Stress Awareness Important for Mental, Physical Health

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By: Dr. Brooke Thompson, GWU

Many of you may not be aware that April is Stress Awareness Month. This is not surprising considering that most of us pay little attention to the stressors in our lives. Stress is an inevitable part of our lives – we must meet our deadlines, feed the kids, walk the dog, and tend to the many other responsibilities of daily living. It is quite easy to get so caught up in our daily routines that we don’t take the necessary time to de-stress. As one of the biggest sporting events of the year, the NCAA basketball tournament, has come to an end, I find it only fitting to focus on one of the tournament’s major stories as an example of the perils of ignoring our stressors and failing to de-stress.

If you had a chance to watch the Louisville Cardinals play the Duke Blue Devils in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament, you saw something you won’t likely ever forget. Kevin Ware of the Cardinals jumped to block the shot of one of his opponents. There was nothing unusual about the jump – he wasn’t engaging in high flying acrobatics, he wasn’t surrounded by anyone as he landed – it was a simple jump with a not so simple landing. As Kevin hit the floor his leg bent in a way that no leg should ever bend and he suffered what can undeniably be called one of the worst injuries in college basketball history. The reactions of his coaches and teammates spoke to the magnitude of the injury; several threw their towels over their faces while others fell to the floor in tears upon seeing the bone protruding from Kevin’s leg.

As I watched, I wondered how a solid bone could break so easily. You sometimes see these types of injuries in car accidents and maybe even in high contact sports such as football, but not in basketball, and not as a result of simply landing after a jump. Something must have damaged the bone to make it susceptible to such a significant injury. Although we can’t be sure, it is believed by some that this injury was caused by an underlying stress fracture. A stress fracture is a break in the continuity of a bone that occurs as a result of repeated use and inadequate rest. Having such a fracture will certainly affect the integrity of the bone and overtime, if not treated, the bone will no longer be able to support the body even in relatively simple movements.

Although most of us don’t physically tax our bodies to the extent that an elite athlete does, we all have experiences that cause us stress on a daily basis. If we let those experiences wear on us and don’t properly attend to our needs then we too may lose our solid foundation and become susceptible to “injury” – whether that injury is physical or psychological.

So, what can we do to ensure that we maintain our solid foundation so we don’t get sidelined like Kevin Ware? The first step is awareness. By identifying the stressors in our lives we can take the necessary actions to either eliminate them or find ways to effectively cope with them. At times we become so accustomed to our stress that we don’t even realize we are experiencing it. Taking the time to identify stress allows us to differentiate between a relaxed state and a tense state. Once we are able to differentiate between these states, the next step is to take the time to relax and de-stress. It is important to pause every once and a while, take a deep breath, and take some personal time. Even just a ten minute break can be beneficial. This time of mental rest and recovery may very well be the difference between successfully coping with your stressors and becoming overwhelmed by them.

By increasing awareness of your stressors you will be able to catch those “stress fractures” before they result in any serious damage like Kevin’s injury. But even if your stressors cause damage there is still hope. Although he won’t be playing basketball anytime soon, Kevin will make a full recovery and will play again. His spirit is strong and he was simply happy to cheer for his team to win the championship. And win the championship they did, with Kevin Ware watching each play from the sidelines. Although I haven’t followed the Cardinals much during the season, I couldn’t help but root for them this tournament season!

So, remember this story as a cautionary tale. Don’t allow the stress of everyday life to become overwhelming. Take the time to become aware of your daily stress and give yourself the necessary rest. What better month than April, Stress Awareness Month, to start your journey to a happier, healthier and more relaxed life.

Dr. Brooke Thompson is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Counseling at Gardner-Webb University.  The GWU School of Psychology and Counseling encourages critical thinking, the awareness of individual differences, and the importance of lifelong learning.