Modern life, it seems, is an inherently stressful thing. Since the majority of us don’t have the luxury of a personal assistant, a nanny or a chef, we become perpetual organisers by necessity, continually trying to keep up with a dozen competing responsibilities. It’s no wonder then that stress levels in the general population are sky-high. We’re all familiar with the sorts of health problems that stress can create in the long-term, from headaches and migraines to heart disease and obesity – but what about our mental health? What can we do in our daily lives to combat stress and break the cycle that will ultimately hurt us?
Life may be demanding and even overwhelming at times, but we still have choices. Realising that you can take control at any time is the first step to successful stress management. Take charge now – of your schedule, your sleep, your body, your thoughts and emotions.
IDENTIFY YOUR STRESSES
The biggest first step is to write down all of the sources of stress in your life, which may be trickier than you expect. That’s because sometimes the stressors aren’t external – they might be your own behaviours, and even your own thoughts. Do you think negatively all the time, assuming the worst of yourselves and others? Do you put off today what can be done tomorrow? Procrastination is a major source of stress. We relinquish opportunities to get ahead in favour of a last-minute dash, creating our own stress. Do you relish the role of martyr rather than ask for help when you need it? If you are answering yes to any of these questions, you need to acknowledge the role you are playing as a stress creator, rather than a stress manager.
You may wonder where on earth you’ll find the time to journal anything, let alone what purpose it may serve, but you’ll be surprised how helpful it can be. At the end of each day, a few lines identifying the day’s sources of stress will eventually show some interesting patterns. Try noting the following:
- The source of your stress. Was it a person, a deadline, running late, your own attitude, something going wrong?
- Note how you reacted to each of those things.
- Did you make the stress worse or better?
You’ll begin to notice that the biggest factor affecting your stress levels is not the stressor itself, but your response to it. Anger and frustration over the long term will affect your relationships and your health, and will create a cycle that feels impossible to break. Whenever you take a few moments to calm yourself, step away from the stressor, or come up with a method of dealing with a problem, you’re going to cope much better and feel empowered once more.
DEALING WITH STRESS – THE DON’TS
Some of these behaviours will give you the impression that you are breaking the stress cycle, but in reality you are potentially creating new sources of stress. Common unhealthy coping mechanisms include:
- Too little or too much sleep
- Relying on sleeping tablets for more than a few weeks
- Alcohol and drugs
- Skipping meals or binge eating
- Social withdrawal
- Spending long hours in front of a screen
- Directing your anger and frustration at others, especially your partner or children
If you are resorting to any of these behaviours on a regular basis, there is good news – you can make better choices whenever you like. Quitting smoking, for example, may be one of the most difficult things you’ll do, but the possibilities this presents are exciting – you can renew your focus on your health and fitness, and enjoy the clear skin, fresh hair and clothes that were previously clogged with the remnants of thick, toxic smoke.
Alcohol in moderation can be enjoyed with a meal or in a social situation, but if you’re already thinking about your first drink before you get home, you may be relying on its numbing effects, leaving you open to addictive behaviour. Set limitations on your alcohol consumption, and aim for at least three alcohol-free days per week.
Saving up all of your ill-feelings for your family is guaranteed to make nothing better and everything worse. It’s a way of feeling in control, but you’re directing your anger in the wrong direction. Your family should be the main source of joy in your life, and alienating them will enhance your feelings of isolation.
Look to your loved ones for comfort and reassurance, and let them listen to you as you talk about your stress. Sharing your daily struggles with others can help you put things into perspective and come up with better ways of coping.
Food and appetite are dramatically affected by our mood, but in different ways for different people. Extreme stress may lead some to skip meals, while others take to bingeing for comfort. Either response is harmful in the end, with weight loss and malnutrition just as undesirable as obesity, in terms of our overall health. Taking control of your dietary intake is a way of making mindful choices for a desired outcome – you want to be healthy, therefore you will make healthy choices. Besides, feeling overly hungry or overly full harms your productivity and focus, further diminishing your ability to feel in control and get things done.
If you find that your current ways of dealing with stress create physical problems or perpetuate your emotional stress, there are other options. Change is difficult, because we are creatures of habit.
HEALTHIER WAYS OF COPING
We all respond to stress in very different ways, depending on our values, our resources, our relationships and our general health. No single method works for every person, and some trial and error may be required. Coping mechanisms that decrease anxiety as they increase control are ideal, and the four A’s are your first line of defense:
AVOID the stress. If something stressful does not need to be in your life, and has little benefit, remove it from yourself, or remove yourself from it. This might be a negative friendship, an errand that doesn’t fit in with your schedule, overtime that you can’t handle, or a place that makes you uncomfortable. If you hate thick traffic, take a route that is more relaxed, even if it takes you longer. If that’s not possible, try to adapt.
