Stress and personal management

Over the years I have worked with lots of people who were experiencing levels of stress that had become unsustainable and a detriment to their wellbeing. Because of my focus on Work and Organisational Psychology, the causes of stress were often work related, but regardless of what causes your stress, leaving it to develop unchecked and unmanaged will increasingly take a toll on your personal health and wellbeing.

Broadly speaking, there are two main types of stress; acute, and chronic stress. Acute stress is the sudden rush of adrenaline and fear that comes from a shock or fright of some sort – like someone nearly hitting your car, or being surprised by someone when you thought you were alone, or getting yelled at by your manager. This response to an immediate threat is the “fight or flight” response, and mostly involves your body getting ready to protect itself from whatever might be going on.

The other sort of stress is chronic stress. This is the day in, day out constant pressure that comes from things not being right in the world; problems not being resolved, relationships continuing to be difficult, unhappiness at work, conflict at home and so on. Often we will deny this sort of stress, and make excuses for how we feel.

A good way of spotting if you are experiencing chronic stress is if you:

  •  Brush it off as temporary, even though you can’t remember the last time you weren’t stressed.
  • See yourself as just being a bit of a stress head.
  • Describe your work or home life as just naturally stressful.
  • Blame stress on other people or things.
  • Consider a high level of stress as ‘normal’.

The problem is, if you don’t manage chronic stress, it can make you sick. It can drain your energy, make it harder to think and to work through problems, slow you down at work and undermine your relationships with partner, family and friends. Worse yet, there is a wealth of medical research that tells us chronic stress contributes to the development of all sorts of medical conditions such as; obesity, high blood pressure, cancer, heart disease and even chronic pain. No doubt you can spot the circular nature of stress: Unmanaged stress causes health problems which in turn become new sources of stress. Until you get some sort of control, it really is a vicious circle.

So what can you do to manage stress?

Well, if you are like lots of people, you may have adopted an unhealthy habit or two. Here is the short list of things not to do when dealing with stress:

  •  Smoking.
  • Drinking too much
  • Eating too much.
  • Eating too little.
  • Using drugs (prescribed, over the counter or otherwise).
  • Too much TV.
  • Withdrawing from friends and family.
  • Sleeping too much.
  • Procrastinating.
  • Making yourself busy all day everyday to avoid thinking about problems.
  • Lashing out at others.

Sound familiar? We’ve all done some of these from time to time, but it’s really not helpful and just causes more stress in the end.

If you really want your stress levels to reduce, then there’s nothing for it but to take charge yourself. There are a few ways of doing this and The Four A’s approach is one of them:

The Four A’s.

Avoid Unnecessary Stress

  • Learn to say ‘no’.
  • Spend less time with people who stress you out.
  • Take control of your environment.
  • Avoid talking about things that get you worked up.
  • Go through your ‘to do list’ and scrap anything that isn’t necessary or making you feel better.

Alter the situation

  • Express your feelings constructively instead of bottling them up.
  • Be willing to compromise.
  • Be more assertive (sure this can take practice, but no reason not to get started).
  • Manage your time.

Adapt to the Stressor

  • Look for opportunities in a difficult situation.
  • Look at the big picture – how much of a big deal is the problem anyway?
  • Adjust your standards (careful with this one; we’re talking about putting aside the perfectionism and setting reasonable expectations of yourself and others, not abandoning standards altogether).
  • Focus on the positive.

Accept those things you can’t change

  • Don’t try to control the uncontrollable – focus on the things you can control. No one person can fix all the woes of the world.
  • Look for the positive aspects of the situation – what you can gain from this life experience.
  • Share your feelings – with a trusted friend, a psychologist or your GP.
  • Learn to forgive. None of us are perfect.

It’s worth noting that not all stress is bad for you. A little bit of stress can get you motivated to tackle the challenges of the day, at work and at home. Too little stress, however, and we can become lethargic, lazy and miss out on opportunities for a fuller life. Too much stress and we suffer poor health. A good balance of stress can support a productive and rewarding lifestyle. Being honest with ourselves about what a good balance looks like is the key.

Does all this sound easier said than done? Well it can seem that way when you are overloaded with stress, so here is a quick list of small things you can do to give yourself a head start on the Four A’s:

  • Go for a walk.
  • Spend time in a park.
  • Call a good mate.
  • Get in some exercise.
  • Write in a personal journal.
  • Light some scented candles (not near the curtains – trust me on that).
  • Take a long bath.
  • Meditate.
  • Savour a warm drink (not too much caffeine).
  • Play with a pet.
  • Get a massage.
  • Read a good book.
  • Listen to music.
  • Watch a comedy show.
  • Work in your garden.
  • Improve your diet.
  • Get the right amount of sleep.
  • Spend at least a little of each day doing something you like.
  • Keep a good sense of humour.

Well, maybe not all of these all at once, but make a start on a few and build on it. And remember the last point – keep a good sense of humour. This includes learning to have a laugh at yourself and to be ok with that. A good laugh helps the body fight off stress. I laugh at myself quite often.

More info on this:

Christopher Howland (2012).

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