MANAGING STRESS

Strategies to restore and maintain balance when dealing with challenges

Life tends to present us with challenges, and there are some situations that produce worry, tension and stress.

In some circumstances the stress response will be appropriate as our bodies react to provide us with extra energy and focus to cope with it.
However, experiencing stress for a prolonged period is harmful to our body and mind.  Learning to identify the signs early will reduce the likelihood of stress symptoms becoming more intense or become chronic having an adverse effect on our health. It is important that if you notice symptoms are causing ongoing health problems to contact your GP, and access services to protect your health and wellbeing.

Our body is designed to function at a set point, maintained by our autonomic nervous system that when functioning normally regulates the activity of the sympathetic (arousal) and parasympathetic (calming response) parts of our nervous system. So, for example, if the room is too hot, we start to sweat, or if we get too cold our body starts to shiver. When our body perceives a threat, it increases our blood pressure to pump more blood to take nutrients and oxygen to our muscles so that we have extra energy to deal with the situation (Storoni, 2017).

The body’s stress response is triggered when our brain (amygdala) detects danger. Our body’s autonomic nervous system reacts to prepare our bodies to manage the challenge. After the danger passes our bodies return to normal functioning (McGonigal, 2015).

However, prolonged periods of stress suppress our immune system making us vulnerable to illnesses, it increases feelings of tiredness as well as having a negative impact on our mood, reducing our ability to focus and motivation. It makes us more vulnerable reducing our ability to cope with challenges (Jackson, 2013).

Signs of stress:
Everyone experiences stress when the demands exceed our resources. By adopting a preventative approach, we can learn to deal with the stress symptoms promptly.

Some of the symptoms are increased worry, feeling overwhelmed, difficulty concentrating, feeling tired all the time, altered sleep and eating patterns, fluctuating mood, restlessness, a sense of apprehension as if anticipating bad news, and low motivation. Each person has a unique response to stressful events, and their circumstances will vary depending on their past experiences, current demands and current health status among other variables.

Understanding how we react to stressful situations is essential to being able to manage our emotions and behaviour.  Often, in the effort to manage our emotional reactions we may engage in self-defeating behaviours that inadvertently exacerbate symptoms of stress.

For example, increasing alcohol intake, smoking, eating comfort foods, or watching a lot of TV/videos to avoid thinking about our problems. However, these behaviours tend to exacerbate distress creating a negative cycle that prolongs and aggravates the symptoms of stress, preventing us from managing the situation effectively.

Research indicates that our brain can learn, adapt and it is shaped by our experiences. Discoveries in neuroscience support the notion that we can train our brain so that we can regulate our reactions to events. We can develop strategies to manage our emotions so we can bounce back from stressful situations (Arden, 2010).

How we think about stress can alter how we respond to it . We can take control in stressful situations by using the “mindset effect”. It refers to the belief that we can change how we view things, and by doing so we can build our strengths (McGonigal, 2015).

At the front of our brains sits the prefrontal cortex, it is the part of the brain that allows us to perform and manage complex cognitive, behavioural and emotional tasks. This part of the brain is involved in high-order thinking, attention, and it enables us to manage complex problem solving. It is connected to the hippocampus which has a key function in enabling us to remember (Arden, 2010).

When we feel stressed we tend to focus more on negative thoughts, which in turn can lower our mood creating a repeated cycle.  The amygdala (part of the emotional network) reacts to the information coming from the environment (internal and external), limiting our capacity to evaluate whether it is signalling a threat or not. Instead, the amygdala functions automatically and sends signals to various parts of the body to prepare us to deal with the situation, commonly referred to as the fight or flight response (Storoni, 2017).

What to do to manage stress?
The good news is that we can train ourselves to increase our capacity to recover from stressful situations. In fact, we can build our strengths to prevent our brain from overreacting when facing a stressful situation. Training ourselves to take time to notice our reactions, and to consider alternatives, we can turn things around (Sirois, 2017).

Perhaps you have already identified some strategies to manage stress but may not apply them as they appear to be too simple to be effective when dealing with an ongoing stressful situation. Or perhaps it may be difficult to apply what you know consistently. You may have made several attempts before but have not developed a routine yet.

