Stress has become quite a buzzword today thanks to its extraordinarily common prevalence, especially in the current COVID- 19 times. With the scourge of COVID-19 simply refusing to go away, the level of stress experienced by a majority of us stays or has shown a northwards trend. Given the situation, everyone talks of controlling or managing stress to lead a more peaceful and relaxed life.
Let’s first try to understand the idea of stress before we expand on the ways to mitigate it. In simple words, stress is a normal psychological and physical reaction to the demands of life. A low level of stress is actually good for you in that it can motivate you to perform well e.g. before exam time, the little stress you feel actually helps you study hard and do well in it. But facing multiple challenges on a daily basis like unending traffic jams, meeting deadlines and paying bills, managing a family – all can push you beyond your coping ability.
Our brain is hard-wired with an alarm system to protect us. So, whenever it perceives some threat, it sends a signal to our body to release hormones that increase our heart rate and blood pressure. This so-called “fight-or-flight” response triggered by the body provides us the fuel to deal with the threat – more oxygen, more energy, a sort of physical and mental rush.
Once the threat is gone, our body is supposed to turn back to a normal, relaxed state. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen in many cases as the never-ending complications of modern life do not ever let some people’s alarm systems shut off. And this is an unhealthy state of mind and body, which can cause great harm to our mind and body in the long term.
Signs of excessive Stress
- Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
- Feeling of nausea or dizziness
- Chronic diarrhea or constipation
- Consuming alcohol or drugs to relax and unwind
- Eating too much or not enough
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Worrying non-stop
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Inability to concentrate on daily tasks
- Anxious or “racing” thoughts
- Feeling of being agitated, inability to relax
- Irritability, moodiness
Stress management gives us the tools to reset our bodily alarm system to help our mind and body adapt (resilience). Sans such resilience, our body may always remain in a state of high alert. Over time, such chronic stress can create serious health problems. Therefore, it is advisable to not wait until stress actually damages your health, relationships and the quality of life. It’s much better to start practicing stress management techniques today. There are things you can do to relieve the pressure and regain control of life.
Job pressures, relationship problems or financial concerns are easy stressors to identify. But the hassles and demands of day to day life like waiting in a long line or being for a meeting can also raise your stress level. Even seemingly positive events like getting married or buying a new house can be stressful. In fact, any change in life can cause stress.
Remember, stress will not vanish from your life and thus, the process of stress management needs to be an ongoing one. By paying attention to the causes of stress and practicing relaxing ways, you can counter some of its ill-effects and improve your coping abilities.
Don’t feel like you have to deal with it on your own. Seek help from family and friends.
Importance of stress management
High levels of stress put our entire physical and mental well-being at risk. Stress brings havoc on our emotional equilibrium and physical health, limits our ability to think clearly, function adequately, and enjoy life in general. It seems as if there’s nothing you can do about it as the bills won’t stop coming, the day would have the same number of hours and your work and family responsibilities will always remain demanding. Fret not! You enjoy a lot more control than you may think.
Stress management can help you yank off the hold stress is chaining you with, letting you become happier, healthier, and productive. The ultimate goal behind this entire exercise is leading a balanced life with enough time for work, relationships, relaxation and fun and build the resilience to withstand pressure and meet challenges. But unfortunately, there isn’t any one-size-fits-all trick. That’s why you need to experiment and discover what works best for you.
Stress Management Techniques
Sources of stress
Mind power training is an important component of learning stress management. Stress management training begins with pinpointing the sources that bring you stress. It may be easy to identify major stressors like a job change, job loss, moving and divorce, but pinpointing the reasons behind chronic stress is more complicated as our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors also contribute to stress.
For instance, you may be always worried about your deadlines, but the stress may be owing to procrastination, rather than the actual job demands. To identify the real sources, you need to look closely at your habits, attitude, and excuses and ask yourself:
- Do you justify stress as temporary even though it has always been there?
(“I’ve got hundreds of things in hand right now”)
- Do you call stress an integral part of your life (“Crazy things always happen here”) or personality (“I have a lot of nervous energy)?
- Do you put the blame for your stress on others or outside events or see it as normal?
Until you accept responsibility for the role you play in creating / maintaining it, your stress will remain outside your control.
Write a stress journal
For better stress management training, a life coach may advise you to maintain a stress journal to identify major, regular stressors and the ways you deal with them. Whenever you feel stressed, note it in your journal. This daily log will give you patterns and common themes like:
What created the stress?
How did you feel physically and emotionally?
How did you respond?
What did you do to feel better?
