Avoiding and Managing Stress
Stress occurs as a reaction to excessive pressure. It is generally characterised by feeling under pressure, or unable to cope. You may also have physical symptoms such as headaches, sweaty palms, and a racing heartbeat when you are stressed. A little stress is not generally considered to be harmful, but too much over a long period can have an effect on your health.
It is therefore important to learn to manage stress. This includes both learning to avoid becoming stressed in the first place and taking actions to decrease stress when it occurs. This page discusses both these issues and suggests some simple and more advanced ways in which you can help to both avoid and reduce stress in your life.
The first step in avoiding or reducing stress is to recognise when you are stressed.
There are a number of common signs or symptoms of stress. However, not everyone will experience them all every time they are stressed. Other people may find that they have other signs: for example, feeling very weepy or over-emotional. It is helpful to be aware of your ‘stress signs’ so that you know when you are becoming stressed and you can do something about it.
The next step is to understand your ‘triggers’: the events, people or circumstances that cause you to become stressed.
Everyone has different things that cause them to feel stressed. Some may be short-term—such as being in a crowd—and others may be longer term, such as a relationship breakdown, or a problem with a colleague at work. Once you understand what is causing you to become stressed, then you can start to address the causes: for example, changing job, or asking for help with your colleague.
TOP TIP! Keep a Stress Diary
It can be helpful to keep a ‘stress diary’. Each day for a few weeks, keep track of the things you have done, people you have met, and how you have felt.
This will help you to identify situations that have caused you to feel stressed.
There is more about the signs and causes of stress in our page What is Stress? Understanding Stress.
There are two main strategies to managing stress: avoidance and reduction.
A third alternative is to learn to live with it, but this is probably not a long-term solution because of the effects on your health.
Avoiding stress is a matter of not putting yourself into stressful situations.
This sounds simple enough—and in some cases, it can be. For example, if you find crowds very stressful, you might choose not to commute to work by public transport at busy times. If possible, negotiate an earlier or later start time, or work from home, to avoid having to travel at peak times.
It may, however, be hard to manage some situations. There are a number of things that you can do, however, to make it easier to avoid stressful situations. These include:
Being prepared to say no. For many people, ‘no’ is one of the hardest words to say. From the time we are small children, we are taught that saying ‘no’ is rude, that people don’t like it. However, learning to say ‘no’ is a vital way to protect yourself from excess stress. For more about how to do this, you may want to read our pages on Assertiveness.
Knowing your limits and being prepared to admit defeat. You don’t have to solve every problem in the world. Nor do you have to stick with a situation until it makes you ill. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to abandon it. It may feel like being defeated to change your job because you cannot cope with the demands that it is putting on you. Sometimes, however, finding a new job is easier than changing your workplace. Know your limits.
Learning to underestimate what can be achieved. People commonly overestimate both their own abilities, and what they can achieve in a given time. Get into the habit of underestimating what can be achieved and give yourself more time. People will generally be far happier if you promise less and deliver more than the other way around.
Being prepared to make changes to your life. To remove yourself from stressful situations may need you to make some changes in your life—which may, in itself, be intrinsically stressful. However, it is worth thinking about whether you are prepared to do this if you cannot avoid or manage stress by any other means.
Managing and Minimising Stress
The second main approach to managing stress is to reduce the level that you experience, or the effect that it has on you.
There are a number of ways that you can do that.
1. Look after yourself properly
People are better able to cope with stress when their bodies are healthy.
This is partly because when you are fit and well, you can simply cope with more, and partly because poor health is in itself a major source of stress.
There are three main areas to look at: diet, exercise and sleep.
Making time for physical exercise in your routine will help to improve muscle control, make you feel healthier and increase self-esteem. You may think that you do not have time, but the benefits will more than repay the 30 minutes or so away from your to-do list.
Try to improve your diet and avoid stimulants as much as possible. Excess caffeine or nicotine can make individuals feel anxious or on-edge. It can be tempting to turn to junk food to save time, but it will not help you in the long term. Taking time to cook a meal, even if it is only something simple, is helpful in relieving stress because it makes you feel that you are looking after yourself.