Developing simple routines that are applied consistently can make a significant difference in helping us restore balance and feel more in control. To increase their effectiveness it is best to embed them in our daily routine so that when a stressful situation occurs,so that as they are more familiar they are readily accessible.

To create a routine, start with one strategy and apply it whenever you are reminded of it, and even if it does not seem to ease the tension at first persevere with your efforts until the tension subsides a bit.  Accepting that at first it may not seem to have much of an effect continue to apply the strategy. The more you practice it will gradually become part of your routine.

Maintaining healthy habits that are part of a healthy lifestyle is the key to keeping good health and emotional resilience.

Reframing:
One of the most effective ways of prevention and management of stress is to change the way we interpret events. The way we think about the situation affects the actions we take, and our beliefs about what we can achieve.

By reframing a situation and looking for alternative interpretations enables to identify ways of managing it.  By choosing to focus on a different aspect of the situation it allows us to consider other information that can open possibilities that we would not have considered otherwise (McGonigal, 2015).

Self-awareness:
By increasing self-awareness we can identify the automatic thoughts that we have when facing a stressful situation. The first step is to notice what we do and pay attention to our thoughts: how are we interpreting events? Are we focusing on the negative aspects and without being aware of it we are reacting to the situation as if it were the same as a past event? What assumptions are we making?

For example, if you are walking down the street and you see a friend you have not seen in a while, and they walk by without acknowledging you. When stressed you might interpret this as your friend is not interested in making contact. However, if you consider a different perspective you may wonder if they have not seen you because they were lost in their own thoughts, or the sun was too bright, and they could not see against the sun. In the first scenario it is likely that the sense of discomfort and worry may increase as you wonder why your friend is not making contact. In the second scenario, you are likely to have a different reaction – a more neutral response reducing tension , allowing you to think that maybe you will say hello.

With increased self-awareness it is possible to notice stress symptoms early so that we can act promptly to prevent them from intensifying. By changing our mindset, we can restore balance and increase our sense of control (Mcgonigal, 2015).

It also enables us to identify familiar thought patterns that tend to appear when feeling stressed. Once we identify the things that tend to be triggers we can then look for alternative explanations to manage them more effectively.

Managing self-doubt and self-criticism:
When we are dealing with challenges it is normal to have self-doubt as we are dealing with uncertainty. This can manifest in imagining possible future scenarios, often anticipating negative outcomes. Negative thoughts can become more intrusive the more stressed we feel, feeling unsettled and  worrying about the future (Sirois, 2017).

Another source of internal pressure is perfectionism. It triggers further tension the more expectations become difficult to reach, which if not achieved as hoped can cause significant distress.

The associated negative thinking that comes with demanding of ourselves to produce perfect work undermines our hope and changes our behaviour – we are more worried about the work interfering with our productivity and potentially preventing us from persevering with our tasks (Ben-Sahar, 2009). So paradoxically, we may end up delaying our work which can become highly stressful. It can lead to procrastination and low motivation causing further distress (Sirois, 2017).

Developing self-compassion:
During academic life there are several critical moments such as preparing for exams, writing a dissertation, preparing for a job interview or a viva, which can produce a significant degree of tension and distress. This can be even more so if you notice you are making significant efforts and yet you do not feel you are being productive enough, or you feel the work is not good enough. Thoughts about failure may interrupt your concentration causing distress (Sirois, 2017).

Self-compassion refers to having understanding attitude, and treating ourselves with kindness., as we would offer our friends. Some may think this is as if we are lowering our standards, or not being tough eough to keep going.

In fact, the opposite is true, the more understanding we are with ourselves, like we are with our best friends, the more likely it is that we will be able to face the difficult situation.  Whenever self-critical thoughts come to mind we can reduce the tension they provoke by adopting a kinder approach (Neff, 2011).

When you notice negative thoughts ask yourself “Is this thought helpful?”, “would I say this to my best friend?”.  Not likely. You no doubt want to be a good friend who is supportive so you are likely to say things like “it is frustrating that it did not work out“, or “sorry that you are having a difficult time“, and then you may say “what can I do to help?”, or “what would be helpful now?”.

