This article will look at stress and stress management techniques. It will define and analyse stressors and how stress can manifest, as well as review and evaluate the techniques and tools available to help reduce it.
Stress primarily refers to whether a person feels that a stressor is worthy of anxiety (psychological/emotional), and then down to how the body reacts to the stressor (physiological). A stressor is anything that causes a person stress, and examples include events, people, situations, opinions and threats.
Stress can affect a person in many different ways and there is an extensive list of physical signs and symptoms of stress. Some of these symptoms include:
- Dry mouth
-Inability to concentrate
-Feeling on edge
-Chronic muscle tension, spasms and aches.
In addition to the signs and symptoms there are many emotional and physical disorders that have been linked to stress. Emotional disorders include depression and anxiety. Some physical disorders include:
-Increased susceptibility to infection
-IBS, constipation, diarrhoea
The reason that stress causes so many physical symptoms and disorders is due to the ‘fight or flight’ response or general adaptation syndrome (GAS). The hormones that are released during the fight or flight response have helped keep humans and other animals alive throughout evolution as they help us run faster and make us more focused and alert. The response has therefore acted as a defence mechanism and a survival tool in the past. A surge of hormones would be released with the perception of a threat, and would then be used to allow our ancestors to either flee or fight.
However, many of the modern-day stressors we encounter are largely emotional and on-going, and they are rarely life threatening. Therefore GAS has evolved whereby the inherent fight or flight response still resides with us but is now triggered to a lesser extent, but more regularly, by day-to-day events. Situations include: risk or redundancy, traffic jams, being late for meetings, moving home, divorce, bill payments, work-life balance and meeting deadlines. This continuous release of hormones leads to a person operating as though constantly ready for ‘battle’ and perceiving threats everywhere. It is only a matter of time before the physical symptoms begin to show in the form of stress, e.g. high blood pressure, shallow breathing and an aggressive nature. Those of us who do not exercise to burn off the effects of our stress response will build up even more stress, often using alcohol to ‘calm the nerves’ or ‘relax‘.
As well as no longer acting instinctively, with the need to run from predators or forage for food and search for shelter, we no longer live by our basic yet fundamental survival triggers. We no longer only eat when we are hungry or sleep when we are tired. Modern-day lifestyles see us eating when we are bored and watching TV which stimulates and keeps us awake.
All of these changes have led to our circadian meridian (body clock) no longer functioning as it once did. This along with GAS has caused a generation of people learning to control their reactions to stress but in the mean time fuelling the stress response, causing an extensive list of physical conditions and disorders brought about by stress.
Due to the prevalence of this modern condition, the cause and effect has been a steady increase in the research of the condition and the associated psychological and physiological effects. As a result there are numerous stress management techniques available for people to use and incorporate into their lifestyles.
When we feel stressed or anxious, our breathing rate and pattern change due to the effects of the fight or flight response. Shallow and rapid breathing is a typical stress response and can lead to hyperventilation. Stress can be reduced and managed with controlled breathing techniques.
Luckily we are able to deliberately change how we breathe, and by focusing on abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing we can induce a relaxation response. Regular deep breathing can help lower blood pressure, reduce levels of stress hormones in the blood and improve the immune function among other benefits.
The diaphragm is the most effective breathing muscle, so the focus while deep breathing should move from chest breaths to diaphragmatic breaths.
When embarking on such a technique, you will need a quiet and relaxed environment where you will not be disturbed for 10–20 minutes. Focus on how your chest and abdomen move while you breathe. Your upper chest should be still with movement only from the abdomen. Breathe in and out through the nose and with each out breath allow any body tension to be expelled. Once you are in a rhythm, enjoy the feeling of complete relaxation.
Manage your career
When trying to reduce stress in the workplace, consider the following tips:
-Take care of yourself – have regular breaks to stretch your legs and take a lunch break to enjoy a healthy lunch
-Create a balanced and realistic work schedule
-Prioritise tasks in order of importance or deadline time
-Do not over commit yourself; give yourself time to complete tasks
-Delegate responsibility if possible
-Communicate effectively with colleagues.
It can be very stressful if you feel that you never have time to complete a task or feel you are always late for deadlines. Good time management is essential for coping with modern-day pressures with minimal stress. Time management is about focusing on the tasks that matter and make a difference, allowing you to feel more relaxed, focused and in control. Time management skills are important for everyone from students to mums, to working professionals.
Tips for improved time management include:
-Create SMART goals
-Make a list of what needs to be done, in order of priority
-Work smarter, not harder by producing high-quality work, not necessarily high quantity
-Take regular breaks.
