections, like friends and relatives that offer support, and more formal connections (colleagues, teachers, and supervisors) that we can leverage for information and opportunities.
  4. Exercise. Stress and anxiety can be emotionally and intellectually paralyzing. Physical activity—any vigorous physical activity—releases stress. As the commercial says, just do it!
  5. Learn to use self- talk to calm yourself. At work many supervisors don’t want to know from your stress —they just want you to get the work done. So when you feel really anxious but are not in a position to share, give yourself a pep talk. Tell yourself what your best friend would tell you—you’re going to be fine, you always somehow manage to make it through tough times, and you are good at what you do.  My father used to say, “This too shall pass,” and I when I am about to freak out, I say it to myself over and over again.
  6. Talk to a professional counselor – make an appointment with a professional if you find yourself overwhelmed, depressed, or experiencing anything that is unusual for more than two weeks.  Going to a therapist for a chat and a “check up” isn’t a sign of weakness and doesn’t make you crazy.  See it as another way of taking care of yourself.

Jacqueline Mondros is an AVODAH Board Member and Dean of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.

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