According to the World Health Organization, stress-related health conditions are predicted to be responsible for half of the world’s top-ten medical problems by 2020.
Have you ever felt that even if you try to take a break and relax, your thoughts are just spinning, and you feel stuck in a whirlwind of worries? This may be the consequence of what is usually called “acute stress” when you find yourself in the middle of something that you don’t really know how to sort out, or after a very stressful event.
If, however, you have felt like this for a long period of time, and have had persistent stress, you may be experiencing what is sometimes referred to as ’chronic stress’. This is quite an unfortunate concept as the word ‘chronic’ may cause people to feel even more stressed while it is, by no means, a chronic disease. The word ‘chronic’ is only meant to signal that the stress is not a one-off sensation but rather something that has been ongoing for some time.
Stress triggers can vary, and people may experience many different symptoms of stress, such as nervousness, withdrawal, constant tiredness, frequent headaches, increased use of alcohol, smoking and other unhealthy habits, un unexpected loss or increase in diet intake or body weight, sleep problems (e.g. sleeping more than usual or being unable to sleep in spite of being tired) or irrational emotional outbursts.
In order to manage your stress, there are some steps that you can take to stop that whirlwind and regain a feeling of control. To be able to do this, try to find a place and time to sit down and focus on what is actually going on.
- The first step is to look at what is actually stressing you. What do you worry about? What thoughts keep coming to your mind? When we are anxious or feel ‘on alert’, our brain is usually not capable of prioritising between the sources of our stress. Therefore, at a first glance, they may all seem equally urgent and important so the best strategy is usually to write down all the worries that come to mind
- When you have identified a few sources of stress, the next step is to think about your physical, emotional and behavioral reactions to these stressors. How do they make you feel (both physically and emotionally)? How do you act in response to them? Are you working very long hours and has that had an impact on your home life or your spare time?
- What are your thoughts about your situation? What is the worst case scenario in your mind? ? When stressed or worried, it is common to overestimate both the likelihood of something bad happening and the consequences of these events if they were to occur. In order to deal with catastrophic thoughts and other cognitive errors you may want to challenge them either by testing them step by step, or asking yourself what you would tell someone else in a similar situation.
- Once you have done this, you move on to looking at what coping strategies you are using.. Are you doing something that is helping you cope? Are you doing something else that is actually making the situation worse? Something that might be difficult at this stage is to differentiate between things that are helpful in the short and long term. It is very easy to have a short-term orientation when wanting to avoid emotional suffering: we want the hurtful or uncomfortable feeling to go away as quickly as possible. However, the short-term strategies are often just about avoiding negative feelings whereas they can take us even further away from finding a long-term solution to our problem.
- When looking for long-term solutions to your stress, you need to look at what stressors can be eliminated from your life. How can you avoid unnecessary stress? This might involve learning to say ‘no’ to certain people and distinguishing between what you ‘want to” and really “need to” do, and things that you believe you ‘should’ do. Most of us have many ‘unspoken’ rules about things that we believe we need to live up to. The more rigid those rules, the less helpful they tend to be. To come to terms with this, it is good to take a look at what you actually enjoy doing, and what activities will increase the likelihood of you leading a life in tune with what you value and appreciate.
- In order to feel better, it is also important that you take a look at what your environment looks like. Are there things that stress you there that you may change in any way? Can you take a different route to work? Could you go by bike instead of taking the subway? Can you eliminate things from your to-do list? Can you create a better balance between your work and your personal life? Would it help to get to work earlier during the day instead of constantly working late?
- When you feel stuck, it is often easier to focus on your thoughts than on communicating with the people around you. However, in order to make your situation more bearable there might be people around you that can and should talk to. Is there anyone that you need to have a conversation with about something that is bothering or worrying you? Our thoughts tend to be coloured by our feelings, and if we do not communicate with the people around us, we may end up building up resentment and increasing the stress even more.
- A common comment from people who find themselves stuck in a very stressful situation is that they can’t do anything about it. They feel that they suffer even more because they are so upset and frustrated about the situation that they find themselves in. Sometimes it is true that the stressor can’t be changed. In situations like that, you may need to look for acceptance. If you can reframe the way you look at the situation by accepting how it makes you feel, it might help you regain a sense of control that can help you focus your time and energy in a better way.
- When you are in the middle of a very stressful situation, it is important to set realistic standards for yourself. How much can you ask of yourself, given this particular situation? What is reasonable? How much is ‘good enough’ right now? Maybe you need to limit the number of things on your to-do list for a while, or maybe you have to ask someone for their help.. When having the self-critical thoughts that often come with stress, delegating might feel like a very farfetched strategy.
- What can you control right now? Once you have started to take these steps it may take a while before you start to notice a significant resulting effect. In the meantime, it is important that you go back to the basics: make sure that you eat, hydrate yourself, get rest and are physically active for at least 30 minutes every day.
While you start looking at these factors in your life, it is also important to have strategies that may allow an immediate stress reduction. The fastest way to do this is by taking a deep breath, allowing the air to come all the way down to your stomach, and focusing on your senses: what you see, hear, taste or touch.
You may want to experiment with different sensory experiences, such as patting a pet, listening to a song or tasting a chewing gum, to discover which experiences create the quickest stress relief for you.
Remember that it is the lack of recovery that can cause exhaustion. If you feel that you can’t sort out your situation and that you seem unable to rest or rewind, you may need to ask someone for help to sort things out. Maybe you need help to develop strategies that will create a better balance in your life. Sometimes, by just taking baby steps in the right direction, you will start noticing a change in your mood and energy levels.