Having finished my alphabet newsletter last month I’ve now decided to link into the ‘awareness’ months that happen throughout the year! April is ‘Stress Awareness’ month so I thought I’d share some tools and techniques that I find useful to combat some of my stressors and hope you will find them helpful too.
As you know, we all need a certain amount of stress in our lives to help us fire on all cylinders. The adrenalin that stress creates provides the energy and focus to get on and do what needs to be done. There are lots of studies that highlight during times of pressure we often perform very well and achieve more. It’s linked to the fight or flight response mechanism which makes us feel more alert, so we can act faster and if our hearts are beating faster, the blood is sent to where it’s most needed whether that’s to our legs or our brains!
Stress only becomes problematic when there’s too much or too little as it affects not only the way you think, feel and behave but also how your body works, because your mind and body constantly interact. Have you ever worked yourself into a frenzy by over thinking something when you’ve had too much time on your hands? Or found yourself focusing on the stuff that really isn’t a priority when you’ve been rushed off your feet? I now recognise procrastination as a key message to me that I’m feeling stressed.
Although stress is often caused by big events in our life such as losing a loved one, relationships, job and money, there are often smaller things behind the scenes that can cause us to feel stressed. And it’s usually down to the way that we think about it which often has the repercussions in how we act and behave. A colleague sent me this clip last week, which me made smile.
Worrying is a huge part of stress and I tend to rely on Stephen Covey’s Circles of Control and Influence to help me out. Gather some post it notes (or scraps of paper) and note down every worry you have about a certain situation – one per post it. Draw three circles, each inside the other as illustrated below.
Now arrange your post it notes in the three categories of control, influence and no control. It makes you see pretty quickly how much is actually in your sphere of control and where you need to start spending your time to get things done..
A while ago I watched a TED talk by Kelly McGonigal about making stress your friend. When you have your next 15 minutes to spare, watch it here. I think you’ll find it very interesting and it may alter some of the beliefs you currently hold about stress.
For me to think about stress as a way of the body protecting itself is really useful as it stops me from seeing it as a bad thing. It also helps me to bear in mind we experience the same feelings when we’re both anxious and excited, so if I find the reasons to be the latter, I’m probably going to have a better outcome as a result.
It made me think about some of the ways I’ve started to manage my own stressors and I’ve listed them below as you may find them helpful too.
- Listen to my emotions – When we’re feeling under pressure it can make us feel uncomfortable. If we don’t understand the anxiety we avoid dealing with the situation as effectively as we could. And although it can be painful, unless we delve into it and find out what’s happening, without judgement, we will feel this way for a prolonged period of time. For me, I have a conversation out loud with myself, asking why I’m feeling this way. If I feel that I’m being tough on myself, I also ask myself what I would saying to a friend if they were feeling the same way. I then note down all the options that are available to me, including some silly ones, and then choose the one that will work best for me.
- Perfectionism has always been one of my stressors, but I’m now working on the fact that it’s better to get my work out, rather than continually tweaking it. When I start to dither and make minor amends I ask myself the question ‘Is the extra time I’m giving this going to provide a lot of extra value?’ If the answer is yes, I may continue. If not, I am getting very good at stopping!
- Overwhelmed by too much work – When there’s work looming from every angle, I tend to sit down and make a list of priorities based on who needs what and when. I take each activity and create a task and activity list for each one along with timescales for each part and then enter specific chunks of time into my diary for each element. I’m much better with bite size chunks as I have a bit of a butterfly brain, so I don’t tend to have any session that is longer than 40 minutes as I become restless. Since I’ve been working this way, I’ve not only been working smarter, but I’ve also achieved so much more than I ever thought possible.
- Clutter – physical or mental. I can’t cope with lots of clutter. If my desk is untidy or cluttered I get easily distracted. I work best when I only have the item on my desk that I’m going to work on that day. I also turn off all other distractions like email alerts, phone onto silent and get going on the task. Following the process above, I’ll work for 40 minutes, take a small break or make a couple of phone calls and then refocus for another 35-40 minutes. It’s a sure way of making a big impact on the task.
- Don’t expect people to know how you feel. When I was younger, I would think it was up to others to recognise I wasn’t my bubbly self and enquire why. Not a good strategy as when people don’t ask, it tends to wind you up more!! I know that others are really willing to help you if you want to help yourself. I used to think asking for help was a weakness, now I realise how much time I’ve wasted suffering in silence. I’ve also found that by talking things out loud has made me see that often the issue isn’t not as big and scary as what I once thought!
- Don’t go it alone. This builds upon the last point. When you have goals to achieve look at how you can do it with other people. I was reading an article called Better Together in my latest edition of Psychologies and it stated that exercising in a group improves quality of life and reduces stress far more than a solo workout. People who exercise together reported a 13% boost to mental health and a 26% hike in emotional wellbeing plus their stress levels fell by 26%. Those who exercised alone trained harder and saw an 11% improvement in mental health but their stress levels remained the same.
- My last tip for today is that ‘it’s not the end of the world’. So when I go and eat half the packet of chocolate digestives having just started Weight Watchers, I’ve got to let it go, know it’s a blip and that tomorrow is another day.
Letting go reminds me of a story ….. A lecturer when explaining stress management to an audience, raised a glass of water and asked ‘How heavy is this glass of water?’ Answers ranged from 20g to 500g.
The lecturer replied, ‘The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long you try to hold it. If I hold it for a minute, that’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache down my arm. If I hold it for a day, you may have to call an ambulance! In each case, it’s the same weight but the longer I hold it, it becomes heavier.’ He continued, ‘and that’s the way it is with stress management. If we carry our burdens all the time, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, we won’t be able to carry on. As with the glass of water, you have to put it down for a while and rest before holding it again. When we’re refreshed, we carry on with the burden. So, before you return home tonight, put the burden of work down! Don’t carry it home. You can pick it up tomorrow. Whatever burdens you’re carrying now, let them go for a moment if you can and don’t pick it up again until after you’ve rested for a while.
So let me leave you with these light-hearted ways to deal with the burdens in life ….
- Accept that some days you’re the pigeon and some days you’re the statue
- Always keep your words soft and sweet, just in case you have to eat them
- If you can’t be kind, at least have the decency to be vague
- Since it’s the early worm that gets eaten by the bird, sleep late. It’s the second mouse that gets the cheese
- Some mistakes are much too fun to only make once