Somehow chronic stress has become acceptable in our modern cultures…
… and it’s not good! I’m not referring to the periodic stress that energises and galvanizes us into action but rather that background hum of feeling constantly overwhelmed and fatigued by all that we think we have to do. For some reason most of us dismiss stress as normal – something we can ignore and deal with later but in actual fact over time it can lead to depression, anxiety, weight gain, heart problems, digestive issues, insomnia and even memory problems.
So what can we do about this? Well, read on for some of the top tips I recommend for managing chronic stress:
- Learn to recognise when you are stressed
You would be surprised how many people are blissfully unaware of their stress signs. Notice what happens in your mind and your body – are you holding tension in your muscles (think jaw, shoulders, neck, fists, stomach); do you feel agitated, unable to relax even when you have the opportunity? Is your mind racing and thinking of all the things you need to do, are you more short and irritable with others than usual, are you wanting to push people away, feeling really busy but not actually achieving anything? Are you distracted, fatigued, impatient? As soon as you notice your stress levels rising take action to bring it down a few notches. You can’t fix what you can’t see so invest some time in paying attention to your stress signs.
- Know your triggers
Everyone has certain triggers – topics, comments or events that they are sensitive about that ‘set them off’. These triggers usually feed into uncomfortable emotions such as feeling like a failure, feeling rejected or abandoned, feeling that you have displeased someone, feeling not good enough, feeling guilty or anticipating conflict. We know we have been triggered when we experience a heightened emotional response that is disproportionate to the situation. Close friends and family members are often more insightful about what triggers us than we are so don’t be afraid to ask (tip ‘walking on egg shells’ and ‘tiptoeing around you’ are phrases that will be useful here!). Knowing your triggers enables you to be mindful of them and to moderate your response.
- Plan your life to reduce stress
Be proactive. If you know you are someone who is sensitive to stress or carries a lot of stress, plan your life accordingly. Learn to say ‘no’ to things if you are tired, don’t offer to run the Scout BBQ if you have worked a full week, trundled the children around to their activities and you have a cold. Be protective of your free time if you are feeling worn out, let go of or avoid relationships that don’t nourish you in some way, don’t take on a huge mortgage if you know that financial stress freaks you out. Get in touch with the things that are most important to you and see if you can let go of anything that isn’t.
- Cultivate the language of ‘time abundance’
Have you noticed how many of us have taken to wearing our stress as a badge of honour because we feel it helps us to look productive (and hopefully deters people from placing more demands upon us)? We even have a whole language of time scarcity – phrases such as ‘I don’t have the time’, ‘there aren’t enough hours in the day’ and ‘time is running out’ come out of our mouths all the time. In his book ‘The Big Leap’ Gay Hendricks brings attention to the fact that our experience of time is highly relative and we can use this to our advantage – ten minutes waiting for a bus in the rain feels completely different to ten minutes spent talking to our best friend. You can harness this relativity to work for you in your management of stress in a couple of ways. Number one – stop yourself when you notice the language of time scarcity popping up, and number two, insert the language of time abundance instead – ‘I will have the time for this’ or ‘I have all the time I need’.
- Engage in relaxation activities
Chronic stress is wearing not just on our mind but also our bodies. The constant dumping of stress hormones such as adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol plays havoc with our mood and physical health. Relaxation strategies help your body to move from fight or flight, back into ‘rest and digest’ – the state of calm. Relaxation strategies include breathing exercises, listening to calming music, positive visualisations, mindfulness exercises, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, being in nature, exercising or taking time out to do something that you love.
- Learn to prioritise your self-care
So many of us are apologetic about taking care of our own needs or feel guilty when we do something for ourselves. That’s crazy! If you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed I can guarantee you are not performing efficiently at work, you are not as attentive in your relationships, you’re probably grumpy with your kids and likely irritable and critical towards yourself. Self-care is not about being selfish, it is about being smart. Once you are taking good care of yourself, everything that flows from you is going to work better.
- Learn assertiveness skills
Sometimes we experience stress because we don’t know how to assert our needs or take a stand for ourselves when something is not ok or people try to dominate us. Sometimes we are fearful of conflict and spend our lives trying to accommodate the needs of others and lose touch with what works for us. This can breed resentment, frustration and despair – feelings that inevitably make us more stressed.
- Be pro-active and prompt in dealing with mental health concerns
It sounds common sense but if you are experiencing anxiety, depression or any other mental health issues you will inevitably be carrying extra stress. Most common mental health issues are very treatable yet many people suffer for years before they seek help.
- Cultivate the art of goofing-off!
Let go of the need to be productive all the time (or to be seen as productive) – life is a journey, not a race so make time for reflection, daydreaming, being crazy with the kids and savouring a long, slow meal. We forget that many of the grand ideas and philosophies that have come out of history have been developed by people who highly valued time for thinking, reflecting and being creative. I’m pretty sure that Darwin, Einstein, Nietzsche and Leonardo Da Vinci were not obsessed with whether they had the latest model carriage, cleanest house or best behaved children! Buck the trend and cultivate the art of goofing-off!
The take-home message here is pay attention and deal pro-actively with your stress. Just because other people are running around like pork chops doesn’t mean it is normal, healthy or desirable! Don’t let your stress drag on day after day, year after year, undermining your health, relationships and wellbeing until you are too frazzled and unwell to enjoy the fruits of your labours. Chronic stress is preventable for most people and good management is an investment that will repay you tenfold.
I so appreciate you taking the time to read my posts and I sincerely hope that you find them helpful. Please understand, however, that the information you find here is not a substitute for therapy and I cannot respond to individual requests for help in the comments. If you have serious concerns about your mental or emotional health please seek personal, professional help.