ALTER the stressor. This is about taking more control – by asking others to modify behaviours that impacts upon you, by saying ‘no’ more often, and managing time better. In cases where a person is the source of stress, try talking to them about it in a productive, outcome-driven way. Be willing to compromise if this person is resistant to change. Some habits are difficult to break, and sometimes our approach is the real problem.
ADAPT to the stressor. Sometimes sources of stress are unavoidable, and the only thing left to change is you. Adapting relies entirely on your thought processes. Life is going to throw you a curve-ball from time to time, but how you handle it is up to you. What opportunities can arise from the challenge? If you’re stuck in traffic and there’s no alternative route, you can distract yourself with music, a radio program, or a podcast. If you’re sick and there’s nothing that will get you to work when you need to be, appreciate the comfort of your home and nurture yourself instead of fretting about what you can’t do. If you have a thumping headache but the housework needs doing, ask for help. Or better still; know that it can wait without any dire consequences.
ACCEPT the stressor. You need to acknowledge what you can’t change and respond accordingly. Be forgiving, think positively and keep things in perspective. It’s time to accept the stressor when we can’t control it, and instead focus on our own response to it. Talk about it, andcreate ways to deal with it. If it’s a difficult colleague, tell yourself you’re going to smile more after talking with them, or perhaps reward yourself for staying calm when they’re especially irksome. Life is naturally chaotic and it’s unrealistic to expect a smooth ride. Dealing with things we don’t like is something we can all learn with just a little bit of practice.
KNOWING WHAT YOU CAN’T CHANGE
During the Great Depression, male suicide rates in America hit an all time high. This tells you something about the nature of humanity, but also demonstrates how some people react to things they cannot influence. We have a tendency to live in the present and the past, with less regard for how things might be different in the future. Financial crashes and terrible world events are not unprecedented, yet we react extremely to them because we don’t like to imagine unpleasant things. But it’s worth occasionally wondering how you might cope should something terrible happen. What if you lost someone you dearly loved? What if you became disabled? What if you faced financial ruin? What would happen to your family if you weren’t adequately covered in the event of your death? These are not the kind of scenarios we should dwell upon regularly for obvious reasons, but knowing what your emotional limits are might prompt you to think about the support networks you have around you, and to be very, very grateful for the good things in your life.
It’s fairly common knowledge that men and women deal with their stresses differently, but men benefit from verbalising their issues just as much as women. While talking with friends, partners and colleagues is quite acceptable in male circles, they are more inclined to experience “emotional fatigue” than their female counterparts. Once the problems are discussed and explored, he may feel ready to move on. Culturally and socially, women like to revisit issues for validation, re-venting or to discuss an altered perspective. All this means that talking about problems is fantastic, but we may need to be sensitive to small, gendered differences in communication. Like all points on gender, there are huge spectrums on which we’re all scattered, but men and women who talk about their problems on a regular basis, even to a therapist, tend to report lower rates of stress.
NURTURE YOURSELF SO YOU CAN NURTURE OTHERS
Being kind to yourself is central to your well-being. Feeling contented and balanced is the best way to give others the best part of you. Regularly pay attention to your physical and emotional needs by prioritising the following:
- Schedule in your recommended sleep time. This will be between 7-9 hours for most people, and it should be a deep, solid sleep most of the time. Getting enough sleep prepares you for the day and makes you more inclined to fall into healthy patterns of diet and exercise.
- Plan to relax. Even when life is busy, find something that makes you feel calm, and dedicate at least 30 minutes to it each day.
- Make time for friendships and relationships. Staying connected makes us feel loved and supported.
- Laugh. Unless you’re made of stone, there’s something out there that tickles your funny bone. Keep it on reserve for those really rough days.
- Tell someone you love them. It doesn’t have to sound mushy. Go on.
- Exercise 3-4 times per week. It’s the easiest things to cut out of a busy schedule, but we’ll always pay for it down the track. Since exercise regulates important parts of our bodies, including stress levels, it’s not worth sending it down the priority list. If you hate the gym, fine. Dance in your lounge room. Become a yoga fanatic. Buy a set of weights. It doesn’t so much matter how you’re doing it, as long as you’re doing it.
- Think nutrition. The word ‘diet’ is bandied about with little meaning these days, but if you use common sense and aim for nutritionally dense food, you’re halfway there. Five veg, two fruit. Every day. Your body will love you for it.
- Stop bingeing on caffeine and sugar. The come-down from each will prompt you to seek more, creating a dreadful little cycle. Swap out your coffee for tea after the second cup of the day, and avoid glucose peaks and troughs by snacking on dairy and crunchy fruit and veg.
We all need to treat ourselves from time to time. Always have something to look forward to. We can’t always have a holiday on the horizon, but sometime it’s the small things that keep us going: a good book, a walk in the forest, cuddling a pet, a cuppa with a friend, a favourite album, a long bath, sitting on the beach, or a trip to the cinema. Whenever you feel like life is beating you down, remember that it won’t last, people love you, you CAN get through it, and tomorrow is a brand new day.