Practical ways to handle stress
This module will address practical, positive techniques, which you can use in order to process and eliminate feelings of stress. Most of us, when under pressure, will attempt to self-soothe, or even self-medicate. It is easy to fall into the habit of handling stress in unhealthy ways that exert detrimental, long-term effects on our bodies and minds. Such unhealthy coping mechanisms include drinking alcohol, smoking, over-eating, taking our aggression out on other people, entering into a state of denial in which we refuse to look our problems in the face - and engaging in addictions involving substances or behaviours (gambling, pornography, illegal drugs, etc.).
Although these harmful coping mechanisms can provide us with a sense of short-term relief, they will only compound problems over the long term. For example, if you get into the habit of gambling on a regular basis as a distraction from workplace stress, you could end up having to deal with bankruptcy and damage to your reputation, alongside your original problems. It is well worth learning how to cope with your negative emotions in healthier ways. The following list contains several factors to consider over the long term - and also contains a few tips that will help you to calm down immediately.
The importance of diet
You may not be able to see an obvious connection between the food and drink you eat and your stress levels, but, in fact, they are closely linked. When we are stressed, we often feel tempted to reach for easy to prepare junk food, which is typically high in sugar, fat and processed components. It may provide us with a short-term boost and a feeling of pleasure, as well as being very convenient to prepare, but a poor diet leads to erratic blood sugar levels and elevated cortisol - also known as “the stress hormone”. Elevated cortisol levels contribute to a range of stress-related illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes. Fluctuating blood sugar levels lead to mood swings, which will certainly not help your stress levels.
Try to eat regular, healthy meals at approximately the same time every day. The bulk of your diet should be vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and whole grains, along with a moderate amount of fat. Use your common sense – if it comes from a packet, contains ingredients you cannot pronounce, or would be sold in a fast food restaurant, it probably isn’t a sensible choice! Healthy food doesn’t have to be inconvenient or expensive – for example, oatmeal, natural yoghurt and a piece of fresh fruit makes for a simple and healthy breakfast.
Make your default drink water. A state of even mild dehydration is enough to lower your concentration levels and worsen feelings of stress. Caffeine, whether in the form of liquids (tea and coffee) or food (e.g. chocolate), is best avoided if you are serious about minimising your stress levels. Stick to decaffeinated tea and coffee, or at least try to cut down on your consumption.
The importance of exercise
Did you know that research has demonstrated exercise to be as effective in treating moderate depression and anxiety as commonly prescribed psychoactive medication? Regular movement encourages the release of endorphins, also known as “feel good hormones”, which can reduce stress and improve mood. Take half an hour of exercise every day, if possible. This could be in the form of a brisk walk, a swim, a bike ride, or a jog. To feel the benefit still further, exercise outside. Sunlight provides a dose of Vitamin D, which is vital for health and mood regulation.
The importance of building a support network
Although relationships can cause us a great deal of stress, humans are social animals and benefit from having several good friends they can call upon in times of need. Simply sharing your problems with another person can have a beneficial effect – you feel less alone and may discover that the other person has been in a similar position before and survived. Friends, colleagues and relatives can also be a great supply of practical help, often being able to suggest ways in which you might approach a problem. They can also help put your issues into perspective, perhaps by reminding you of the positives you are currently enjoying in your life, or the challenges you have overcome in the past.
If you are experiencing a moment of extreme stress or panic, reach out to someone you trust. Set a timer and talk to them for five minutes about whatever is bothering you. After the five minutes is up, your job is to set about finding a practical solution. For instance, if you are overwhelmed by the demands of work, you can call a colleague and rant about this state of affairs. However, once that time period is up, you need to begin taking a more practical approach - perhaps by making a list of tasks and then prioritising them.
If you fail to manage your workload and meet key deadlines, you will find yourself feeling stressed on a regular basis. As we established near the beginning of the course, a certain degree of pressure is important – a sense of urgency spurs us on to work hard and complete our tasks. Some people actually thrive under pressure and love fast-paced work. However, even those who appreciate tight deadlines benefit from knowing how to prioritise their workload.
