The truth is, you cannot manage stress. Stress is what happens to you. Many things that happen to you in life are beyond your control. Many things that we do are not a choice but a necessity or obligation. What you can change is your response to stress and manage physiological and psychological effects of the stress. I will be using the terms stress management and manage stress as they are widely adopted but you need to remember that we are actually talking about reducing the impact of stress.
There is a saying that goes “it is not the other person that annoys you, it is you who gets annoyed with the other person”. There is a lot of truth in this saying. You react to what is happening around you, to people around you as well as to your own thoughts and predictions for the future. For example you have a meeting with a colleague that you do not get along with too well. Before the meeting starts, you are thinking: “She's going to be a pain again” and you get stressed. You are now reacting to your own thoughts, not to real events. Being aware of your own thoughts, how they affect you and then controlling them is one way of making sure you reduce the stress response you are experiencing. It is not the easiest thing in the world to do and it takes time to master but it is possible.
You can become more analytical. Ask yourself a questions: Is it really as bad as it seems? Many things in life are not. For example in one week you will not remember that your child left a toy in the hallway yesterday and you tripped on it. So is it worth getting emotionally high over it? Some things are just not worth stressing about. A slow customer in the queue in front of you, a driver who pushed in front of you or a postman who again delivered your mail to your neighbour are some of the things not worth stressing about. Your high expectations of yourself and of others are causing you to stress about such little things. You think: if only..., I would get less stressed. As Jim Rohn says, when you get your own planet, you can design it as you wish. We live in the world that is not perfect and you can either get on with it or stress about it. But if you stress about it, who pays the price? You cannot change the whole world but you can change yourself.
Even when you increase your awareness of your emotional responses, there will still be things that really stress you. What can you do then? As I said in my previous blog entries, your body does not differentiate between physiological stress, such as having to outrun your predator (original need for the stress response), and psychological stress, such as having to explain to the boss why you did not reach the targets for this month. Your body produces stress hormones in either case. Vigorous exercise helps to use up these stress hormones. This is why you hear so many times that exercise reduces stress. Be mindful, though, not to overdo it. Jogging or swimming for 30 minutes is fine but running a marathon just adds more stress to your body.
Do you remember the saying: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"? Do we not behave like Jack? It is now all about achievement, duty and what we have to do. In all of that we forget about our needs. The effect of this is that over time you feel exhausted, burned out even, your energy is depleted and you do not find pleasure in anything. I know. I have been there and if you are not in that place yet, make sure you never get there. We need to ensure we do something for ourselves. Make a list of things you find enjoyable (or used to find enjoyable) and bring them back to your life. Plan for your enjoyment just as you plan for things to do.
You may need some quiet time, the time away from TV, a computer and a phone. Get engaged in reading for pleasure, gardening, walking, meditating, jogging you name it, as long as it is done away from the noise. If you have not done anything like that for years, you may find the experience uncomfortable at first but if you persist, you will notice the changes in how you respond to stress more calmly and how you deal with stressful situations with more ease.
Relationships play an important role in stress management as well. Having someone to talk to, unloading the emotional burden you carry is a great strategy. And I do not mean a few complaining remarks over a beer in a pub. I mean a meaningful conversation. Do you have a family member, a friend, colleague that you can talk to? Can they give yo an ear without judging you? Is so, speak to them. What if you do not have anyone or you do not want to burden your family with your problems? This is what therapists are for. Use them!
Spend time outside. Research shows that people living in sunnier climates tend to be less depressed. It has a lot to do with exposure to sunlight. You may have heard about Seasonal Affective Disorder, or as some people call it, winter depression. It is not a myth. It happens because the brain deprived of exposure to daylight slows down the production of the “happy hormones”. Aim for 10-20 minutes sun or at least daylight exposure every day. In the summer you can have a jog or stroll first thing in the morning to set you up for the day. In the winter, when mornings are still dark, aim to go outside at lunchtime. Yes, you do need to make time for a lunch break. You may decide to spend more time outside at the weekend. I am sure that if you put your mind to it, you will come up plenty of ideas for fun. If you are very busy, perhaps you can respond to email while sitting outside? Remember to put sunscreen on if you you are in the sunshine for more than 20 minutes, even in winter.
You may need to revise your diet. Excessive consumption of caffeine and alcohol causes stress to your body. It seems you need them at the moment but in the long run they are adding to the stress your body experiences. Reducing caffeine to maximum two cups a day and no later than lunchtime and drinking no more than the number of recommended units per week will help your body restore its balance. It is important to eat properly as well. Your high cortisol levels may be forcing you to eat fatty and sugary foods but what you need is a balanced diet. Swap sweets and cakes for fruit, add vegetable to your meals, go for rice rather than chips and you will feel the difference in your body, especially in energy levels.
Finally I would like to touch on your sleep. Most of us are not getting enough of it. Sleep has many important functions. It allows the body to grow and repair. It helps boost your immune system and fight off infections. In sleep you sort out the learnings and experiences of the day and assimilate them to the existing ones. By cutting down on sleep, you are cutting down on your physical and mental health. Take action today to ensure you get sufficient amounts of sleep. Most people need about 8 hours.
I have just mentioned a few strategies that you can try out yourself and the list is by no means exhaustive. Depending on the level of stress you are experiencing, you may need to seek professional help, that is consult with your GP or a therapist. If you are in the early stages of stress, you may just want to try some of the strategies mentioned above. Each of us is different and what works for me, may not work for you. It is important to keep an open mind, try new things and then decide what works for you.
Please, get in touch with me if you have any questions or if you want to share your success.
Keep your stress at bay!