Managing Stress: A Simple Approach to a Complex World
by Shlomo Radcliffe, MACP, RP
Stress. If there's a single word that encapsulates the human experience in the 21st century, that would be it. Adults worldwide are stressed out, and kids are too. We experience stress about work, relationships, health, school, and other parts of our lives. Considering just how pervasive stress is, it is no wonder that many people assume it is inevitable - a natural consequence of living in an increasingly busy and complex world. Certainly, the 21st-century in its ever-changing social, political, and digital climate provides fertile soil for stress to grow. Yet, stress is not fate. Read on to learn powerful and practical strategies that will help you reduce stress and improve your mental and physical well-being.
Stress Management: A Two-Pronged Approach
In psychological literature, stress is often described as as the overwhelming of an individual’s internal resources in response to a challenge. Following this definition, it is no wonder that one of the key characteristics of stress is feeling overloaded. When feeling energized we may be able to be highly productive. Once our energy is depleted, our productivity drops, as we lack the resources necessary to meet the tasks ahead. The stress process works the same way. Our internal resources, such as our physical and mental energy and our coping strategies equip us to handle some degree of challenge. When we reach the point where the challenges we are facing exceed the capacities of our internal resources, our systems become overloaded and we experience stress. Following this definition of stress suggests two possible ways to deal with it: reduce challenges and increase internal resources. This article explains exactly how you can accomplish these tasks.
Dissipate, Disintegrate, or Delegate
One simple way to think about stress reduction is to use the three D’s, Dissipate, Delegate, and Disintegrate. Some stressful situations are short-term and with time, will simply dissipate. If you are dealing with a short-term problem, such as adapting to a new job or location, reminding yourself that this is just a present-moment problem can provide you with some relief as you focus on the bigger picture. Other challenges may be chronic, and if this is what you are dealing with, simply waiting things out is not going to provide you with relief. In this event, a better option is to consider what stress-related elements you can remove or disintegrate from your life.
Take a look at your normal workday schedule. What activities and responsibilities can you cut down on? To be sure, there are many parts of a normal day that are necessary and cannot easily be removed from your schedule. You need to work. The kids need supper. That workout is vital for your health. Yet, there are likely to be some activities that simply are not absolutely necessary in the grander scheme of things. Perhaps, you don’t need to be the one to organize the evening reception for the school’s parent committee. Maybe the benefits of taking the kids to their grandparents twice a week is just not worth the stress and overwhelm that this process entails. Does supper need to involve marinating, sauteing, roasting, and glazing, or would your life be simplified if you were to make one-dish crock pot meals more often? Disintegrating the things in your life that are not truly necessary frees you to focus on the things that truly matter to you. This will remove the feeling of overload that arises when you are doing more than you can handle.
Cutting down on the activities you are engaged in is a foolproof method of reducing stress. However, disintegration is not always feasible or practical. Some tasks may be simultaneously important to you and a source of stress. For example, if you have kids, it is non-negotiable that food needs to be prepared for them for suppers and lunches. Yet, finding the time and energy to do this after a long day can be challenging. How can one deal with situations like this? Here, delegation - the act of enlisting the help of others - is key. In the case of food prep for your kids, the task is absolutely necessary. Yet, it is not absolutely necessary that you be the one to complete this task. Can your partner help out with this sometimes? Or, even better, can your kids contribute to food preparation and clean-up in an age-appropriate manner? Consider what important tasks in your day-to-day routine can be reasonably delegated to other individuals, at home, work, or in any domain you are engaged in. Asking for help can be hard, yet going at it alone only sets us up for failure in the long-term. (If you know that you need help from others but find it difficult to ask for it, you may benefit from assertiveness training so that you can learn the language and process of taking care of your needs.) By using the principles of dissipation, disintegration, and delegation you can can begin to combat overwhelm and take the driver's seat of your life.
Withdrawals Follow Deposits
Humans are like ATMs. At an ATM you can only withdraw as much money as you have previously deposited - taking more than you have in your account will cause you to go into overdraft with all its associated costs. You can avoid going into overdraft by taking less out of your account. Yet, sometimes, you simply need the cash. The only other option available to you to prevent overdraft is to deposit more money into your account, perhaps from another account with more funds available. If you are experiencing ‘human overdraft’ - also known as stress, and reducing challenges is insufficient or impractical in helping you find balance, then you need to consider what deposits you can make to your ‘account.’ This will put you in a better position to stay mentally, physically, and socially healthy in the midst of ongoing stress. In other words, you need to engage in self-care, or practices that sustain, nourish, and provide you with the fuel needed to thrive on a day-to-day basis.
Self-Care: The Basics
One of the most common physical indicators of stress is a feeling of tension. Tension can be uncomfortable, but on the positive side, can also act as a reminder to engage in self-care, the practice of which can be captured within with the acronym TENSE. This stands for Techniques, Exercise, Nutrition, Sleep, and Engagement. When you're feeling tense or stressed, TENSE is the prescription you need. Let's take a look at each element of the TENSE approach to self-care more closely.