Time management isn’t a skill that we learn at school - and it is seldom taught in the workplace. If you are not sure how to handle the work you have been set, it is sensible to approach your manager and ask them for advice. Together, you may be able to sit down and work out the best way by which you can keep on top of deadlines. If you have a friend, or colleague, who seems to cruise through their work whilst remaining cool and calm at all times, ask them for advice. They may be able to pass on some practical tips, such as recommending a particular app or calendar system that works for them. Remember though, that everyone is different - and what works well for them, may not yield results for you.
Taking a proactive approach to identifying your needs at work
If you are feeling incapable of tackling the tasks that are set for you at work, you will inevitably become stressed. When the gap between your skills and the demands of a job are too wide, your performance will not be satisfactory - and both you and your managers will become stressed.
The moment you realise that you lack the relevant training, equipment, or other resources required to undertake a work task, tell someone! You are not superhuman and you cannot be expected to know everything. Admitting that you need training on a new process, procedure, or piece of equipment, is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you take your work seriously and want to get the job done to the best of your ability. If you are offered further training or assistance, never be too proud to take it.
Much of the stress we feel comes about as a result of ruminating on the past, or worrying about the future. However, nothing can be done to change what has already occurred - and whilst we can predict the future to a certain extent, in many respects, it is out of our control. Moreover, when we engage in too much mental “time travel”, we lose track of whatever we are supposed to be doing in the present. This can result in a lack of focus, loss of productivity - and increased stress.
The solution is to live in the present and to take notice of everything that is going on in the here and now. This is known as “being mindful”. Mindfulness has become very popular in psychology and self-help circles, over the past few years - and for good reason. Research has shown that it can help those practicing it to slow down, feel less stressed and become more productive, because they can prevent their minds from wandering, or jumping from topic to topic.
Try this brief mindfulness activity the next time you are feeling especially stressed. Sit or stand in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Take a deep breath in, hold it for a count of three and then exhale. Now try and merely notice what is happening around you - and within your body. How do your feet feel against the floor? What can you hear? Pay attention to your body – are there any particular areas of tension that you can detect? If your mind jumps around, let it – the more you try and bring it under control, the more it will rebel. The secret is not to try and think of “nothing” but rather, to accept whatever it is you are thinking - and not react to it. Imagine that your stress-inducing thoughts are like clouds against a blue sky – they feel real and can cause havoc, but they will soon pass.
Finding a broader sense of purpose
During times of immense stress, we can begin to feel unanchored from our core values and purpose in life and become bogged down in the trivial details of whatever stressful situation that confronts us. During busy periods at work, take a couple of minutes from your day to reconnect with your broader purpose. This doesn’t have to be religious or spiritual – it could be as simple as “I’m here, working at this job, so I can provide well for my children” or “I chose to enter this profession, because I can make a real difference to peoples’ lives”. Reminding yourself of your ultimate reasons for continuing with your job, can see you through stressful times.
The power of journaling
Writing down your thoughts and feelings, can be very cathartic. It can also be helpful in identifying particular patterns. For example, keeping a note of your stress symptoms may help you realise that you feel particularly bad on certain days of the week. This, in turn, gives you information that can help you make adjustments to the way in which you live and work. For instance, suppose you keep a journal and after a few weeks realise that you often get a headache and feel overwhelmed on Tuesday afternoons. On further reflection, you might decide that this is in response to the weekly meeting, which is held on Wednesday mornings, because you often feel under prepared. You could use this information to schedule in some time to better prepare yourself for these meetings - and may decide to ask for guidance from your line manager on how to better manage your time.
Journaling can take many forms. If you are a natural writer, you may find it helpful to keep a daily diary, in which you record your feelings and any stress symptoms. Over time, this can help you to piece together broader trends and patterns. You can do this either using a traditional notebook and pen setup, or using a journaling app (there are many available for free). Another form of journaling that may be of interest if you don’t have the time, or inclination, to write in full words and sentences, is graph journaling. Make a few basic templates that allow you to take a daily, or even hourly, “reading” of your emotional temperature. Design this in whatever way makes most sense to you. For instance - every day, you could mark on a graph where, on a scale of 1-10, you feel you are regarding your stress levels, with 1 being “very calm” and 10 being “extremely stressed”. Looking back over these data points can provide you with a warning - and help you to identify any patterns.
Which of the techniques above do you use when you feel stressed? Are there any you do not use, but would like to try? How could you adjust your stress management strategy over the next week?
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