Getting stressed about stress management?
Searching online for ‘stress management’ brings up A LOT of advice and tips. Sometimes in itself that can be stress-inducing – “Oh bloody hell all the things I should be doing / need to do before I’ll feel better!” – which can add to the sense of pressure we feel.
My aim is to, first of all, reassure you that stress responses are normal – there isn’t anything wrong with you; and secondly, to remind you that you can do something about how you feel, and it’s OK to start small. You don’t need to get self-care right all the time. If you’re feeling stressed, the last thing you need is to think that there is yet another thing you have to fit into your day, or ‘get on top of’.
What is stress?
Well, it’s a bit hard to define because the word stress is used to describe both a cause and a symptom. People talk about being under stress, or feeling stressed, or having workplace stress. What I mean here by stress is the reactions that we have to what we perceive (consciously or unconsciously) as difficult or challenging situations or environments.
Stress symptoms are the body’s reaction to feeling threatened, when hormones are released that allow it to act so as to prevent getting hurt – the ‘fight/flight’ response. The heart rate increases, muscles tense ready for action, blood pressure rises (to get the blood where it needs to go), breathing speeds up. But there are very few situations in the modern world where we need to fight a bear or escape from a lion, so while a stress response causing you to slam on the brakes to stop hitting a bus is useful, a stress response to being asked to work an extra shift at work isn’t. Those tense muscles and racing heart become a problem when they can’t find an outlet.
What causes a stress reaction in one person may not affect another. Look at two people in one workplace doing the same job; one of them might not be able to sleep at night because of work stress; the other might be quite happy to go home at the end of the day and forget completely about work until 9am the next morning.
I’m not saying that if you feel stressed by work you’re somehow to blame – after all, maybe you work for a shitty employer. Maybe you work in a very pressured environment and there are lots of stressors around you. Maybe there’s just a hell of a lot going on in your life. But – you can cultivate a different attitude to most stressors. It doesn’t remove the pressures around you, but crucially, it helps you feel better – you’re alleviating stress.
Me and stress – old friends
What do I know about it? Well, I’ve a history of stress – essentially workplace stress, I guess, though I never defined it. My feelings of stress, as they built up, became intertwined with anxiety and depression, and my typical pattern would be to withdraw when I felt under pressure. I felt that contact with other people would prevent me from being able to hide that I wasn’t coping and I needed to maintain control at all costs. ‘Coping’ is a key word here; clearly I was coping – in that I was still functioning day-to-day – but ‘coping’ wasn’t a happy place.
I would overthink things – trying to think myself out of a situation; I would distract myself thinking I might ‘forget’ how rubbish I felt; and I sort of lived in fear of the future, feeling that things could only get worse. Every now and then I would have a meltdown when the rigid keep-clinging-on-at-all-costs shell just couldn’t hold it in any longer, and that would give a brief relief until things started building up again.
The knowledge that other people, working in the same, demanding, environment as me WEREN’T stressed didn’t help; understanding it was my problem that I needed to do something about – no matter how supportively expressed – added to my sense that I really wasn’t able to function properly as an adult.
How I de-stressed myself
So how did I change it? Various things – too many to remember. Some were small, but there was something about getting a little movement that started the ‘change’ ball rolling, until over time it gathered momentum.
I asked for help. I went to the doctor and got a prescription for anti-depressants. To this day I don’t know how much of the effect was the drug and how much the realisation that I could ask for help, but my mood lifted enough that I was able to make use of a great CBT workshop with a local community organisation, which helped me look at how my thought patterns would get into a downward spiral – and how reflecting on these could help shift me out of disaster mode. This worked for a while, and when I slipped back again it didn’t take me as long to reach out – I’d done it before. I started to talk to people about how I was feeling – even my family!
There were a couple of major events that happened in my life which jolted me enough to shift my priorities slightly – stressors in themselves, but they pushed me to check the reality of how much what I was stressing about really mattered. I was also lucky to have really solid support from my partner.
And then, longer-term, I was offered the opportunity of a counselling skills course and that pushed the ‘change ball’ onto a different path. Surprisingly, I found it OK that I had an extra thing in my week – because it shifted my focus slightly, and some of the other stuff began to look a bit smaller.
The greater understanding that I had of how I dealt with problems enabled me not only to make slight changes, but crucially my own therapy also helped me notice when I was giving it that double-whammy of beating myself up for beating myself up! Psychotherapy training is great for helping you understand the ‘why’, but in personal counselling I started to heal the anxious child within me, who made those decisions to protect me, and I supported them to make different ones.
