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Look For Healthy Outlets When Winter Stress Builds

Dale Hawley, Former NDSU Assistant Professor

There snow's piling up. The temperature's going down. There's no starting your car and there's no stop to the snow shoveling. Your pulse is racing. Your blood pressure's up.

Stress is taking its toll.

You're not the only victim, says Dale Hawley, a researcher in North Dakota State University's child development and family science department. Winter in North Dakota is a perfect environment for fostering stress.

Hawley says stress becomes more severe as one stressful episode after another occurs. This winter's string of storms is a good example. Add cold temperatures, cabin fever, stalled cars, farming difficulties, financial woes and other winter-related concerns and stress can build at a rapid rate.

"There's a sense of building until you reach the straw that breaks the camel's back," Hawley explains.

People who have only limited resources for coping with stress are more likely to see stress levels build. Resources include such things as social support from friends and family, an ability to talk through problems, and past experiences.

"Having someone to talk to is a great stress reliever," Hawley says. "And if you've been through trying times before, you're more likely to think that things aren't so bad." Isolation from cold weather, blocked roads or distance can make stress relief more difficult.

Perceptions play a large role too, Hawley says. "A lot of our stress stems from how we view situations. Are these winter storms a tragedy or a challenge?"

"We also have to realize that there are a lot of things we can't control and weather is one of them," he says. Some people believe that they are in complete control of their destiny and a winter storm with all of its disruptions can be a major source of stress. Others believe they have no control over their destiny and winter storms are just added evidence of that.

"You may have to adjust where you fall between those extremes to reduce how stressed you are," he says.

How do you battle winter stress?

Hawley advises people to seek out others to discuss concerns and problems. And lend an ear to others who might need a good listener, he adds.

"You may need to go looking for friends and neighbors and to help them cope with the situations they are facing," he says. "People who are stressed tend to isolate themselves--especially in this area of the country. A spirit of independence becomes a factor."

Hawley also advises an attitude adjustment. "The spin you put on any situation may make a big difference in how much stress you feel," he says. Comparing your situation to those in other areas or times in history may help you put things into perspective.

"If you look at the problems caused by weather in Washington, Oregon and California our own concerns don't seem so severe," he says. "And if you look at how people here had to deal with isolation and the weather a century ago, your problems may not seem so bad."

That's not to say that stress here and now can't be a serious problem.

Marked changes in behavior and attitude may indicate that your stress level is too high and you may need to take stock or seek help, Hawley says. Changes in sleeping or eating habits or increased feelings of irritability, depression, and listlessness may also be warning signals.

"Some of those feelings are natural at this time of year given the weather we've been having," Hawley says. "And they'll clear as the weather clears. But if the feelings are extreme it may be time to make some changes or seek some help."

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