29 Oct How to combat stress
On a train journey after a pretty successful, albeit stressful, meeting I confided with a fellow occupational psychologist about my apprehension of the hard-won project we were about to embark on, and the potential pitfalls in the coming months.
I’m sure this type of exhilaration/apprehension situation is familiar to many of you when you embark on something new or with unknown parameters. Handling the associated stressors that you experience in anticipation of starting a project can be very difficult, and if you allow them to take over they can be seriously bad for your health and damage your chances of success.
My colleague discussed how literature on stress now talks about stress resilience studies to try to give people some personal protection from stress and show them more effective coping strategies. Exercise has long been recognised as a saviour for some people in how they de-stress. My colleague is a runner now partially through wanting to stay fit but also because he recognises the de-stressing effect it has by using up all those hormones that are produced in the body naturally when we feel under stress.
Hormones are released to increase our heart rate and direct blood to our lungs and muscles – useful if you’re about to fight off a grizzly bear, but not that helpful when you have an important presentation to write. If we constantly have this build up of hormones left in our system they can be very debilitating and over time affect our physical and mental health.
Your own worst enemy
As emotional intelligence literature tells us, positive mindset and control of our emotions is very important in handling stressful situations. Negative doom and gloom talk can set the tone in a vicious cycle downwards to a feeling of being overwhelmed. When we feel like this our brain closes down so the focus is just constantly thinking about what has got to be done. Because of this we forget things and make mistakes more easily so we feel even more overwhelmed like we can’t cope.
In this situation many people become very closed-in and uncommunicative, and may start smoking or drinking to reduce the anxiety they feel. These are not good coping strategies as they affect your health even more.
Along with this another symptom of feeling stressed (or having a new baby), is not sleeping. This really screws up our brain’s processing power – ask Mark he’s had a year of it now. Why do they use sleep deprivation as a form of torture? Because it’s so good at messing with our minds.
What you can do to help
Well, if you’re in this state of mind right now, be careful of handling any machinery or driving the car! Or forgetting your keys (I have spares with all the neighbours!)
1. Get out more
Leave the of the office for ten mins at lunch time, get on your bike, go for a run or walk at a brisk pace – anything that gets your blood pumping. Don’t sit round worrying about it all and shouting at the kids or the dog – take them both with you and everyone will feel better for it. Even though you may find it’s the last thing you want to do when you get in, especially with the dark nights.
2. Take control
Your brain needs to feel it’s in control again and this can seem impossible when you’re in the thick of it. We feel unable to stop and take stock even for five minutes because we have so much to do. Headless chicken is not an effective working style for anyone! It doesn’t matter how or when you do this. If you wake at three in the morning like I do, use the time to get stuff out of your head.
3. Plan and organise
Planning, reflecting and organising are brilliant de-stressors because they help your brain feel like its in control. There are many ways to do it, like software that can help with project management, but I just get a big pad of paper and write anything about the current situation that I feel I need to get hold of. It’s a total mess, it has no order to it. But I get down all the potential problems and all the immediate milestones and deadlines. I even put in what childcare I’ll need to organise as that’s a real stressor for me if I get it wrong.
When I get up I turn this messy scribble into a list of actions for me, hubby and work colleagues. Revise the plan as often as necessary. Involve all other parties in this process too if you’re part of a team so they can add in things you may not be aware of like their holiday in three weeks time.
4. Check your negative thinking
‘This will be a challenge’ is much more likely to get you a successful outcome than ‘this is going to be a nightmare!’ Being realistic and identifying the pitfalls is great, but it quickly slips into negative thoughts if you don’t keep a check on yourself or anyone else you have to work with who brings people down.
If you’re embarking on a project that you think is going to be stressful, start thinking about how to get out and keep healthy and plan, plan, plan beforehand to pre-empt as many barriers as you can.
Prepare for your hurdles and you stand a much better chance of jumping them.