There are many self-care practices that you can include in your stress management arsenal as tools to help calm the stress response and maintain your physical and mental well-being. For example, mindfulness meditation is an excellent practice that you can include in your day-to-day routine. Mindfulness can improve your mood, focus, and productivity, putting you in a better position to deal with the effects of stress. You can easily learn the basics of mindfulness meditation by using an app such as Calm.com or Headspace, or by reading a book on the subject, such as the excellent primer The Mindfulness Solution by Ronald Siegel. Other techniques you can try include progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) (find a simple, free guide here), guided visualizations (which can easily be found on YouTube), and breathing techniques, two examples of which I include below. Incorporating the regular practice of one of these techniques into your life can provide significant benefits to your ability to manage stress, and improve mood and well-being. Try a few different techniques out to see what appeals to you most. My suggestion to you is to choose one technique to stick with initially and try to incorporate it into your week, little by little. For example, if you enjoy PMR, you can try practicing it every day before bed for as little as two minutes. While you may increase that number with time, it is better to start small with a length that you can realistically maintain rather than starting big and giving the practice up after a week or so. Finding a specific time and place to practice can also enable you to build a long-term habit of self-care. Some breathing techniques you can try include coherence breathing and breath counting, described below:
Coherence Breathing - Breathe in and out through your nose for five seconds on each breath for 2-5 minutes. Five seconds in and five seconds out.
Breath Counting - Breathe in through your nose while thinking the number one. Breathe out through your mouth while thinking the number two. Continue for 2-5 minutes.
Exercise, Nutrition, and Sleep - The Pillars of Health
Exercise can have a dramatic impact on our physical and mental health. Research also indicates that exercise is an effective way to reduce the physical tension that can accompany stress. Exercise is vital in helping us cope with the effects of stress and in maintaining the energy and mood required for day-to-day functioning. If there is one activity that you add to your life to positively impact your well-being it should be exercise. To incorporate an exercise habit into your life, start small and find an activity that appeals to you. If lifting weights and jogging isn't your thing, perhaps you can try kickboxing or yoga. Think outside the box - forms of exercise you might try include martial arts, dance, biking, boating, and even axe-throwing. Add music to your exercise routine and anything else you can think of that will make exercising more exciting, engaging, and practical. If exercising is an unpleasant experience for you, then its not likely to be a habit you will stick with.
Nutrition is another area of basic health that is often neglected, yet plays a critical role in building a stress resilience. Fortunately, even small changes to your nutritional habits can yield significant benefit on your health and well-being. Some essential nutrition habits that will optimize your body's capacity to cope with stress include reducing sugar and caffeine intake, eating small meals often throughout the day to maintain blood sugar levels, and getting your recommended daily intake of fruits, vegetables, and proteins. When we eat well, we live well.
The third pillar of good health is sleep. Recommendations on how much sleep adults should be getting nightly varies, but 7-9 hours is a common benchmark given. If your current sleep quantity falls below this number, consider what steps you can take to increase time for sleep. Sleep recharges and refreshes our bodies and minds, allowing us to function and remain effective in our busy lives. When we neglect sleep, stress and overwhelm soon follow. It is important to note that sleep quantity is not the only metric of sleep sufficiency - the quality of sleep you are getting matters too. If it is the quality of your sleep that is lacking, which may be indicated by feeling tired even though you are getting the amount of sleep you need, improving sleep hygiene, or sleep-related habits can help. Check out the National Sleep Foundations sleep hygiene recommendations here. Exercise, nutrition, and sleep comprise the three pillars of good health and put us in a position to meet the demands and stresses of day-to-day 21st century living.
When we experience stress and increasing busyness, social time is often one of the first things to go, as it is deemed extraneous and non-essential. However, stress and anxiety are easier to manage when we engage with others. Friends and family can be a tremendous source of support in times of stress. Spending time with friends and family also enables us to talk to people who can help us in managing stress, whether by actively helping us deal with a challenge or by simply being supportive in our difficult periods. In other words, engaging with others allows us disengage with stress. Consider what steps you can take to increase social engagement in your life. How would your week change if you could add in a coffee date with a significant other or close friend once a week? What would be the impact of a game - be it sports, party, board game, or any other type - with friends on your stress levels? Time with others is not a luxury, it is a necessity in preserving our mental health, well-being, and ability to deal with the challenges in life.
Putting It All Together
While stress is by definition an overwhelming experience, the way through it is really quite simple: reduce your stressors and increase your resources. While simple does not mean easy, this article provides you with some essential tips, strategies, and ideas that you can use to break the stress cycle, and take control of your life. Use the three D’s, Dissipate, Disintegrate, and Delegate as your road map in reducing stress, and TENSE as your guide in increasing your capacity to deal with stress. Do it slowly, over time, and thoughtfully, but do it. Your future, calm, focused, and in-control self will thank you.