3 out of 4 UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the past 12 months they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope. The “busy but I’ll be okay” can soon turn to “too much to handle” with the smallest of things, the straw that broke the camels back as the saying goes. Between university, work, family and social commitments, one can suddenly feel overwhelmed with the smallest thing snowballing to cause unnecessary stress feeling difficult to manage, toppling the ever towering Jenga of life...
It is important to highlight that not all stress is bad. Each of us experience a certain levels of stress in our day to day lives, impossible to completely eliminate. What is defined as “acute stress” - short term, fast acting, and can sometimes even be suggests to benefit your levels of productivity. Whilst some may thrive of the stress of an impending deadline for a piece of work, others may find it too much to handle. If these acute stressors become more longer lasting, one can begin to experience “chronic stress”, a longer term stress than can consume your thoughts and emotions within your everyday tasks, having a negative impact on behaviours, relationships, and health. Recognising the signs when “a lot” becomes “too much” is so important.
To combat our stress, we all need to set time aside to unwind and manage our own health and well-being. Learning how to recognise and manage stress throughout our daily lives takes practice, but it is vital to understand and be aware of stressors, and how to deal with them. From minor hiccups to major challenges, stress is inevitably a part of life. Although we cannot control the circumstances by which stress can occur, we can control how you respond to them, to calm your mind and body.
With all this said, it's important to have a variety of stress management tips and tricks to help and support in times of need, to pick a strategy that works best for your current situation. Dr Rachael Molitor, Psychologist and lecturer at Coventry University discusses 7 top strategies to help manage stress, with the main message to BREATHE.
Balance Work and Home
It’s so important to balance home and work life, to spend the time needed for work but to take time out for home, family and friends. By taking on too much work and commitments, one feels the balance can shift and work can seemingly take up the majority of our time, losing valuable social and emotional time and support with friends and family. On average as full time employees, our working week is split in to equal thirds of; work, sleep, and additional time. It is therefore so important to address work life balance to ensure that work does not creep into the protected home life time, and additional stressors along with it. With working from home the highest during the pandemic, many people began and continued on to work from home. With this, lines can be blurred between work and home life, starting earlier or working later in to the evening and weekend. It’s vital to keep dedicated time to enjoyable activities, and using that time for hobbies instead of work.
Reframing your thoughts
Reframing is a way of changing your outlook of a given situation, and thus change your experience and how you feel about it. When taking on too much, the smallest of things asked of you by one person could elicit an emotional response not in keeping with the size of the request or situation. With more on your shoulders for each step, the smallest of additional emotional or physical stressor may feel too much to carry.
One way to manage this is to address the situation at hand, or to reframe how one thinks and feels about the situation. A stressful event dependent on your current mood and state can be framed in to something either too much to handle, a burden, or alternatively a opportunity, or challenge to be taken on and overcome. By thinking positively where we can, finding the positives in the situation, the learning points and the beneficial outcomes, can help to reframe the pint glass from half empty to half full. It is important however to remember, it is still only a pint glass, and so we need to understand our limits. We may ourselves be full to the brim, and one minor thing may break the meniscus of water tension to overflow.
Engage with Others
The saying that “a problem shared is a problem halved” can never be more true than this situation. Social support is a vital part of stress management. Talking to someone about your worries or concerns, even saying them out loud can help you evaluate your own feelings and rationalise your thoughts, simply by expressing them in words. Whilst one may find it difficult to ask for professional help or support, humans are inevitably social beings, with research highlighting that having someone to talk to about your worries and thoughts is associated with less stress and higher levels of life satisfaction. One may think that they do not wish to burden people with their worries, but by expressing ones feelings they may relate and benefit from the conversation. Humans are expressive and vocal beings, and talking through life worries and stressors helps us individually rationalise and verbalise our thoughts, and compartmentalise our concerns in to more manageable solutions.
Acknowledge your stressors
The first step to solving a problem, is to acknowledge that there is one. So much of what we do is entangled within our lives, being able to recognise and acknowledge the warning signs of stress where things may get “a bit too much” is so beneficial for the long term outcome. Although we cannot remove all stressors from our lives, we can acknowledge the ones that are taking too much processing time, and execute strategies that engage in both problem and emotion focused coping. Problem-focused coping strategies involves taking active efforts and practical steps to tackle the issue or situation, consequently directly reducing the stressor from your life. This may be such things as working on time management or asking for additional support when needed. Emotion-focused coping strategies on the other hand attempts to reduce the feelings of negative emotional responses associated with the stressor. This may be the only option when the stressor may be out of ones own control. Such methods as distraction, cognitive reappraisal and mindfulness are such examples of readdressing the emotions associated with the stressor, reframing our thoughts and actions.
We have all felt on occasions that our to-do lists are getting longer not shorter, we may even have numerous lists that may overwhelm our thoughts; which one is most important, which deadline is first, do I deal with the little problems or the big problems first? Having an abundance of thoughts and tasks can cloud our mind, losing the ability to see clearly, not seeing the wood from the trees. By consolidating all tasks in to one list may seem overwhelming at first, but by creating a linear train of thought can help to calm the panic and help to prioritise the tasks that need to be completed. Making a plan, ordering by dates and deadlines, and prioritising the things that have to be done first helps to lift that weighted vest and breathe just that little easier. Try ticking off 3 little things on your list that can be easily done but just left by the wayside, notice how much a a relief it is to tick them off the list. That positive reinforcement helps to give a dopamine spike to feel good, making us do more. We are programmed to search out feel good feelings, and completing tasks that have been getting you down is one of them!
Lack of sleep, sedentary lifestyles, and poor nutrition can all bring great reactivity toward stress. Where one may think that adding exercise to your daily life may not be possible, a walk, run or 10 minutes exercise (1) increases our mental alertness, energy and positive mood. Nutrition is also vital for our stress and how we cope with may cope with these stressors. Emotional eating is a dysfunctional coping strategy whereby people use food as a way to mask the feelings of stress. Although providing a temporary sense of relief by reaching for high-sugar, high-fat foods, the inevitable blood sugar crush may lead to more feelings of stress and anxiety, alongside the guilt for the foods consumed. Learning how to regulate your feelings, and find coping strategies away from use of food for emotion regulation strategies can help to reframe and readdress certain habits, leaning away from detrimental behaviours such as chocolate or alcohol, to positive ones such as healthy eating and activity.
Engage in Gratitude
Finding the positives in certain situations may be hard for some, but searching for that warming thought, happy moment, and thankful feeling can benefit our mind over the challenges we may be facing. By appreciating the things we do have, and reframing our “don’t have’s” to “not yet’s” can help to motivate one to strive for those extra feelings of gratitude in our lives. Although the connection between gratitude and stress may not be immediately obvious for some it allows one to detach from all encompassing stressful thought and instead refocus to that a positive memory, moment or experience. Focusing on the things we have and being thankful for these can help to see things just that little bit shiner, that little bit brighter, inevitably making the sun feel a little warmer and the hug from a friend that little tighter. Gratitude can start in the simplest of ways; try writing down 3 things you have done today that you are proud, happy about or thankful for. Keep these with you and when feeling stressed or anxious, remind yourself of the things that made that warming feeling.
(1) Ekkekakis, P., Hall, E.E., Van Landuyt, L.M. & Petruzzello, S. (2000). Walking in (affective) circles: Can short walks enhance affect? Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 23 (3), 245–275.