It’s that which has enabled me to look after myself for no other reason than because I AM IMPORTANT. And even being able to write that in a blog is a sign of what a change there has been. I’m not going to pretend I never feel stressed now. But I recognise it and I take steps and I feel better sooner. I take some of the small steps that I’ve outlined below and in doing so it reinforces the commitment I’ve made to look after myself.
STOP right there!
It can be the hardest thing to STOP! To stop and take stock. Stress can produce a sense of an unstoppable hamster-wheel that speeds up and escalates and encourages you to believe that if you can only do MORE, run FASTER, work HARDER then you’ll feel more in control. But stopping really can help. If you’ve stopped long enough to read this blog: Well done! That’s a start!
The 10 stress management tips I’m sharing here are things which help me. I hope some of them may be useful for you.
Stress Tip No. 1: Manage your time gently
When you feel stressed you might have a sense that there’s just not enough time to get things done. But often we contribute to this by setting ourselves to-do lists that are simply unachievable in the misguided idea that we’ll get more done that way, and this adds to the sense of pressure.
The sense of achievement at having successfully met a goal can be energising, and the positive attitude gained from this leads to us being more ready for the next task. So, if you are a list person, write your normal to-do list. Then put aside HALF the items on it; given that you won’t have time to do them anyway, they can be moved to another day.
Then take ONE most important item from the list and focus on that at your most productive time of day. For me, this is first thing in the morning before coffee-time. For others it might be in the evening. But the most important thing deserves your most attentive time.
If you still didn’t manage everything on your halved to-do list – golly, you’re really putting pressure on yourself. Try cutting it down further. Be a bit gentler with yourself, huh? You’re only human.
Stress Tip No. 2: Practice saying No
This is a tough one for a lot of people. I get that, it’s hard for me too. And it’s hard because most of us know that this is an essential skill; when we say No we might feel guilty, when we don’t say No we feel ‘bad at self-care’.
So I don’t want to dwell on the validity of saying No – that actually, only saying Yes to the things that we have time and inclination to do well is better both for us and the person asking us. Instead I’m suggesting that you notice what you could have said No to, and reflect on how you might say No next time, and that you start with the small stuff, those you feel ‘least guilty’ about. Saying No to small requests might feel it won’t make that much difference to your stress levels, but the important thing is getting yourself in the habit.
And when you say No, don’t make excuses why. At the very most just say “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t.” You don’t need excuses to look after yourself.
Stress Tip No. 3: Slow your breathing
Breathing deeply is beneficial for releasing stress, partly because the ‘fight or flight’ mode that we find we’re in if we’re stressed tenses everything up and we end up breathing high in the chest. However, taking deep belly breaths can be almost impossible for some people if they’ve got out of practice doing this, and it can actually be triggering for some people who have a history of trauma.
Instead, start by focusing on slowing your breath. Deep breathing can come later. Next time you’re feeling under pressure, stop for a moment. If necessary set an alarm on your phone for 5 minutes. You can afford 5 minutes.
- Sit back in your chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in your lap.
- Close your eyes, or look down at your hands.
- Imagine yourself somewhere that you find peaceful or relaxing.
- Breathe in for a count of four, then out for a count of four.
- Notice the feeling of the breath moving in through the nose and out through the mouth.
- If you find your mind drifting to your to-do list, just notice that, and say “Yep, I know you’re there” and then bring it back to that peaceful place.
Stress Tip No. 4: Drink water
Dehydration can increase levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). Essentially dehydration is stressful for the body because it’s deprived of what it needs to function well. Dehydration affects the flow of blood to the brain which can lead to feeling fatigued. Sometimes we can also mistake hunger for thirst – so if you feel like you need a snack to keep going, take a drink of water first.
Perhaps you forget to stop long enough in your busy day to even notice that you’re thirsty. So before you settle down to work, get yourself a big glass of water and put it somewhere within your line of vision. That way you’re more likely to notice it’s there. If you work on the run, take a bottle and set an alarm on your phone to remind you to take a drink. Even stopping for the few seconds it takes to reach out and take a sip will shift your body position slightly, which is good too.
Stress Tip No. 5: Reflect on what you ‘need’ rather than what you ‘should’
What do I mean by this? Well, one of the things that we can put ourselves under pressure with, is all the things we think we should be doing. I look out for that word ‘should’, because it’s a real signal that someone is self-critical and has high expectations of themselves. Next time you think to yourself “I should be doing X”, reword it to “I COULD be doing X” – this way there’s less of a burden on you.