You also need to ensure that you get enough sleep. Don’t try to work or do things right up until you wish to fall into bed. Instead, take half an hour or so before you go to bed to relax a bit. Doing some physical exercise can also help you to sleep better because it means your body is tired, as well your mind.
See our pages: The Importance of Exercise, Stress, Nutrition and Diet and The Importance of Sleep.
2. Build in time to relax and have fun
Many people do not include relaxation or ‘fun’ time in their schedules, but both are extremely important for reducing stress.
Conscious relaxation is important for your body and mind and can help you deal with the negatives of stress. A very wide range of relaxation techniques have been developed, although many can be seen as variations on a number of basic methods. They tend to focus on either the physical feelings of tension or using mental imagery to induce calm.
Perhaps the most powerful method of relaxation is mindfulness. At its simplest, mindfulness is focusing on the current moment, the here and now and allowing, through a type of meditation, worries about the future or regrets about the past to melt away. However, it is also a very good technique to use to reduce stress, and you may like to read our guest post on managing stress with mindfulness to learn more.
It can also be helpful to plan time into your schedule to do something that you enjoy. If this is physical exercise, it may even tick two boxes!
Looking forward to the times when you can do something that gives you pleasure will help when you have to cope with less pleasant aspects of life. You may need to do some work on your time management to help you make more time (and our page on Minimising Distractions may also be useful), but it will be well worth it.
See our page Work-Life Balance for more about how to balance your work commitments with home life.
3. Think positively
Your mind is a very powerful thing. It can drag you down, and it can also build you up.
When we are stressed, it is tempting to focus on everything that is hard, or that is going wrong in our lives. However, thinking more positively—for example, by looking at what has gone well that day or week, or even over a longer period—can have positive effects on your mood.
It is worth consciously avoiding dwelling on any failures and making sure that you reward yourself for your successes. You need to accept that everyone has limits and cannot succeed at everything, and reflect on what you have achieved.
For more about this, see our page on Positive Thinking. You may also find it useful to explore more about Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence.
4. Seek support from others
Do not feel that you have to cope with your problems alone.
Asking for help is often hard, but it is a very good first step towards managing your stress better.
Having someone to share your problems can greatly help to ‘off load’ the stress. You might find it useful to talk to a friend or work colleague. You can also talk to your line manager or employer if you are experiencing stress in the workplace.
It’s OK not to be OK
Not everyone can manage their own stress levels, or manage them all the time.
It is perfectly OK to feel like you can’t cope.
….it is not OK to feel that you need to keep going regardless.
If you are worried about your stress levels, or are struggling to manage or avoid stress, then it is important that you ask for help. In the first instance, you might speak to a trusted friend or colleague, but it is also a good idea to speak to your doctor or other healthcare provider.
Some people find that they need medication to help relieve the symptoms of stress.
Medication may be prescribed to treat the immediate symptoms of stress or to help someone to get through a crisis. However, it will not necessarily address the causes of stress in the long term, so you should also think about how to address those. Medication may also lead to dependence, so if you think you need medication to help with your stress, you should discuss your options carefully with your doctor or other healthcare provider.
You should also speak to your doctor if you think you may be depressed. Depression is a serious illness but is common and curable. F or more information see our pages: What is Depression?, Types of Depression and Treatments for Depression.
Many people also use complementary and alternative therapies to help to control stress.
There are many therapies used to deal with stress, including:
- Alexander technique
- Mindful Meditation
- Tai’ Chi
- Music therapy
- Laughter therapy
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Understand and Manage Stress in Your Life
Learn more about the nature of stress and how you can effectively cope with stress at work, at home and in life generally. The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management eBook covers all you need to know to help you through those stressful times and become more resilient.
Most people suffer from stress at some time in their lives. An understanding of the causes of stress and learning to avoid stressful situations will help alleviate some of its negative consequences.
Some people may also find it useful to use medication or a complementary treatment or therapy, or some form of self-help related to relaxation to help manage their stress.