Be imaginative and Creative
I can vividly recall how I managed to maintain the morale of our workforce during the first lockdown post-COVID-19. The first Corona-induced lockdown was total, strict and quite frustrating for all, including our plant workers, many of whom were stuck away from their families. In fact, we had made lodging and boarding arrangements for many of them, whose families were staying far away and who were suddenly stuck there. Since no physical movement was possible, we evolved a creative solution and decided to keep them involved over Zoom meetings every alternate day, wherein we would discuss creative ideas and believe me, our collective energies and focus helped us create a biodegradable product in those stressful days. It gave them not only something meaningful to keep busy, but also resulted in a technological breakthrough, besides de-stressing them.
At a personal level, my doctor-in-the-making daughter was also stuck at home, feeling bored and stressed, with there being no college and the impending fear of another lockdown. I gently persuaded her to give a vent to her thoughts, which had been brewing in her mind for the past so many months. Not only did it give her a creative outlet, but also kept her meaningfully busy and made her come out with her first-ever published book A Million Dreams.
So, the mantra is – be imaginative and creative to de-stress yourself!
4 A’s – Avoid, Alter, Adapt and Accept
Stress is an automatic response of the nervous system but some stressors arise at predictable times – your travel to work, meeting with boss or family gatherings. While handling such predictable stressors, you can change the situation or change the way you react with mind power training. In this regard, life coaches advise you to practice the four A’s: avoid, alter, adapt, or accept.
Avoiding a stressful situation that needs to be addressed isn’t healthy, but you can eliminate many stressors in your life.
- Know your personal limits and learn to say “no”. Taking on more than what you can handle is a sure shot recipe for stress. Try to distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts” and say “no” to taking on too much work.
- Avoid people who stress you out. If someone consistently causes stress, limit the time you spend with them or call it quits.
- Take control of your environment. If reading the newspaper gives you anxiety, put it away. If traffic snarls make you tense, take a longer but less-travelled route. If a visit to the market is unpleasant to you, do online shopping.
- Slim down your to-do list by analyzing your schedule, responsibilities, and daily tasks. If there’s too much on your plate, shift the tasks that aren’t truly necessary to the bottom or chuck them out entirely.
- If you can’t avoid a stressor, alter it by changing the way you communicate and operate.
- Give a vent to your feelings. If something/someone bothers you, communicate your concerns assertively in an open, respectful way. If you’ve got an exam and your chatty friend just dropped in, tell them you only have five minutes to talk. If you don’t express yourself, resentment builds, which increases the stress.
- If you ask someone to change their behavior, be ready to do the same. If you both are willing to bend a little, you can easily find a happy middle ground.
- Have a balanced schedule as all work and no play causes a burnout. Find a balance between work and family life, social activities and solo pursuits and daily responsibilities and downtime.
- If you can’t change the stress agent, try to change yourself. Adapt to stressful situations and regain control by changing your expectations and attitudes.
- Reframe a problem by examining stressful situations from a positive perspective. Rather than fuming over the traffic jam, just pause, listen to music, read a book or enjoy some me time.
- Look at the big picture by taking a perspective view of the situation. How important will it be in the long run? In a month? A year? Does it deserve getting upset over? NO, then focus your time and energy elsewhere.
- Chasing perfection creates avoidable stress. Do not plan to fail by looking for perfection. Have reasonable standards for self and others, and try to be okay with “good enough.”
- Practice gratitude. When stress bogs you down, reflect on all the things you appreciate including your own qualities.
Some sources of stress are, indeed, unavoidable. You can’t prevent or change a loved one’s demise, a serious illness or recession. Accept them as they are. Acceptance may be difficult, but it’s easier than railing against something you can’t change.
- Many things are beyond our control, particularly others’ behavior. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on what you can control e.g. the way you react to problems.
- While facing major challenges, look at them as opportunities for growth. If your own choices had created a stressful situation, learn from your mistakes.
- We live in an imperfect world and people make mistakes. Let go of your anger and resentments. Avoid negativity by forgiving and moving on.
- Express yourself to have a catharsis. Talk to a friend or a family member.
Of all the stress management techniques, physical activity can be a huge stress reliever as exercising releases the feel-good endorphins and it can also become a valuable distraction from daily worries.
While you’ll get the most benefit from regularly exercising for 30 minutes or more, it’s okay to build up your fitness level gradually. Even very small activities can add up over the course of a day. The first step is to get yourself up and moving. While regular exercise for 30 minutes or more delivers the best benefits, it’s okay to build your fitness level gradually by including small activities.
Just get up and move i.e.
- Put on some music and dance.
