Managing stress

People sometimes fear that if they don’t stress or worry, things won’t get done or they won’t do as well as they would like. In fact, stress is not a good motivator and too much stress impairs performance. Although we need a certain level of arousal (stress), too much arousal interferes with our ability to concentrate and remember. Learning how to manage stress is one of the most important lessons of life.

When talking about managing stress, we are referring to the ability to manage the feeling of pressure and the tendency to worry that occurs when we face demands on our physical and mental energy. There are two levels of managing stress – using strategies to prevent the build up of stress, and strategies to use when in a stressful situation to prevent overload.

Preventing Stress

There are many strategies for preventing stress, depending on the type of stressful situation we are facing. However, the basics of preventing stress include:

~ Exercise. Exercise is possibly the single most effective strategy for preventing stress because it converts stress chemicals into fuel. It reduces muscle tension, clears the head, and reminds us of skills that we have.

~ Eating well. Eating a range of nutritious foods throughout the day provides our body with the fuel it needs to regulate emotions, think clearly, and act as it would like. Hunger is not a good indicator of when we need food, especially when we are stressed, so it’s important to provide the body with regular intakes of healthy food. Two fruits and seven vegetables are recommended. Too much fat, carbohydrate, or sugar will mean the body’s working harder to process the food and therefore has fewer resources available to manage the stress.

~ Breathe slowly. When stressed, we tend to breathe more rapidly and shallowly, only using the top parts of our lungs. In contrast, breathing slower and using all of our lungs sends messages to our brain to turn off stress chemicals. Take a couple of slow, deep breaths, then breathe less deeply but still slowly. To get a slow, healthy breathing style going, it can be helpful to count to 3 while breathing in, hold for 3, and then breathe out for 3 (or 5). With practise, this style of breathing can become second nature. Practise this breathing on a regular basis as a stress preventor, or use it when stressed to reduce the level of stress.

~ Make time for fun. When we’re stressed, it’s easy to feel that there’s no time to take time-out, but unless we do, stress accumulates. Make time to do the things that you enjoy and that energise you – walk in the bush, go fishing, catch up with friends, listen to music, dance, pat the dog, etc. Find things to laugh at and laugh frequently.

~ Let your feelings out. Rather than bottling feelings up and having them intensify, get your feelings out by either writing them down or talking about them with someone you trust.

~ Make your language helpful. Avoid saying, “I have to …,” “I must…”, “I should …” – all of these place additional pressure on us. Saying “I’m going to  …” or “I plan to …” doesn’t impose the same sort of burden.

Reducing or Managing Stress

It makes sense to know the early warning signs that we are becoming stressed, the particular series of behavioural, physiological, and emotional symptoms that indicate our stress levels are building up. Ask yourself, “What is the first indicator that I’m becoming stressed?” It might be a headache or backache, tension in the neck of shoulders, stomach upset, irritability, shortness of breath, impatience, or any one of a number of other symptoms. Use this indicator as a prompt to apply your stress management strategies.

Increasing the frequently with which you use the strategies for preventing stress will also help reduce stress. In addition, it is helpful for each of us to develop our own ‘tool kit’ of strategies that help us manage stress. These can be as simple as walking along the beach, having a massage, or indulging in a bubble bath.

Other strategies for reducing stress include

~ Problem solve; don’t panic! When confronted with a difficulty, identify the specific nature of the problem, identify potential solutions, and then choose the best one. Don’t agonise over whether it will work out; you can only do the best you are able with the limited knowledge you have. Often any action is better than inaction and worrying about it.

~ Remain optimistic. Seek the good in situations and hope for the best outcome. Recognise the number of other times that you’ve been under stress but it has worked out well. Most things we stress about are nowhere near as bad as we fear, or pale into insignificance with time.

~ Watch your posture. Our muscles hold tension, which can then cause pain and make us feel more stressed. Pull your shoulders down, rotate your neck, stretch your arms and legs, and stand up tall. Shake the stress out of your body; perhaps dance to your favourite music.

~ Reduce caffeine and cigarette consumption. Cut back on tea, coffee, cola, and chocolate as caffeine has a similar effect on the body to stress, as does the nicotine in cigarettes. Both caffeine and nicotine increase problems caused by stress.

~ Make time to relax. Take ‘time out’ to unwind by enjoying your favourite activities or simply sitting and breathing slowly. Meditate once or twice a day, or engage in yoga or tai chi.

~ Watch what you say. Avoid being overly dramatic in your language or making your dramas and frustrations seem worse than they are. Use accurate language – are you “devastated” by something, or merely “upset” or “annoyed”? Was it “dreadful” or “disappointing”? Take note of your self-talk when difficulties arise. We all talk ourselves through situations or internally comment on what is going on. If our comments are self-critical or overly negative towards others, we will feel more stressed and overwhelmed. Correct self-talk to be realistic, in proportion to the situation, and positive.

~ Take control of worrying. Write worries down and critically evaluate how likely they are and how bad it would really be if they did happen. If worrying is taking over your thoughts, restrict it to half an hour a day; for the rest of the day, say to yourself, “I’ll think about that later.”

~ One day at a time. Focus on today, not tomorrow or yesterday. Keep bringing your thoughts back to what you’re doing now.