[ Newsletter - May 2012 ]
STRESSING LESS STRESSING LESS
By Kerry Acheson
What is it?
In today's have-it-all, do-it-all, break-neck- paced society, we are all familiar with the experience of stress. It’s the teen increasingly daunted as exams loom closer; the business executive simultaneously juggling 3 deadlines; the parent sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic wondering why - despite the mad rush of the morning - they always seem to be running a few minutes late. We recognise the signs: bunched shoulder muscles, shaky hands, pressurised thoughts, throbbing headaches and tense mood.
Our body’s nervous system is programmed in such a way that we are geared for action when our brain signals to our body: "danger up ahead!" So, in response to our worries about what we need to accomplish, our heart rate picks up, our adrenaline pumps, and in all sorts of other physiological ways, we are primed for a fight or flight response. This served us well when survival meant being able to tussle with or outrun wild animals. However, in modern, technological contexts our stressors and solutions are significantly different. We may feel compelled to wrestle the crashed computer out of the third story window or speedily outrun a corporate meeting awaiting our power-point presentation. However, in everyday situations such as these, our programmed fight or flight strategies have limited benefit.
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) defined stress as the experience that occurs when perceived demands outweigh perceived coping. In other words, when we believe that what we need to achieve is greater than our abilities, we will feel stressed. This unpleasant experience affects our cognitions, body, emotions and can also put strain on our relationships.
However, stress is not always a foe. Recognising that we feel stressed can be the wake-up call that alerts us to the fact that we need to make a change. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law (1960), there is an optimal stress level where we feel energised and motivated to be productive. Sometimes called “eustress”, - a term coined by Hans Selye - this optimal level of stress can be a real ally, as we can be mobilised into taking necessary actions in our lives. Too little stress (think lying on the beach in Thailand) does not lend itself to dynamic productivity. Similarly (and more typically), too much stress interferes with our functioning. Excessive stress can have an immobilising effect on us, making it difficult to think clearly enough to problem-solve or plan effectively. We may be less focused or more disorganised than usual. We may feel exhausted, seeming to fly off the handle or be reduced to tears at the slightest provocation. Changes in sleep or eating may be noticed. In the long-term, chronic stress is detrimental to our health. Excessive chronic stress can be associated with psychological and physiological problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, or heart conditions.
What can I do?
As mentioned, Lazarus and Folkman defined stress as experiencing that one’s demands or responsibilities outweigh one’s coping abilities or resources. In light of this, excessive stress can be alleviated either by reducing the load or by strengthening coping. Of course, each individual’s circumstances, needs and preferences are different, and what works for one person is not necessarily what is going to work for another. Stress management is the art of developing a range of personal tools that is effective for the individual in light of their personal circumstances. Below are some ideas for both angles of approaching stress. The list is certainly not exhaustive, read through and notice what resonates with you.
Reduce the size of the load
- Take a step back.View your tasks, demands and responsibilities from the bigger picture. Ask someone you trust for their perspective on what you are dealing with – can they see any ways in which your circumstances can be managed more effectively? A mentor, coach or manager can play a valuable role. Identify what aspect of your circumstances is causing you the most concern. Focus your energies on getting on top of this part.
- Many hands make light work. It takes courage to acknowledge when you need help, and ask for it. This may involve working on communication and assertiveness skills. Surrender the need for absolute control and delegate. Get a babysitter, get an assistant - increase your team.
- Be realistic. Protect your boundaries, and be aware of the times when you need to say no. Negotiate deadlines if necessary and possible. Learn to set realistic expectations for yourself based on the time and resources available.
When the demands on us cannot be reduced, we need to target stress by maximising our coping abilities. The Serenity Prayer reminds us to focus on tackling the things that are in our control, and to practice acceptance for the things that are not. Just like for those who enter into the Iron Man race, the terrain and the distance is set – not up for negotiation. Portions of the race cannot be delegated to others. What remains is for the athlete to prepare, to train their mind and body to be equipped to cope with the demands of the race. What follows are ideas for reducing stress by enlarging coping:
- Increase self-awareness. Tune into your thoughts, your emotions and your body. Acknowledge, without judging, how you experience stress throughout the day. Increase your awareness of stress triggers, and stress reactions. Notice times when you are able to keep stress at bay. Learn to identify your strengths and preferences, and incorporate these as far as possible. Improved awareness of your needs is necessary before effective steps can be taken.
- Adopt helpful ways of thinking.Sometimes people really are their own worst enemy. Tune into your self-talk, and don’t allow yourself to talk to yourself in ways that you wouldn’t allow others to talk to you. Forgive yourself for making mistakes as a human being. Acknowledge when you’ve done your best, regardless of the outcome. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Exercise faith.
- Manage your time. Make a list of what needs to get done, breaking responsibilities down into small, manageable steps. Prioritise instead of giving all the aspects on the list equal importance. Work out what is most urgent, and what can wait. Plan your time accordingly. Don’t allow stress to invite you to procrastinate. Rather, schedule pleasurable activities as rewards for tasks accomplished. Tick off each item completed on your list, and give yourself permission to feel good about it. Don’t overload your schedule, if possible, try to keep a little ‘wiggle room’ to attend to what might unpredictably arise.
- Hone your skills. Identify skills that need to be strengthened, and develop these areas with the use of books, courses or extra training.
- Keep it in perspective. Take a step back and view your life holistically. Don’t let stress in one life area consume all of your focus. We have many roles and identities. So for example, if you are experiencing excessive stress in your role as an employee, draw strength from the satisfaction you experience as a parent, sibling, friend, spouse, athlete or musician. Receiving nurturing from certain areas of your life can help you to tolerate the stress inherent in other areas.
- Take breaks and practice joy. Slow down, and take deep breaths - regularly. Find pockets of your life that are free from stress, and maximise them. Laugh, spend time in nature, keep a gratitude journal. Meditate. Read for fun, or go to the theatre. Get your quota of ‘Me Time’ and ‘Family Time’. Don’t be available 24/7, designate times when your cell phone is switched off. Plan a trip, something you can look forward to during tough times.
- Nurture your body. Stress takes its toll on the body, and yet maintaining good health makes stress much easier to bear. Eat regular, nutritious meals that stabilise energy levels. Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake. Regular exercise is a fantastic way to de-stress, clear the mind and release the body’s happy hormones (endorphins). Yoga combines exercise with meditation and relaxation, which helps many people to reduce stress. Prioritise getting enough sleep. Treat yourself to the occasional massage.
- Get support. Surround yourself with positive people. Get support from those closest to you. Expressing your feelings and being heard can stop you from feeling isolated by stress. Draw strength from a faith-community, if appropriate. Professional counselling can be a helpful way to work through stress in a supportive space.
What would you add to these ideas, what is it that you have learnt works for you? Getting the upper hand on stress is not about learning a magical formula or a revolutionary technique. It is about slowing down, tuning in to your innate wisdom, acknowledging your needs, and prioritising your self-care. What is one small step that you could take today towards managing your stress more effectively?
Lazarus, R.S. & Folkman, S (1984). Stress, Appraisal and Coping. New York: Springer
Denenberg, V.H. & Karas, G.G. (1960). “Supplementary report: the Yerkes-Dodson law and shift in task difficulty”. Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol. 59, no.6, pp. 429-430