Then ask yourself if you WANT to do it. Ditch one ‘should’ from your week and add one thing that you enjoy – whether that be spending time alone, or spending time with people – whatever you need. Trust your instinct and if you hear a little voice saying you’re being selfish, say “I hear that you think I’m being selfish and that makes you feel anxious. Right now I’m looking after myself.” Because you are.
Stress Tip No. 6: Take a walk
The symptoms of stress are a flight or fight response which is geared towards activity – preparing you to run away or to defend yourself. Often people find that a really good workout after a stressful day can release a lot of the tension they were feeling.
The thing is, we can get caught up in what we’re constantly being told about optimum levels of exercise. All I want to say here is “A little is better than none”. If you keep telling yourself you ‘should’ join a gym or go to Zumba classes but you just don’t know where to fit it in, you’re piling more pressure on yourself. Instead, start by fitting a 5 minute walk into your day. 5 minutes after your lunch or after a particularly difficult phone call. You’ve got time to do that. You can build it up from there, but with that 5 minutes you’ve made an active decision to look after yourself. Well done!
Stress Tip No. 7: Cushion your day
Create a buffer around your day by detaching from your phone for 30 minutes at the start and end of your day. Is the first thing you do on waking up check your phone? When your mind and body are still coming to, you are more open and vulnerable, and seeing upsetting news stories, or being reminded of family politics, can affect you more deeply.
Being constantly connected can add to that a feeling of time pressure, that you need to ‘keep up with things’ – but ask yourself, what you are checking your phone FOR? Think about ways that you can take care of yourself without resource to the outside world. Perhaps you could start your day with a 5-minute meditation. Or read a book with your breakfast. It’s OK to protect yourself at your most vulnerable times.
Stress Tip No. 8: Do things that make you laugh
Laughter can help you relax; a big belly laugh gets the whole body moving, can dissipate some of those accumulated stress hormones and relieve tension. Laughter has many physical and mental benefits and is a way of strengthening connections with other people
Watch a silly film or TV programme. Reconnect with someone who makes you laugh. Even just pretending to smile and laugh has been proven to have health benefits – why not try that right now?
Stress Tip No. 9: Focus
Inner Relationship Focusing is a practice that can help you manage your stress levels. It encourages you to pay attention to uncomfortable feelings rather than trying to change them and it’s surprising how that alternative to trying to push a feeling away can really bring a change in itself.
As an example, imagine you’re feeling a tightness across your chest as you worry about getting a piece of work finished. You try and ignore it because you need to get on with that bit of work! Instead, you can sit and pay attention to that tight feeling and develop a relationship with it. You get a sense of what it’s trying to tell you (this feeling might be associated with something you internalised as a child on having to get things done or working hard). And because you’ve ‘listened’ to it, it relaxes a little and lets you carry on with what you’re doing in a less stressed way. There are similar practices and methods; Focusing is one that works for me and you can teach yourself to do it with free resources (see the end of this article).
Stress Tip No. 10: Find a therapist
OK, you got me – therapy isn’t a quick 5-minute stress tip. But you can spare 5 minutes to look for one! Speaking to someone unconnected with the rest of your world can be really beneficial to get an understanding of why you are feeling so stressed – and what you discover might surprise you.
There may be good reasons that you are feeling stressed, especially if you’ve had a number of changes in your life in a short space of time, and a counsellor can support you to recognise that what you’re feeling is normal and not weakness.
On the other hand, often we look for reasons outside us to blame our feelings of stress on, and while there can be all sorts of very real external factors that contribute to why we feel under pressure, actually working on how we manage our response to these is more helpful in the long run. And we can take control of our own behaviour and responses – whereas we can’t always control what goes on around us.
When counselling, I often encourage people to focus on what they are doing well rather than what they’re not doing, and to consider how they can be kind to themselves, which can then resource them better to deal with the strains of everyday living. Get in touch with me if you want to find out more.
These are just some suggestions for managing feelings of stress. There are plenty of others and there are additional references and sources of information below. But start small; if you give yourself the target of a major life change to ‘escape’ stress, you may be setting yourself up for failure.
Remember – stress reactions don’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. But if you don’t pay attention to them they can take over your life and drain it of its colour. While external factors contribute, stress responses are an internal process, and you can make choices to do things differently and take more control. You will sometimes slip back – and that’s OK, because if you’ve made changes once, you can do it again, and practice helps you get better at it.