Stress is a physical and emotional response that occurs when someone perceives their capability as insufficient to meet a demand. This is an experience shared by everyone and can sometimes act as a motivator. More typically, however, it makes people feel depressed or burnt-out.
The body has a physical reaction to stress. The heart beats faster, adrenaline races, breathing quickens and blood is sent to the muscles. There is also a mental aspect which causes worry, racing thoughts, difficulty in decision-making and a focus on negative aspects.
Causes of stress
Many things cause stress. Some of the more prominent causes are work pressure, bereavement, marriage, pregnancy, money and divorce. However, much of our stress comes from everyday responsibilities, obligations and pressures that are not always immediately obvious. In response to this, your body automatically raises blood-pressure, heart rate, respiration, metabolism and the flow of blood to your muscles. This response is intended to help you react quickly to a situation.
Effects of stress
Constantly reacting to stress adjustments can cause:
- Feelings of helplessness
- Drug dependence
- Negative self-criticism
- Obsessive and intrusive thoughts
- Rigid attitudes
- Digestive problems
- Less efficient immune system
- Sleeping problems
- Emotional outbursts
- Difficulty relaxing
- Avoidance of situations
How can I cope with stress?
Stress can be handled in many ways, but it's important to define the problem. One way to try and help yourself is to list things which you know cause tension in your life (e.g. rushing in the morning, problems with transport, etc.) and make attempts to resolve them.
- How does this stress affect you? Is it short or long term?
- What are you willing to change for a less stressful life?
- Do you have friends or family who will support any changes?
- What have you tried already that didn't work?
- What are your biggest obstacles to reducing stress?
- If you don't have control of a situation, can you accept it?
Some of the following suggestions may help immediately, but some may require more determination and/or lifestyle changes.
Become aware of physiological responses
Next time you find yourself getting stressed, make a conscious choice to stay calm. Step away and be aware of your physical and emotional response. For example, when people feel stressed, they tend to talk quickly and breathlessly. By slowing down your speech you'll actually appear less anxious and more in control of the situation. You may also find you think and react more effectively.
Anticipate potentially stressful situations
Imagine how you can manage each situation more successfully. Whether it's a presentation or bus journey, many people find rehearsal boosts self-confidence and enables a more positive approach. Similarly, identify hours when you work best and plan the most demanding tasks for that time.
High expectations only intensify stressful feelings. If you have to get everything done in a certain way, you'll find it difficult to take time off. Identify what rigid attitudes you have and how they influence your response to situations. If you find you're feeling frustrated or disappointed when you or another person doesn't meet your standards, rethink your position. Remember that everyone has individual virtues and shortcomings. Be prepared to compromise, not only will you reduce your stress, but you may find better solutions to your problems.
You may be taking on more than you can or should handle. If you feel overwhelmed by something ask "What really needs to be done?" and "How much can I realistically do?" If you evaluate a situation as being unrealistic then say so and give reasons why. You may have many things to do, but you cannot do them all at the same time!
Use relaxation techniques
Before reacting to a stressful occurrence take deep breaths and release them slowly. If you have a few minutes, try a relaxation technique such as muscle relaxation, meditation, guided imagery or deep breathing.
Improve two-way communication
Learn to listen fully to what others are saying and seek to find areas of common ground, so you can work together. It can sometimes be a great relief to delegate a task or responsibility to someone else. Humour can be used to lighten difficult situations.
Develop good time-management
If a workload begins to seem unbearable, you must prioritise. Break down demands into small, manageable parts and identify what needs to be done, in what order. Once you accomplish the first task, positive feelings will motivate you to do the rest. Leave some free time each day, so that you are not overwhelmed if something unexpected occurs.
Consider one problem at a time and identify a specific question, rather than a general feeling. Spend some time generating a list of possible solutions. Then decide which ones are realistic and choose from them.
Take twenty minutes every day for undisturbed time away from work. Also make sure that you go outside every day, even for just ten minutes, as this can be very rejuvenating.
Use a relaxation routine
Recognise activities that you find relaxing (such as reading a book, meditation or having a bath) and decide when is best to incorporate them into your daily routine. You need time to recharge and energise yourself, after which you'll be much better prepared to manage stress.
Develop a healthy lifestyle
Along with improving your ability to relax, you must assess diet and other strains on your body. Limit your intake of stimulants such as caffeine or nicotine, drink plenty of water and eat small, nutritious snacks. Hunger and dehydration can provoke aggressiveness and exacerbate feelings of anxiety and stress, even before you're aware of them. Avoid using drugs and alcohol.
Exercise and consider your posture
Regular exercise is a popular way to relieve stress. Twenty to thirty minutes of physical activity per day has great benefits for both body and mind. Bad posture leads to muscle tension, pain and increased stress. Hold your head and shoulders upright and avoid stooping or slumping.
If you are unsure, compare how you manage stressful experiences by assessing if you have a healthy or unhealthy coping style. For example, do you:
or just plough on?
or eat fast food and skip meals?
or use alcohol or drugs?
or isolate yourself?
or work longer hours?
or take on too much?