What is Stress?
Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a certain amount of stress can be useful to help us get through our daily tasks, or meet deadlines.
However, psychologists have found that stress becomes detrimental to us when we feel overwhelmed and it exceeds our ability to cope. That’s when we can experience difficult physical and emotional symptoms. We might feel irritable or angry or have trouble sleeping or concentrating.
When stress is prolonged and excessive it can be serious. The consequences of chronic stress are well-known and can include heart disease, infections, chronic illnesses and depression or burnout.
When we burnout, we have nothing left in the tank. We’re too exhausted to care about things we would normally care about, like getting to work, and looking after ourselves. Everything feels like an effort, and our normal everyday patterns can be disrupted.
So, it’s really important to identify what’s causing us stress. This is often the first step in its management.
What Causes Stress?
Stress may come from an external source such as work, or from other people. Psychologists have found that major changes in our lives, as well as too many changes in a short period of time can impact on our well being. Stress can also come from within, such as, by having too high expectations, and from negative self talk and beliefs.
It’s important to find healthy practical ways to regulate our stress levels before they affect us negatively.
Some people turn to unhealthy ways of managing stress such as alcohol and drugs, however this can often lead to further problems, including addictions and poor self-esteem.
Tips to Manage Stress
There are many healthy ways to manage stress. Below are six suggestions that you might try to do on a regular basis. Like any new skill, they can be challenging to incorporate into our lives, but the benefits are well worth it.
Breathing. One of the simplest and most accessible ways of managing stress is by regulating our breathing. You can do it anywhere, while you’re sitting on a bus, standing in a long queue or lying in bed. Our fight-flight system kicks in when we’re stressed and our breathing becomes shallow and quick. Try regulating your breath by gently inhaling through your nose and holding for a second or two and then gently exhaling through your mouth, and holding for another second or two. Repeat this over a few minutes. If you place your hands on your stomach you should feel it rising on the inhale and falling on exhale.
Meditation. Meditation has been shown to help lower stress levels. It’s a technique that’s been around for a long time and has become increasingly popular. It helps to slow your breath and clear your mind. There are many forms of meditation with breath meditation being one of the popular ones. If you haven’t tried meditation before, be prepared that it’s a skill that can take time to develop so it’s a good idea to practice it regularly.
Exercise. This helps with both our emotional and physical symptoms of stress. Introduce regular exercise into your day. Pick something you enjoy and are able to do, such as gentle walking, jogging, gym or bike riding, or join a team sport. You don’t have to limit it to sporty things. Try dancing around in your lounge room or join a dance class.
Develop a good support network. Being connected to people we can talk to and share problems and good times with is an important factor in reducing or keeping stress away. Don’t keep things bottled up. Having people in your life makes you feel valued and gives you a sense of belonging as well as a sense of security. Psychologist, Dr Sue Johnson says that stress is harder to deal with when you’re alone compared to when someone’s holding your hand.
Take a break from the stressor. I’m not suggesting here that you avoid it altogether but give yourself a short break from it to allow you to change gears, relax or reset. For example, ask a friend or family member to look after your baby or take a break from a big project by going for a walk or do something nurturing for yourself.
Watch your thinking. Negative thinking and cognitive distortions such as all-or-nothing thinking, the need to be perfect and jumping to conclusions can contribute to stress. Our belief system determines how we perceive and respond to things so it’s important to keep it in check, because we can become paralysed by negative thoughts.
The first step is to become aware of any unhelpful beliefs and thoughts. Psychologists suggest that you practice catching yourself when you have a negative thought and replace it with a more balanced accurate one. This isn’t an easy process because much of our dysfunctional thinking is automatic as it’s been with us for years, so it takes some time to move into another way of thinking about things. Not being able to say ‘no’ to people because you worry they’ll reject you is another example of this.
There are many other ways to manage stress. Develop a few different skills that you can not only do on a regular basis but can also, call on reasonably easily at any given time.
Maria Scoda is a psychologist in Sydney CBD.
This post is for informational purposes. It does not address people’s individual circumstances or needs and it is not a substitute for professional help. Please see a health care professional if you are struggling. External links have been provided for convenience. They are created and maintained by other organisations and I cannot control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of this outside information.