Exercise:
Exercise improves and regulates mood, our breathing, reduces muscle tension, and provides a sense of wellness.

When feeling tense these symptoms can interact in a feedback loop between the body and the brain, it regulates the signals in the brainstem enabling the activation of the body’s calm response. In order to manage uncomfortable feelings when stressed you can interpret these as the body’s reaction to increase energy level to manage a challenge (Ratey, 2010).

When you notice that your heart rate and your breathing are a bit faster remind yourself that as your body needs more energy it needs to access energy quickly. Our breathing becomes faster to take in more oxygen, and the heart needs to pump faster too to pump blood around your body to take the energy to the muscles. By reframing the interpretation of our body’s reactions, we can reduce the tension and restore our balance. Exercise has the added benefit of helping to improve sleep.

Sleep is essential. Research indicates that during sleep important processes are taking place to restore our energy as well as process emotions effectively (Walker, 2017). In addition, by doing deep breathing exercises you can have a sense of control as the tension in your body eases. You can also do some mindfulness exercises to regulate breathing and manage worry thoughts.

Boosting resilience:
Developing an optimistic attitude allows us to focus on developing a mindset that can focus on identifying opportunities and things we can do to manage a challenging situation.

Optimism is when we believe that a) a mistake or failure is temporary, b) that we can change it and it is only this one situation, and c) that we can do something about it (Seligman, 1998).

Optimism, having the belief that we can manage challenging situations, enables us to maintain hope in making progress. It enables us to persevere and focus on learning to become less uncomfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and contradictions.  It is also nurtured by having a sense of play and a healthy sense of humour that we can share with others strengthing our social connections.

By developing what Mlodinov (2018) calls elastic thinking – that is, having the capacity to let go of the need for certainty, to challenge our negative assumptions, and be willing to experiment and tolerate failure – we can be better prepared to manage challenging experiences. By learning to use our imagination, creativity as well as our logical mind, we can learn to solve problems creatively and effectively.

Strengthening our resilience does not insulate us completely from experiencing difficult situations: we will still experience negative thoughts and symptoms of stress as we are trying to make sense of what is happening. However, keeping in mind that these are normal reactions to stressful situations we are better prepared to deal with them, and prevent the adverse effects on health and wellbeing.

By not giving up when things get difficult, as we face the challenge, we give ourselves the opportunity to explore ideas and develop our strengths. In fact, this is the point where learning occurs. By developing a growth mindset we can develop the curiosity and perseverance to work at understanding the problem, to identify alternative ways of working out a solution (Dweck, 2008).

As mentioned above, the way we think about the situation affects the actions we take, and our beliefs about what we can achieve. A helfpul image is to view mistakes and obstacles as stepping stones that can lead to where we want to get to.

It can help to overcome feelings of being stuck turning into something that can be managed. keeping an open mind, and a flexible attitude enable us to tolerate discomfort to allow us to manage emotions more effectively. As we build our strengths, we can trust our ability to problem-solve challenging situations constructively while maintaining emotional balance, maintain health and feel better.

 

References:

Arden, J.B., (2010) Rewire your brain. Think your way to a better life. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The pursuit of perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. New York: MacGraw-Hill Books.

Brown, B. (2010) The gifts of imperfection. Let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are. Minnesota: Hazelden.

Dweck, C. (2008) Mindset. How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Ballantine Books.

Lewis, J., & Webster,, A. (2014) Sort your brain out. Boost your performance,, manage stress and achieve moreUnited Kingdom: Capstone.

McGonigal, K. (2015) The upside of stress: why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it). London: Vermilion.

Neff, K. (2011) Self-compassion. stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York: Harper Collins books.

Ratey, J. & Hagerman, E. (2010) Spark. How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London: Quercus.

Seligman, M. (1998) Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Sirois, F. M. (2014) Procrastination and stress: exploring the role of self-compassion. Self and Identity, 13:2, pp.128-145.

Storoni, M. (2017) Stress proof. The scientific solution to protect your brain and body – and be more resilient every day. New York: Tarcher Perigee.

Walker, M. (2017) Why we sleep. Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams. New York: Simon & Schuster.