Relaxation techniques and strategies
Scheduling time for relaxation is paramount when trying to combat stress. The strategies used are varied due to individual differences, however the common conclusion is that spending time doing something you enjoy in a relaxed environment can help reduce stress. Below are a list of some of the relaxation techniques and strategies to consider:
o Go for a walk – without a destination or purpose, alone or with a friend/loved one
o Spend time in nature – woodlands, lakes, open parks – aim for quiet times
o Call a friend – a chat with a friend about nothing in particular can be a great tonic
o Visit the gym – exercise is a stress reliever for some, but not everyone
o Write a journal – note down your thoughts and activities to reduce stress and help pinpoint stressful triggers
o Take a bath – add music, scented candles and an unrestricted time frame for complete relaxation
o Have a massage – can help reduce stress whether it is a Swedish or sports massage
o Read – finding time to read can be a good stress buster, and before bed can help you relax before sleep
o Listen to music – listening to relaxing music is a great technique; if you are not alone you can use headphones
o Watch a comedy – alone or with a friend, laughing out loud is proven to reduce stress symptoms.
Wellbeing (exercise and nutrition)
Looking after yourself physically is an excellent stress management technique. By adhering to the following lifestyle points you will help to combat and even prevent stress.
o Exercise regularly – humans are designed to move and not sit, so exercise is great for body function. Exercise helps depress stress hormones and encourages the release of mood-enhancing hormones such as endorphins
o Eat a healthy, balanced diet – reduce caffeine, salt and sugar intake as well as processed foods, and choose fresher, natural food products. This change will reduce the toxins in the body and give you more energy
o Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and recreational drugs
o Get enough sleep – adequate sleep is imperative for proper brain function, as important as air, water and food. Ensure 6–8 hours of sleep per night. If stress is already causing insomnia, consider some of the other stress management techniques such as meditation or yoga
o Drink enough water – water hydrates every cell, including the brain cells. A hydrated body helps you cope better with stressful situations.
Meditation has been known to reverse the stress response and protect against the effects of chronic stress. Some of the benefits of meditation include:
-Reduced heard rate
-Slowed breathing rate
-Less cortisol production
-Improved immune function
The aim of meditation is to sit in a relaxed position and clear the mind of all thoughts. To help do this you can focus on a sound (a hum), your own breath pattern or nothing at all. Meditating for 5–20 minutes is necessary to gain the benefits, and the longer the meditation the greater the benefits. It is said that the benefits begin after just one session and that there are no side effects. Some people may find it difficult to grasp and find that distraction prevents complete meditation; however, it is possible to go to a meditation instructor/teacher initially for support.
Yoga helps rejuvenate both the mind and body. Practising yoga is said to decrease stress and tension, increase strength and balance, improve flexibility and reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels. Poses such as the ‘tree’ and ‘warrior’ positions all help to strengthen trunk and extremity muscles as well as offer time for mental relaxation through deep breathing and focusing on the position. Below is a list of the best types of yoga for stress:
-Satyananda yoga – a traditional form of yoga that includes gentle poses with deep breathing and meditation for complete relaxation. It is good for beginners and focuses on stress relief
-Hatha yoga – another gentle technique and suitable for beginners
-Power yoga – focuses more on fitness with intense and often more advanced poses. Ideal for someone who wants the strength gains as well as relaxation.
Take control of your life
Finally, by taking control of your life, you can reduce daily, acute stress and help prevent the onset of acute stress.
Start by identifying the sources of stress:
o Look at your habits, attitude, excuses
o Is your stress temporary, around home life, blamed on your personality
o Do you blame others, events
o Consider writing a stress journal to help identify the sources of stress.
Next you need to review your current coping mechanisms:
o Drinking alcohol
o Binging of different foods
o Zoning out in front of TV/computer
o Withdrawal from social activities
- Taking frustrations out on others
o Instead try to focus on what makes you feel calm and in control
Once the stressors and current coping mechanisms have been established, the next stage is to change the situation.
Avoid the stressor(s):
-Say no – stop taking on more work and responsibilities
-Avoid people who make you stressed
-Control your environment – schedule tasks and have a realistic to-do list
-Review your to-do list regularly
You can also alter the stressor(s):
-Express your feelings – do not bottle them up; offload your thoughts, speak to the person who is making you feel stressed
-Compromise – set lower, more realistic goals and boundaries
-Be assertive – stick to your goals, take ownership and therefore control
Finally you can adapt to and accept the stressor.
-Reframe problems – see situations from different people’s perspectives
-Look at the bigger picture – how long will the stressor be there? Is it really a stressor in the grand scheme of things?
-Focus on the positive – see the plus side of every situation and what can be learnt from it; move forward
-Don’t try to control the uncontrollable
-Learn to forgive – harbouring a grudge is a sure route to stress and it only affects you
www.stress.org.uk – stress management society
www.mind.org.uk - charity