To stop stress impacting adversely on our performance, health and enjoyment of life there are three key things we need to do. But, before I discuss those three things, let’s take a look at what stress is.
"Stress, like Einstein's theory of relativity, is a scientific concept which has suffered from the mixed blessing of being too well known and too little understood.”
~ Dr Hans Selye (the ‘father’ of stress research)
In my work with clients I define stress as the name we give to a particular cocktail of sensations, feelings and thoughts we experience in response to a perceived threat.
Stress is something we experience not ‘something’ we have. It is not something that exists in our workplaces or homes. If it was a ‘thing’, we could simply collect up all our stress, put it in a rubbish bag and leave it out on the street for collection. Hey presto, instant stress relief!
Stress is vital to life
Stress has a bad name but it isn’t inherently bad. It is in fact natural, normal and helpful. We wouldn’t be able to live without it. Stress only becomes a problem when the experience starts to have a negative impact on our performance, enjoyment of life and well-being.
When we’re experiencing stress, it’s a sign that our body is prepared and energised, ready for action. Stress helps us perform the thousands of actions we undertake each day, which in simple terms, involves either moving towards something (pleasure) or moving away from something (pain).
As the Performance/Stress graph below shows, we need different amounts of stress to complete different actions. Simple everyday tasks may not require us to experience a lot of stress whereas to meet challenges and achieve our goals we may need to experience much more stress. However, too much stress impairs our ability to perform both physically and mentally. And when our stress level climbs too high and stays high for a period of time (chronic stress) it is no longer useful or healthy.
Effective Stress Management enables us to:
- Thrive and perform under pressure - the green zone on the graph.
- Avoid distress and chronic stress – the orange and red zones on the graph
The Three Keys to Effective Stress Management
To effectively manage our stress we need to do three things:
- Understand how we experience stress – become familiar with the STRESS Process
- Change our perception of events, situations and people
- Cope with the excessive and/or unhelpful stress
Let’s take a quick look at each of these three keys:
1. The Stress Process
As the saying goes, “knowledge is power”. When we understand something much of the fear of it is removed. For an explanation of the Stress Process head over to this Blog post.
2. Changing our Perception
“Changing distorted perceptions is an essential stress management tool."
~ Dr Valeri O'Hara PhD, Clinical Psychologist
We tend to think that stress is caused by external events, situations and people but this is incorrect. If it were, everybody who was exposed to a particular external event, situation or person(s) would experience stress, but this is not the case.
Take a traffic jam for example. One person in the traffic jam may sit and fume becoming very angry at the delay, but another person in the same traffic jam may quietly accept the situation, calmly sing along to songs on the radio and think that getting upset or irritable won’t move the car one millimetre forward. This is the same traffic jam for both drivers, yet two different responses due to the different perceptions of the event by both individuals.
Our perceptions are shaped by a range of factors including: our identity, beliefs, assumptions, values, attitudes, memories, expectations, conditioning, personality traits and thinking style, and life experiences.
Moment to moment, we receive sensory information from both the external environment and our internal environment (mind and body) and we interpret this sensory information and assign it a meaning. If we perceive there’s a threat to our physical and/or emotional well-being we activate the stress response and experience stress.
This process of perception is the one and only cause of stress.
Unfortunately, we often interpret events much worse, than they actually are or will be, thus greatly increasing the intensity of the stress we experience.
The good news is when we know how, and with a little practice, we can change our perception from an unrealistic, inaccurate one, to a more realistic and accurate assessment. And when we do this we can dramatically reduce the stress we experience in the moment (acute stress) and reduce our overall stress level (chronic stress).
3. Coping with the symptoms of stress
It’s impossible to avoid experiencing stress, so it pays to have some effective tools and techniques in our stress management toolkit to help us cope with and reduce the level of stress we’re experiencing.
Here are three fundamental coping strategies that your toolkit should contain:
- Diaphragmatic breathing: The method I teach my clients is called 7/11 Breathing.
- Get Moving: to burn off the excess stress hormones in our body we need to get moving. I’m not necessarily talking about joining a gym and lifting weights, or running a marathon. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking a day can be very beneficial. So can a regular swim. Or going for a bike ride. Or yoga. Even gardening or housework, as long as you work up a sweat! As well as burning off stress hormones movement produces “good mood” chemicals in the brain like dopamine.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep is essential for the body to function properly. The optimal sleep duration for an adult aged between 26 and 65 is 7.5 hours, reducing as we age. It is considered optimal to have fallen asleep by 10:30pm, and wake at 6am. If you’ve habitually skimped on sleep, you probably won’t even remember how it feels to wake up fully rested. Plan for a good sleep. Go to bed before 10:30pm. Do not check email before bed. Do not watch TV in bed. Give going to bed before 10:30 a go for a week, and see if there’s a difference in how you perform during the day.
If anxiety or stress are causing ongoing problems in your life, give me a call me on 021 056 8389, email firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s explore of you can use the three keys to unlock your stress.
REMEMBER - "When you change your mind you change your life."
Tony helps individuals to harness the power of their mind to achieve success and well-being in life, work and business. Tony's particular area of expertise lies in helping people to 'change their minds' so they gain freedom from worry, anxiety and stress, overcome limiting beliefs and unhelpful habits. Tony’s solution focused approach to coaching uses a range of techniques drawn from the fields of solution focused coaching, neuroscience, positive psychology and clinical hypnosis.