Thanks to its extremely common prevalence, stress is quite a buzzword today, more so in the COVID- 19 scenario. With COVID-19 playing ducks and drakes with our lives in every way possible, the stress experienced by most of us has risen. It’s no surprise then that everyone talks of reducing stress for a more peaceful life.
Well before we talk of the ways to mitigate it, let’s first grasp what stress is all about. In very simple terms, stress is a normal (and healthy (hold on!), to some extent) psychological and physical reaction to the demands of day to day living. Light stress is in fact, good in that it propels you towards better performance e.g. before a stage show, the little stress felt by the performer actually helps them rehearse hard and do better. So far, so good but coping with multiple daily life challenges like long commutes, traffic jams, targets, deadlines, attending social events and managing a family can often test our coping abilities.
From a biological viewpoint, our brains are wired to protect us using an alarm system in the event of a threat. During a threat, our body receives a brain signal to secrete hormones, which ramp up our heart rate and blood pressure – the “fight-or-flight” response. It gives us the fuel to deal with the threat in hand using more oxygen, more energy and the physical and mental rush. Once the threat vanishes, our bodies should return to their normal, relaxed selves. But sadly, it isn’t so in many cases as the hassles of modern living never let some people’s alarm systems shut off. And this unhealthy mental and bodily state greatly harms our mind and body over the long term.
Signs of excessive Stress
Though stress can show up in many different ways, some of its commonest symptoms are
- Constant worry
- Pains in the chest region, rapid, irregular heartbeat
- State of nausea/dizziness
- Long-standing diarrhea/constipation
- Putting off/ neglecting responsibilities
- Taking to alcohol/drugs for relaxation and unwinding
- Over-eating/ not eating enough
- Being overwhelmed
- Inability to focus on tasks
- Anxiety-ridden thoughts
- Agitation, inability to relax
- Irritability, “moody” disposition
Stress management training
Stress management training can help us re-calibrate our alarm system to help us adapt and achieve resilience. Without such resilience, we may always be on a high alert and with time, this long-standing stress can lead to health problems. Therefore, waiting until stress actually damages your health, relationships and the quality of life isn’t a sensible thing to do. You can do a lot to drive away the pressures and lead a much more peaceful and tension-free life by practicing stress management techniques.
Among common stressors, job-related pressures, relationship issues or financial troubles are relatively easy to single out. But the seemingly small and innocuous things like waiting in a long line or rushing for a meeting can also raise the stress you feel. To boot, even apparently positive events like tying the nuptial knot or shifting to a new home can be sources of stress. In fact, any change in life – be it positive or negative- can be a potential source of stress.
It’s important to remember that stress will never vanish from our life. Thus, stress management needs to become part of our day to day living. By identifying the stressors in our life and practicing relaxation, we can certainly hope to counter its ill-effects and improve our coping mechanisms. Of course, you don’t have to deal with all by yourself as you can seek help from family and friends.
Importance of stress management training
Constantly elevated levels of stress endanger our entire physical and mental well-being. It upsets our emotional equilibrium and physical health, interferes with our thinking and functioning and impairs our ability to enjoy life. On the face of it, it appears as if there’s nothing you can do about it. Hold on! You have a lot more control than you think.
Stress management training can help you get rid of stress and become happier, healthier, and more productive. The ultimate goal behind this a balanced life in which you have enough time for work, relationships and fun and you can build the resilience to meet challenges. But there isn’t a universal solution here and you’ll have to experiment to find what works best in your case.
Stress Management Techniques
Training your mind is an important part of learning stress management, which begins with pinpointing the sources of stress. Though identifying major stressors like a job change, job loss, moving and divorce may be easy, finding the reasons behind chronic stress can be more complicated as our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors also contribute to the stress we feel.
As a case in point, you may remain worried over deadlines, but this stress may be due to procrastination, rather than due to the demands of your job. In order to find out the real sources of stress, you have to examine your habits, attitude, and excuses and ask:
- Do you believe your stress is temporary though it has always been present?
(“My plate is full right now”)
- Do you think stress is an integral part of your being (“My life is always crazy, “I am always awfully nervous)?
- Do you attribute the blame for your stress to others or external events?
Until you accept the responsibility for your own role in creating / maintaining stress, it is going to be outside your control.
Writing stress journal
For better stress management training, make a stress journal to record major, regular stressors and how you handle them. Whenever you are under stress, make a note in your journal to find patterns and common themes like:
Who/ What created the stress?
How was the feeling – physically and emotionally?
What was the way you responded?
What did you do to come out of it?
Looking back, I can recall how I maintained our workforce morale during the first lockdown post-COVID-19. The first lockdown was total, strict and quite frustrating, especially for our plant workers, many of whom were stuck away from their homes. In fact, we had made arranged lodging and boarding for many of them, whose families were far away and who were suddenly stuck here. Since no physical movement was no-no, we thought up a creative solution and kept them involved over Zoom meetings every other day. We would discuss creative ideas and believe me, our collective energies and determination helped us create a biodegradable product as a result of our efforts. Not only did they get something meaningful to keep themselves busy, but it also brought about a technological breakthrough, besides reducing their stress levels.
At a personal level, my almost-doctor daughter was stuck at home, feeling bored and stressed. There were no college classes those days and the only thing there was the impending fear of another strict lockdown. Slowly, I gently veered her thoughts towards penning down her ideas, which had been cooking up in her mind for long. Not only did she get a creative outlet, but she also kept busy and brought out her first-ever published work A Million Dreams.
So, the mantra is – try to be imaginative and creative so as to de-stress yourself!
