Stress has always been with us, and we need it to perform at our best. Too little stress, and we become bored and unmotivated. Too much stress, and we get burnt-out. Each of us has to find the right balance. There are all sorts of things in life that can cause us stress. Here are some of the most important categories:
- Disasters: war, serious crime, natural disasters;
- Life events: death, divorce, marriage, expecting a baby, buying a house;
- Work: the boss, colleagues, being overworked, losing your jobs;
- Everyday problems: arguments, travel, bad service, the weather;
- Change: relationships, jobs, home, finances.
Stress in any one of these areas can lead to stress in another. Some forms of stress are temporary, while others can be long-lasting. Stress can be serious, or slightly annoying.
What can you do if you are over-stressed? First, accept that stress is a problem for you; otherwise, you will not be motivated to make the necessary changes. There are two main areas where change should take place: your habits and your thoughts.
1. Changing your habits
Changing your habits is not always easy. You need motivation to do so. That is why accepting that you are suffering from stress will make it easier to make the practical changes in your lifestyle that can help.
a) Manage your time
If you use your time effectively, you can reduce your stress levels. Here are some useful rules:
- Learn to say “n0”.
- Make a list of what you have to do with time estimates.
- Set an order for your tasks.
- Do one thing at a time.
- Take regular breaks.
- Intersperse the dull jobs with interesting ones.
- Don’t try to be perfect; be realistic and practical.
- At the end of the day, tidy up for the next day.
- Don’t feel guilty about what you could not do; think about what you have done.
b) Breathe and relax
During a stressful day, do some breathing exercises. Here’s a simple deep-breathing exercise:
- Sit or lie down and close your eyes. Listen to your breathing and become aware of its rhythm.
- Put one hand on your stomach just below the ribs and the other on your upper chest.
- Let your breath out slowly.
- Breathe in gently, feeling your stomach rise under your lower hand.
- Let your breath out again slowly, taking longer than for breathing in. Feel your stomach drop down under your hand.
- Pause for a moment and then breathe in again. Only your lower hand should move. Your upper hand should remain still. If it rises, you are breathing too shallowly.
c) Eat healthily
This means eating little and often, and having a balanced diet with plenty of protein and vitamins A, B and C. Here are few important “don’ts”:
- Don’t take in too much caffeine through coffee, tea or headache pills.
- Don’t eat too many refined products like sugar, white flour and processed foods.
- Don’t add too much salt to your food.
- Don’t eat food high in saturated fats, such as fast food and fried foods.
- Don’t drink too much alcohol, although moderate drinking seems to do no harm.
- Don’t eat when you are tense.
- Don’t smoke, as nicotine makes the problem worse.
d) Exercise regularly
Walking costs nothing, so walk to work whenever possible, take the stairs rather than the lift, and walk to the shops. Try to build some exercise into your daily routine. Do some simple bend-and-stretch exercises. These can be done at your desk, for example, while you are waiting to be connected on the phone.
2. Changing your thoughts
The Freeze Frame technique “gives you the power to stop your reaction to [your life’s move] at any moment. It lets you call a time-out to gain a clearer perspective on what’s happening in a single frame [of the movie]. There are five phases in this process, which, with practice, can help you to reduce your stress levels and improve your performance at work:
a) Recognize and disengage
Common physical signals of stress are sweating, faster breathing and a faster heartbeat, the need to go to the toilet, a knot in your stomach, or a dry mouth. Once you recognize a symptom of stress, freeze your mental video recorder. This will help you to see the situation more objectively.
b) Breathe through your heart
Focus on your heart. Breathe in for five seconds and imagine the air circulating around your heart. Then breathe out for five seconds and imagine the air flowing out through your solar plexus and taking the negative feelings with it. Do this several times. Focusing on the heart can help to produce a calming effect. This part of the process can also help before you enter a situation that you know will be stressful.
c) Think positively
Focusing on one or two images that make you feel good can have a powerful effect, helping you to perform better. These images might be your children’s laughter, skiing in the Alps on a sunny day or the smell of your favourite perfume.
d) Ask whether there is better alternative
The first three steps will calm you down. Now you need to ask yourself what you could do to reduce your stress levels. List some possibilities and then decide what you are going to do. Maybe taking a break is enough. Maybe you need to try a different way of dealing with a difficult colleague, or maybe you should ask someone to help you. Once you have decided what to do, do it.
e) Note the change in perspective
Afterwards, think about the results. Did your alternatives help? How did they help? What else could you have done?
3. A healthy balance
Remember that the best way to deal with stress is not to try to get rid of it completely. It is healthy to feel stretched and to strive for improvement. When you feel over-stressed, however, it is important to take a step back and to learn to say “no”. This gives you the chance to reflect, consolidate what you have learned, and restore your strength for the next stage of life’s journey.