What is stress management about?
Stress is what you experience when your body (and mind) react to a challenging situation that requires an urgent response.
Evolution designed this stress response to increase your chances of surviving the threat. Hence the 'fight or flight' description which is often used.
Under stress, hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) are injected into your bloodstream to prepare you to deal with whatever is happening. These hormones cause your blood pressure and breathing rate to increase so that more energy can be pumped into your muscles.
You will start to sweat more, as your body prepares to cool your muscles to maintain their efficiency, while blood is sent into the core of your body and away from the periphery, to prevent blood loss if you're injured.
Stress also alters your brain's chemistry, so that you focus on the threat while fading everything else out. Being stressed makes you excitable, jumpy and irritable.
You're being primed for action.
Preparing your mind and body in this way makes it more likely you'll survive a life-threatening emergency.
Think of it as an alarm system — which once it's sounded, needs to be turned off when the threat has passed.
Your stress response evolved to be short-acting, allowing you to deal with the situation in front of you, before returning everything to baseline.
In modern life, stress can be triggered in a variety of ways which our evolutionary past could not anticipate.
For many people, unfortunately, long-term stress has become a way of life, a throbbing undercurrent to everyday existence. Your mind and body are constantly in a state of high alert, and the alarm bell is constantly jangling.
So, what is stress management about?
Stress management is the process which you use to remove, limit or change the stress creating situation. Importantly, it's how you prevent acute stress from turning into chronic stress.
Definition of Stress
"A condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that "demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize".
According to Palmer, stress is:
“psychological, physiological and behavioural response by an individual when they perceive a lack of equilibrium between the demands placed upon them and their ability to meet those demands, which, over a period of time, leads to ill-health” (Palmer, 1989).
Scientists agree that stress has two dimensions. The first of these is your instinctive response to a situation. This is the feeling you get before walking onto the tennis court before an important match or sitting in the ante-room waiting to go into the examination hall.
The second dimension is your perception of the challenge — what you think about it. Scientists have shown that if you believe you can deal with something, you are less likely to be stressed by it.
Your susceptibility to stress is also determined by a range of external and internal factors.
External factors include:
- The job you do
- Your relationships with others
- Home or work situation.
Internal factors include:
- Nutritional status
- Your current health and wellbeing
- Your ability to manage stress
- The amount of sleep you're getting.
Symptoms of Chronic Stress
Your body is not designed to be on high alert all the time. Neither is your mind. There have been many studies which looked at the consequences of long-term chronic stress.
Physical symptoms of long-term stress include:
- High blood pressure
Long-term stress can also affect the way you think.
Cognitive symptoms include:
- Racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Problems with focusing
- Poor judgment
- Forgetfulness and being disorganised
- A tendency to be pessimistic.
Your immune system also takes a hammering and people with chronic stress are more likely to suffer from viruses like colds and influenza. It can lead to a worsening of other long term conditions such as:
- Mental health problems such as depression or anxiety
- Cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks and stroke.
- Obesity and eating disorders.
- Sexual dysfunction.
- Skin and hair problems such as psoriasis and hair loss.
- Gastrointestinal problems including gastritis and irritable bowel disease.
Unsurprisingly, your emotional well being will also be impacted. Typical emotional problems caused by long-term stress include:
- A tendency to become easily agitated or upset.
- Feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
- Feeling bad about yourself, or depressed or lonely.
- Being unable to relax or soothe your mind.
- Avoiding other people.
Winning Your Battle With Stress
1. Improve Your Self-Awareness
A good place to start is increasing your self-awareness — to become familiar with the particular causes or signals lead to your being stressed. This is important because we are all different, and what causes stress for one person, may not be a cause for another.
Identify The Causes of Your Stress
It's not as easy to do this as you might think. There are big life events that area obviously stressful — getting divorced, changing jobs, or moving house.
But pinpointing the cause of your chronic stress may be less clear-cut.
For example, work deadlines can be stressful — but clarifying why it is stressing you is important. Maybe you've got more to do than is reasonable, or you are not very good at time management, or possibly you're prone to procrastination. It might not be the deadline itself that's causing the stress in other words.
To help locate your stress triggers, you could start keeping a stress diary or journal. Here's what you do.
When you feel stressed, write down your answers to these four questions.
- What made you feel stressed?
- How did this make you feel, both physically and emotionally?
- How did you respond — what actions did you take?
- What did you do to make yourself feel better?
Simply download the Day One app and create a new journal (call it Stress Journal).
Then open up the snippet editor in TextExpander and write down the questions above.
Define a shortcut (".sj" for example).
Then whenever you need to make an entry just open Day One and type in ".sj" to have pre-populated questions to answer.
For more tips like this read this article.
Keep your journal for a while and you'll begin to see patterns which can help you identify what's pushing your buttons. You might find that you're making excuses ('I'm always busy') when you can't recall the last time you took a break, or you blame other people or you see stress as just an inevitable part of work or home life.
