Written by Philippa Walsh
Life can be really stressful. Imagine we're holding a bucket... it only has the capacity to contain so much before the contents will start to spill over the edge. Our ability to contain stress is a lot like that: We are the receptacle and once our capacity is maxed out, the stress of many different events can compound and eventually overwhelm us. How vulnerable we are to stress is determined by many factors, but studies show that there is a strong correlation between stress and mental health.
It may feel that you have no control over stress...there's never enough hours in the day, you're overdrawn again, you need to work late because your job is on the line if you don't...work and family pressures can feel unrelenting.
In actual fact, you have more control than you think. Controlling your life is central to effective stress management. Stress management is not just about reacting to stress when it's already here; but about finding ways to prevent it. It's about seizing back power over your lifestyle, thoughts and emotions and learning how to problem solve in a way that actually works for you not against you.
Although it is unrealistic to fully eliminate ALL stress - if we can learn not to let it derail us, our mental and physical well-being will benefit.
In order to manage stress, we need to identify what it is that's causing it. This will be very different for everyone. Major stressors can be things like taking on a demanding project at work, moving house, getting married or divorced - but let's not forget how our own thoughts, feelings and behaviours may contribute to our stressors. You might be worried about meeting a work deadline, but maybe it's your avoidance of doing the tasks you need to that is the actual source of the stress.
Stress management is about acknowledging the role you play in creating or maintaining it. Until you do this, you will be unable to seize control.
Unfortunately, many of the ways we try and cope with stress are really unhelpful in the long-term. These techniques may be procrastinating, taking our stress out on others or drinking too much. If you are struggling to cope with stress and recognise some of these unhelpful strategies; it's never too late to try something different.
Smith and Segal (2015) highlight four ways in which we can effectively deal with stress. They refer to these as 'the four A's':
Although avoidance is an unhealthy coping strategy for stress, there are many stressors that can be removed from your life.
The key here is having some good personal boundaries in place and knowing when to say NO. Taking on more than you have the emotional or physical capacity to handle is the fastest route to stress city! Why take on too much if you know that it will only cause you to feel out of control?
Be pro-active and only mix with people who don't cause you to feel stressed. If someone is having a negative impact on your mental well-being, why continue being around them?
Seize control of what you expose yourself to. If watching constant bad news upsets you, turn off the TV. If peak-time traffic gets you stressed, leave a little earlier to avoid it and reduce how much stress you allow yourself to be exposed to.
If you feel that you have too much to do and not enough time to do it all - prioritise the things that are necessary and leave the unimportant tasks until another day. Break tasks down into more manageable ones. This is better than procrastinating so much that you end up doing nothing.
Alter the Stressor
If a stressful situation is unavoidable - alter it. This can be done by altering the way you communicate and go about your daily life.
Express how you feel when stress is starting to build. If you're snowed under with work and a talkative colleague is keeping you engaged in conversation, tell them politely how busy you are and that you'll be happy to chat with them some other time.
Be more assertive and don't expect others to read your mind or take subtle hints. Subtlety is not everyone's strong point! If you keep things bottled up, you will only become resentful and the stress will remain.
Find a happy medium with others and learn to compromise: If you ask someone to be more flexible, practice what you preach!
Try to get a healthy balance between work and personal time. Not having any time for yourself or family can lead to feeling burnt out.
Adapt to Stress
If you can't change the stressful situation: change yourself. All situations can be adapted to, no matter how stressful. It is about learning to take back control and reframe the stress.
Try to keep a positive mental attitude. Rather than being annoyed about being in a long queue in a shop when you're in a hurry to pay, see it as an opportunity to breathe and take a pause from running around. You can't make it go any faster - why stress about something you have no control over?
Take a look at the bigger picture: will this situation matter to you a month or a year from now? If not let it go.
Adjust your standards. Learn to practice some self-compassion - don't beat yourself up if things don't always work out perfectly. Perfectionism plays a huge role in stress, let good enough be good enough.
Be grateful. Having an attitude of gratitude can change how we view our world. Instead of focusing on the negatives, think of 3 positive things that happened to you today. Got a parking space straight away? Be thankful. Had the door held open for you at work? Be thankful. It's appreciating the smaller things that can make a bad day turn into a good one.
Accept What You Cannot Change
Some stressful situations that are unavoidable can cause us great pain. We can't prevent a partner from breaking up with us or our employer from making us redundant if that is their wish. Although it can be extremely difficult to accept such events, fighting against them rather than accepting them will only prolong the stress.
Learn that we can only control ourselves not others. Why stress over someone else's opinion? We may not agree with it but is that not their right to have their own views on how to live their life?
See challenges as opportunities to grow. If in some way you know that a poor decision you made caused the stress, forgive yourself and resolve to make a more informed decision next time a similar choice needs to be made.
Learn to forgive others. Holding on to negative emotion is toxic.
If you are still struggling to accept something you cannot change, consider talking to a therapist to help you process your feelings.
Stress Busting Tips
Manage your time effectively
- Break big projects into smaller SMART tasks. Make them Specific, Meaningful, Achievable, Realistic and Time -focused.
- Procrastination is a killer of time. What do you physically need to get done in order to complete any projects you have on the go?
- Can you delegate some responsibility? Do you have to control and micro-manage everything alone?
- Let go of unnecessary stress by planning and using your time well and trusting others with some of your tasks.
- Physical exertion is a massive stress reliever. Even if you're not big on formal exercise, just getting up and moving around can make you feel less stressed.
- Put on some music and dance around, walk the dog, take a walk in your local area.
- Being mindful to your breath and movements as you exercise can help your mind focus on something other than the source of your stress.
Eat well and sleep enough
- It's not rocket science...a well-nourished body is better able to ward of stress. Maintain your energy levels with healthy food and good carbohydrates.
- Reduce your sugar and caffeine intake - this will also help you sleep better.
- Don't be tempted to absorb your stress in alcohol or drugs.You need a clear mind to deal with it.
- Try and get into some good sleep habits and avoid burning the candle at both ends - like the candle, you'll only burnout quicker!
Spend time in the company of those you appreciate
Connect frequently with family and friends. Being around people who understand you and make you feel safe is calming when confronting stressful situations. Those you talk to don't have to eradicate your stress, just having someone to talk to can help.
- Remember to make time for you and to nurture yourself when you need to.
- Try to factor in some fun and keep a sense of humour!
Learn to Relax
Relaxation techniques such as guided visualization, yoga, meditation or deep breathing exercises can help you to become more relaxed during times of stress. Such techniques can help you feel more grounded and in control of your life.
“The mind can go either direction under stress—toward positive or toward negative. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyper-consciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.” Frank Herbert
If you are struggling to manage your stress and want to find out more about how counselling or psychotherapy in Manchester can help, reach out and schedule a free telephone consultation today.