How to cope with stress: expert tips on building mental resilience
There's no denying that this past year has been a time of high stress for many, a worldwide pandemic, multiple lockdowns, and a constant, unyielding fear for the health and wellbeing of ourselves and our loved ones.
Stress is usually described as the body being in 'fight or flight' mode but what do we do when — rather than an often necessary evolutionary response to a fleeting threat — we find ourselves in a constant state of stress? How does this affect our health, and how can we manage it when it becomes a daily part of our lives?
During the pandemic, when stress threatened to overcome us, we didn’t have our usual external buffers to fall back on — like socialising, hugging loved ones and changes of scenery, and whilst we all adapted to our new normal, we did so to 'varying degrees of success’ says Dr Audrey Tang, a chartered psychologist, mental health & wellbeing expert.
She notes that, while some will have 'welcomed the opportunity to cut back' and realised what's really important in life, others will have felt 'lost, lonely and isolated' — and have found themselves living a life dictated by stress.
Here, she explains how stress manifests itself in the body, and reveals how we can use the tools at our mental and physical disposal to cope with it — enabling us to live happier, healthier and more balanced lives.
What are the common signs of stress?
Stress is best defined as an emotional and physical state resulting in a physiological reaction where the body is prepared to fight or fly. It is an evolutionary response to threat and such 'preparation' often results in:
An increased heart rate
Feelings of tension
A rise in blood pressure
We may also become more focused on the threat – often to the exclusion of other information
What are the signs of ongoing stress?
What are the signals of stress in the body?
The negative signs of ongoing stress include
Lack of sleep
Inability to focus
Changes in eating habits – often over or under eating
Suppressing our immune system so we may be more susceptible to illness, or find it harder to recover
In turn, these can spiral into further problems which may include problems in relationships, completion of tasks at work, and overall poor physical health.
Subtle signs that commonly go overlooked, include things like slumping, a slower walk, or a lapse in personal grooming — which can often be dismissed as indicators of other issues — but are commonly related to stress.
Often one of the first things to be affected by ongoing stress is the sleep pattern – which in turn has an effect on concentration, interactions and ability to perform to normal standards. If you start to recognise any of these signs in yourself — it can't hurt to stop and ask 'am I really ok?'
These signs are frequently seen in those working in care professions (like the NHS), called 'compassion fatigue' — facilitated by working in a highly-stressful care environment for a sustained period of time, where the thought of offering more care feels overwhelming – resulting in poor work performance which can then unfortunately affect others.
How to cope with stress?
If you are feeling anxious or depressed, try to avoid using smiling or dismissive 'I’m fine' behaviour to cope – it's important to acknowledge your feelings and accept that you are not strange or a burden or 'just being silly;' stress, depression and anxiety are all very real. View the negative emotions as a warning that something needs to be done.
Find an outlet
At the very least, if you find it difficult to speak to anyone, a good start is to try and find an outlet to express your feelings – some people do it through journaling, others through poetry, dance, song, music, art and so on…
Anything that allows you a release of emotion can help free your mind enough to think a bit more clearly about seeking help — and avoid indulging in coping methods which may cause more harm in the long term.
Seek help before the point of crisis
Reach out before it gets to the point where it's taken out of your hands because you're no longer able to cope and your body breaks physically or emotionally.
Once you seek help, there will be other techniques given to you by professionals, but here are a few practical tools which can be used as a compliment to traditional interventions – and may even help create a slight buffer to the stressors currently being experienced:
Keep a mental social distance — ask yourself 'is this really my responsibility? before taking something on
You cannot save people from themselves. If it is within your power, you can signpost them and be there should they need a cheerleader, but solving their problems stops you from working on your own, and can teach them to be dependant on you. Try asking:
How can I best help you?
What would you like me to do?
What have you tried?
What are you trying to achieve?
These questions offer support, because you can effectively target your response whilst also returning the power back to the person asking. Channel the saved energy from not getting involved in their dramas, into your own goals.
Ask yourself 'how might I behave if I didn’t have that thought?'