- Walk your dog.
- Walk or cycle to the neighborhood grocery store.
- Take the stairs rather than an elevator.
- Park your car at the farthest spot and walk the rest of the way.
- Join hands with an exercise buddy to encourage each other.
- Play ping-pong or some activity-based video game with your kids.
While any physical activity helps burn away tension and stress, rhythmic activities are especially effective in this case. Good options are walking, running, swimming, dancing, cycling, and aerobics. But make sure to choose something enjoyable so that you stick with it.
While exercising, try to pay conscious attention to your bodily and emotional sensations. Focus on coordinating your breathing with your movements. Notice how the air or sunlight feels on your skin. This mindfulness element helps you break the cycle of negative thoughts that accompanies overwhelming stress.
Nothing else is as calming than spending good face time with others who makes you feel safe and understood. In fact, face-to-face interaction triggers hormones that neutralize the body’s defensive “fight-or-flight” response, a natural stress reliever (besides staving off depression and anxiety). So connect regularly in person with family and friends.
Read: Dealing with Depression
The people you talk to may not fix your problem. They just have to be good listeners. And do not think about looking weak or being a burden as those who care about you will feel flattered by your trust you repose in them and it will only strengthen your bond. Building and maintaining a network of close friends can enhance your resilience to stressors.
- Reach out to colleagues. B. Help others by volunteering.
- Share lunch/ tea with a friend. D. Ask a loved one to check in on you regularly.
- Take someone with you to a movie/concert. F. Call or email an old friend.
- Go out for a walk with a workout buddy. H. Have a weekly dinner date.
- See new people by taking a class or joining a club.
- Confide in a teacher, mentor or an elder one.
Fun and relaxation
You can also reduce the stress in life by taking out some “me” time. Never get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of life that you forget your own needs as nurturing your own self is a necessity, not a luxury. You deserve it! With regular time for fun, you can handle the stress in life in a better way.
- Keep aside some leisure time and include rest and relaxation in your daily schedule. While at it, don’t let other obligations encroach on this time as you need a break from all responsibilities to recharge your batteries.
- Do some leisure activities that you enjoy – watching birds or stars, playing an instrument, or biking. And always keep your sense of humor intact, including laughing at yourself, which is a hallmark of emotional maturity. Laughter also helps you fight stress in many ways.
- Try out yoga, meditation, and deep breathing to activate the bodily relaxation response, which is the opposite of “the fight or flight” stress response. As you practice them, your stress level will decline, leaving you calm and focused.
Bad time managers always face a lot of stress. If you’re too stretched and are running behind schedule, staying calm and focused is impossible. Plus, you may be tempted to avoid all the healthy things you should do to control stress e.g. socializing and relaxing. There are things you can do to attain a healthier work-life balance.
- Make only reasonable commitments and avoid scheduling things back-to-back or packing too much into a day. Often, we underestimate how long things can take and then land in a problem.
- Prioritize your tasks by making a list of tasks and finish them in order of importance. Tackle the high-priority items first and so on. For something particularly unpleasant or stressful, finish it early so that the rest of the day feels more pleasant.
- Break your projects into small, manageable steps and focus on one step at a time, rather than taking on everything in one go.
- You don’t have to do it all by yourself. If other people can take care of the task, why not let them do so? Avoid controlling or overseeing every little step, thereby letting go of the unnecessary stress.
Balance with a healthy lifestyle
Besides regular exercise, other healthy lifestyle choices are an important part of stress management training that can improve your resistance to stress.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet as a well-nourished body is better prepared to cope with stress. So be very mindful of your eating and begin your day right with a healthy breakfast and follow it with balanced, nutritious meals through the day to keep you active and your mind clear.
- Try to limit the caffeine and sugar intake as the temporary “highs” they bring often end with a mood crash. By reducing the intake of coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and sugar snacks, you’ll feel more relaxed and will sleep better.
- Stay away from alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. Alcohol and drugs may be an easy escape from stress, but the relief is only temporary. Don’t evade the issue at hand. Deal with it head on and with a clear mind.
- Adequate, quality sleep rests your mind and rejuvenates your body. Feeling tired worsens your stress as it may cause you to think irrationally.
Quick, Momentary relief
- If you’re harried by your morning commute, are stuck in a stressful meeting or are hassled over an argument with your spouse, you need a quick stress management technique.
- The quickest route to stress relief is deep breathing. View a favorite photo, smell a specific scent, listen to your favorite music, hug your pet to quickly relax and focus yourself. Of course, you will need to experiment and discover the unique sensory experiences that work best for you.