4 A’s – Avoid, Alter, Adapt and Accept
The stress we feel is simply an automatic response of our nervous system but some stressors come up predictably e.g. your commute to work, a meeting with your boss or social events. In the face of such predictable stressors, it’s advisable to change the situation or the way we react with the help of mind power training. We can practice the four A’s: avoid, alter, adapt, or accept to counter stress.
Avoiding a stressful situation (which needs to be addressed) isn’t healthy, but you can eliminate many stressors.
- Know your limits and say “no” to taking on more than you can handle. Distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts” and say “no” to taking on too much work.
- Avoid people who stress you out. Limit the time you spend with them or avoid them altogether.
- Take charge of your own environment. If TV news makes you anxious, stay away. If traffic snarls make you tense, take an alternative route. If a market visit looks unpleasant, go shopping online.
- Trim down your to-do list. Analyze your schedule, responsibilities, and daily tasks. If you have too much on your plate, shift the tasks that are relatively unimportant to the bottom or remove them.
- If avoiding a stressor isn’t feasible, alter it by changing the way you communicate and work.
- Express your feelings. Should something/someone bother you, express your concerns in an assertive, open and respectful manner. If you’ve an upcoming exam and your friend just drops in for chat, tell them you only have five minutes to talk. If you don’t, resentment builds up, which raises your stress level.
- If you ask someone to change their behavior, be ready to reciprocate. If you both are willing to bend, you can find a middle ground.
- All work and no play causes burnout. Balance work and family life, social activities and solo pursuits.
- If you can’t change a stressor, change yourself. Adapt to stressful situations to regain control by changing your expectations.
- Examine a stressful situation from a positive frame of reference. Rather than fretting over an ending traffic jam, pause, listen to music, read a book or enjoy “me” time.
- Look at the bigger picture. How important will it be in the long run? It is worth being upset over? NO, then focus your energy somewhere else.
- Do not chase perfection as it creates avoidable stress. If you are looking for perfection in everything you or others do, you may be planning to fail. Try having reasonable standards for yourself and others and being alright with “good enough.”
- Try practicing gratitude. When you feel overwhelmed with stress, reflect on all those things that you appreciate including your personal qualities.
Some stressors are simply unavoidable. For example, we can’t prevent a loved one’s demise, some serious illness or economic recession. We need to accept them as they are. Accepting them may be difficult, but it’s much easier than fighting something we can’t change.
- So many things are out of our control, especially how others behave. So rather than getting stressed out over them, we need to focus on what is in our control i.e. how we react to them.
- Look at major challenges as opportunities for growth. If you were responsible for a stressful situation, learn from your mistakes.
- We are living in a world with imperfect people (including ourselves), who constantly make mistakes. Thus, it’s better to let go of your anger and resentment. Forgiving and forgetting is a sensible idea.
- Give vent to your feelings to find catharsis by talking to a friend/family member.
Physical activity is a big stress reliever as it releases the feel-good endorphins and can also be a valuable distraction from daily worries.
Regular exercise for 30 minutes or more gives you the most benefit but it’s alright to build up your fitness level over time. Even small activities can add up to a lot over the course of a day. Get up and get going.
- Dance to music.
- Take your dog out for a walk.
- Walk down or cycle to the nearby store for vegetables/ groceries.
- Avoid the elevator. Use the stairs.
- Park your car at a far away location and walk the rest of the way.
- Pair up with an exercise buddy to encourage each other.
- Play ping-pong or other activity-based video game with your children.
While any physical activity would help you burn away stress, rhythmic activities like walking, running, swimming, dancing, cycling, and aerobics are especially effective. Choose something enjoyable so that you stick with it.
While exercising, pay conscious attention to your bodily and emotional sensations and focus on coordinating your breathing with the bodily movements. The mindfulness element helps you break the negative cycle that comes with excessive stress.
Spending good face time with others who makes you feel safe and understood is a calming experience. Face-to-face interaction triggers hormones to neutralize the body’s “fight-or-flight” response, which is a natural stress reliever (and staves off depression and anxiety). So connect regularly face to face with family and friends.
The people you talk to may not “fix” a problem but they can be good listeners. Do not think of yourself as being weak or being a burden as your loved ones will feel flattered by the trust you repose in them. Nurturing a close friends network can enhance your resilience to stressors.
- Connect with colleagues. B. Help out others.
- Share lunch/ tea with a friend. D. Ask a loved one to check in on you regularly.
- Accompany someone to a theatre /exhibition/concert.
- Call or email a forgotten friend.
- Go for a walk with a workout buddy. H. Schedule a weekly dinner date.
- Meet new people by attending a class or joining a club.
- Confide in a teacher/mentor/ elder one.
Take out some “me” time to reduce the stress in life. Do not get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life so much that you forget your own needs. Nurturing yourself is a necessity, not a luxury and you are worth it! With regular fun time, you handle the stresses in a better way.
- Take out leisure time, rest and relaxation in your daily schedule. Don’t let other obligations encroach on this time as you deserve a break to recharge your discharged batteries.
- Watch the stars, play the piano or go biking- any leisure activity of your choice. Always keep your sense of humour intact, including laughing at yourself. Being able to laughing at oneself is a mark of emotional maturity. Even otherwise, laughter therapy helps you fight stress.
- Try doing yoga, meditation, and deep breathing to trigger the relaxation response, the opposite of “the fight or flight” response. Your stress level will decline, making 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.
Balanced, 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.
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 song, play with your pet for quick relaxation and focus. There isn’t any one thing that always works, of course, you will need to experiment to find the unique sensory experiences that work best in your case.