A lot of the time stress can be created (mentally) by the story we are telling ourselves. For example, we might think a meeting went badly and then 'carry the burden' of that thought the whole day, until someone else tells us the meeting was great. If you've ever been in that situation you'll see how a change in perspective can lift stress right away.
Try asking yourself these 4 questions from The Work of Byron Katie:
Is that thought true (and how do you know?)
How do you feel thinking that thought
How would you feel/act if you couldn’t think that thought?
Is there another thought/action that will make you feel better than the current thought?
Remember that your physical health can affect your mental wellbeing
Eat, sleep and exercise – getting the blood pumping can help clear your mind. Over-indulgence can result in feeling of guilt and perhaps excess weight, which can then be an additional issue to feelings of loneliness (especially over this past year in lockdown). But, under-eating and a lack of sleep can also result in a lack of ability to focus or feelings of anxiety, which also may not help to form positive connections.
Simply getting out can help you get more Vitamin D which can increase feelings of happiness and counter things such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Make your living environment positive
Photos of the people you love, or feelings of comfort in the place you like to spend time can at least help you feel good when you are having time alone. Indulge in some DIY, or at least making the area you spend time in inviting through plants, colours or textures.
Reach outside friends and family
Joining a class or a club – something you always wanted to try, or something you always enjoyed — can help you meet like-minded people to connect with. Volunteering somewhere can also allow you to feel fulfilled at being able to give a time back to the community. Or talk about your feelings with a coach.
Work out your 'yin and yang' of pleasure — this can help you relax or recharge most effectively just when you need it
Recognise when you are enjoying something
Decide if that activity energises (yang) or relaxes (yin) you
Decide what you need – and pick from the list of things you know you enjoy.
The secret to this is that if we are feeling stressed, then something that relaxes us is going to be far more effective than something that energises us, but if we are feeling down or apathetic, then an energiser may be more useful than a relaxant.
Build your 'positivity reservoir' - these little energisers buffer stress)
Positive psychology suggest building hedonistic happiness (things that make us smile personally/individually) and eudaemonic happiness (things we do that give us meaning and purpose, which create happiness).
Hedonistic happiness includes things like having photos of moments you love in a screen shot album to remind you you’ve made a difference, checking in regularly with good friends, laughing lots and keeping positive affirmations nearby.
Eduaemonic happiness is about gratitude first and last. Think about something you’re grateful for before you sleep and when you wake up — like, 'I'm always grateful for how lovely my bed feels!' As well as engaging regularly in things that are meaningful to you.
How to cope with stress at work
1.Do not schedule back to back meetings
I know this is harder when you are co-ordinating different departments and teams, but ask your teams whether they also have a gap between meetings. As a coach I would never schedule clients directly one after the other – whether online or in my office – because it's extremely exhausting to give your full attention to one person and switch to the next – someone will lose out and you owe it to yourself and your team to be fully present.
3.Accept that Children, pets, post arriving, wifi connections and other issues are a fact of WFH life
If you are that worried, apologise from the start, and use it as an opportunity later to speak with your children and talk about your work and what they can do to stay occupied if you are on a call.
4.Get some offline time
Switch off, go out into the garden, or at least open a window. Get some time away from the glare of the screen and take a moment to be informally mindful by listening to the birds, feeling the warmth of the sun, breathing deeply, read a book or enjoy a cup of tea.
Just because in principle being online means you don’t have to physically go from A to B – if you don’t allow yourself to do so mentally, all the efficiency you believe you're saving, will soon be spent.
What are the benefits of a stress-reduced life?
Some stress can result in a heightened performance, and if we know how to manage our emotional responses, stressors are often temporary. If they are removed prior to exhaustion, recovery is often swift.
In the early stages of stress, a physical response such as the pumping of adrenaline, a focus on the threat and a feeling of tension may be exactly what we need to drive us to address whatever the situation is that has made us feel that way. Not only that, but if we listen to our body’s response and can identify stress triggers, we may be able to make small changes in order to live a happier life.
As long as we learn how to manage it, stress is not necessarily a bad thing.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist, mental health & wellbeing expert and author of new book The Leader’s Guide to Resilience.
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