If you don't identify what's causing your stress, you can't take responsibility for taking steps to deal with it.
Identify Your Signals of Stress
Every one of us experiences stress differently. It can be very helpful to understand the particular signals your body sends you when it is becoming stressed. These signals might include:
- Feeling harassed and rushed.
- Snapping at people or having a low tolerance for minor frustrations.
- Headaches or stomach pains.
Noticing that you are experiencing these symptoms (or others that might affect you) allows you to step in and deploy some of the stress management techniques outlined below.
Look After Yourself
Making self-care a priority means planning ahead. Clarifying what's causing your stress, is a step forward. To do something about it, to effectively manage your stress means ensuring you're putting aside enough time for yourself.
Focus your self-care efforts on getting enough exercise and sleep, maintaining a healthy diet and finding time to relax.
You can use some of the strategies below to help make this happen.
Ask For Help
There are times when you might feel like you're sinking. If so, reach out to friends or family to discuss your situation. If you're really struggling, it might be time to talk to your family doctor who can help ensure that your health doesn't suffer.
2. Stress Management Strategies
There are many strategies you can use to get on top of your stress management challenge. Let's begin by looking at a number of ways you can take action in response to stressful situations.
1. Get Better Organised
Poor time management is the cause of many stressful situations. Feeling overwhelmed, with too many jobs to do, or missing deadlines are both guaranteed to make your nerve ends jangle.
It doesn't have to be like this though. There are many different systems you can use to organise how you use your time more effectively. Each is based on the same basic idea. You only have three resources you can use to get anything done…
Your time, your energy and your attention.
Time management systems are methodologies which create some structure and process about how you deal with the tasks and goals you are working on.
I have discussed some of the best of these systems at length here.
It's not just poor time management that causes stress though.
If you can never find the documents you need or if your desk or workspace is always cluttered and untidy, you can add to the feeling of stress that you're experiencing. A regular clearing and tidying practice can help you remove this potentially stressful ingredient.
2. Switch Off
These days you're never far from work. Even if you're away from your desk, it travels with you in your pocket. Your mobile phone and all the other communication technologies, including your laptop, iPad and desktop computer are endlessly clamouring for your attention.
It really pays off to learn how to switch off completely. Everything you need to do will still be there when you return. Even a brief spell without the constant mental racket caused by information technology can slow your mind down, and allow the nervous energy it creates to subside.
Put your phone down, and go for a walk outside if you can. Take ten minutes and you'll return refreshed and you'll also have loosened the grip which stress has on you.
If you're struggling to figure out how to do this, Body and Soul have some straightforward, actionable advice here. Alternatively, Joe Robinson has some wise words about the benefits of switching off here.
3. Create Boundaries
If you work from home, this is particularly important. Finding a way to signal to yourself that you are 'at work' or 'not at work' is very important. Otherwise, things have a habit of creeping under the door and you'll find it harder than ever to switch off.
You can also clarify boundaries with the other people you work with.
Here's an example I use at work. I have created an autoresponder rule for any email I'm copied in to. It basically tells the sender I'm not going to prioritise reading this email and if they need me to do so they should send it to me directly.
I get very few complaints about this — and interestingly very few of the cc'd emails end up in my inbox. You can read a bit more about I set this up here.
There are lots of other ways to signal that you're busy and concentrating on something important.
- You could close the door if you have one.
- You could wear headphones.
- Alternatively, you could relocate to a library or coffee shop where you're less likely to be interrupted.
Failing to control interruptions is one consequence of poorly defined boundaries — and uncontrolled interruptions is a serious productivity killer.
When you're unable to get your work done, tasks will pile up and you're going to feel stressed.
Take action: define some boundaries and protect yourself.
4. Be Assertive
If you want to avoid being overwhelmed you need to learn how to be assertive. Assertiveness is all about clarifying what you need or want and explaining this in an open, non-confrontational manner.
You are entitled to be treated firmly and fairly, and so do the people you work with. Assertiveness can help you manage your workload, by clarifying what you're able to achieve.
The POPO Principle (Affiliate link) is something you need to be aware of. Here's a classic example which demonstrates why managing upwards, assertively is so important.
Joe starts work with a new employer. He is keen and throws himself headlong into the job.
After a month he starts to look around and he can see that he's actually doing twice as much work as everyone else.
So he dials back his effort so it conforms to the norm he can see around him.
At which point his boss hauls him in and asks him why he's slacking.
A lack of assertiveness can lead to unnecessary misery. You've got nothing to lose by expressing your concern, provided it's done positively. In the majority of cases, your boss is going to react positively. Suffering in silence is in no-one's best interest.
Learning how to be assertive while remaining empathetic is a skill. There are some great resources that can help you build your assertiveness here.
5. Get Off The Bucking Bronco
There are times when your head is so full of racing thoughts and swirling information, that you just need to dismount and do something else.
Find something you know you'll enjoy and spend time away from what's happening. You might ring a friend or family member, listen to some music or watch a film or sporting event. Find a way of distracting yourself and allow your mind to focus on something more pleasant for a while.
6. Take Exercise
The benefits of exercise are too numerous to mention in full. Here is a short list of just some of the health benefits which regular exercise (20 minutes, three times/week) can provide.
Some of the benefits of exercise are summarised below.
Exercise can help prevent or slow down a number of diseases and long-term health conditions, including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
2. Exercise Boosts Memory and Concentration:
Exercise is known to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter which helps you to concentrate and focus. There's also evidence that it can slow down an age-related mental decline in diseases such as dementia.
3. Exercise Strengthens the Cardiovascular System:
Regular exercise that makes you slightly breathless will strengthen your heart and cardiovascular system. You'll feel stronger, get less tired and breath more easily as a result.
4. Exercise Reduces Stress
In addition to these and other reported health benefits, however, exercise has a dramatic impact on stress.
Regular exercise has been shown to reduce levels of cortisone and adrenaline in the blood.
If you remember, these are the two stress hormones the body releases when it is under threat.
5. Exercise Improves Mental Wellbeing
Evidence also shows that exercise can protect against anxiety and depression.
7. Meditation and Other Mindful Practices
Meditation is well known to be an effective means of guarding against the hazards caused by too much stress. There are a variety of practices which you can use to obtain the protective benefits. Here are just a few:
Using a meditation app to guide you through an introduction to meditation is an easy way to begin. Two of the best ones, both of which I've used are"
I've written about meditation practice before if you 're interested in some more advice about how to improve your happiness at work this article might be useful.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This is a technique in which the practitioner progressively tightens and then relaxes specific muscles. There's a useful PDF which you can download here which will help you get started.
There are many different forms of Yoga, including Anusara and Ashtanga. You can read about the various forms here.
4. Tai Chi and Qigong
These are both forms of martial art, originating from China. They each emphasise a distinctive set of movements and are aimed at focusing the mind as the body responds to each exercise.
Whichever form of meditative exercise you choose — and it's OK to choose running or swimming if that's your thing — the key is to focus your mind on the physical experience the exercise is creating.
You can concentrate on how your hair is flowing, or coordinate your breathing with your movements or the way the sunlight is falling on the ground. This can help release you from the grip which stress has on you, including all the negative thoughts which often accompany it.
8. Eat A Healthy Diet
You are what you eat, and there's plenty of research which shows how the important role which diet plays in many health issues. Your diet can also play a role in stress management.
A small quantity of sugar can enhance alertness — which can help you process tasks more efficiently and stay on top of things more easily. You should be careful, however, as too much sugar will make you obese. Too much sugar can lead to short-term memory impairment too.
Fish is brain food, particularly fish which is rich in Omega 3 fatty acid. Eating this kind of fish two or three times per week can enhance memory and lower the risk of dementia. It has also been shown to reduce your risk of stroke. Here's a list of fish that have high Omega 3 oil content.
Fish: Omega 3
Blueberries are a particularly rich source of antioxidants which protect against free radicals. This can reduce your risk of age-related dementia, and help to maintain your full cognitive powers.
4. Nuts and Chocolate
Eating up to an ounce (28 grams) of nuts and chocolate each day will provide you with a good source of Vitamin E, an antioxidant that lower your risk of cognitive decline. Chocolate is also a source of caffeine, which in moderate doses improves short-term memory and alertness.
5. Eat Your Breakfast
Ensuring you eat breakfast each day will improve your mental capacity, particularly short-term memory and alertness. If you consume too many calories at breakfast, however, this may affect your concentration.
A small to moderate dose of caffeine will help you feel alert and can also improve short-term memory. Caffeine is subject to a dose effect and you need to be careful not to overdo it. Too much caffeine will leave you feeling jittery and uncomfortable.
Here are some further resources on good stress management diets.
9. Get Enough Sleep
Without sufficient sleep, you are likely to think less clearly. In fact, studies show that sleep deprivation can cause your thinking to become irrational. Sleep is also important for a variety of other health factors which will have a bearing on your ability to function at your best.
There is a guide to improving your sleep which you can download below.
10. Build Your Resilience
Stress if you recall is based on both your instinctive reaction ('that looks like a challenge') and the way you process or think about it. Resilience is your ability to learn from a setback and use that knowledge to prepare you for the next challenge.
If you can develop a mindful or intentional approach to building resilience, this can increase your resistance to stress. You are increasingly able to understand that challenges can be met and dealt with.
Here's a great infographic from the folks at Positive Psychology who have got a wealth of other resources on building resilience.
I hope this article has managed to answer the question: what is stress management about?
Long-term chronic stress is a serious problem, but many of the effects can be minimised with stress management strategies. There are many resources in this article that can help you get started.
If you're really struggling with stress it may be important to get professional help. Coaching might be a useful starting point — I do offer limited availability coaching on a one to one basis if you're looking for some help.
If you want to explore coaching with me, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alternatively, if your health is being affected, don't wait. Contact a medical practitioner — who will be able to direct you to counselling or other psychological services.