Natural Mind Magic

Coping constructively with stress

Kalden and Samten
Kalden and Samten

Stress is of course a normal part of life, but our stress-response can lead to problems with health, relationships, and work. Sometimes the coping strategies we use to alleviate our stress – such as drinking, over-eating, smoking, etc – can themselves lead to further problems and end up making matters worse. We owe it to ourselves and the other people in our lives to learn how to manage stress effectively.

When we talk about being 'stressed out', we're really talking about our stress-response. In a way, it's a survival mechanism. Medically speaking, we respond physically to a threatening situation by releasing stress hormones from the adrenal glands, giving us a surge of energy for 'flight or fight'. In the days when humans were hunters competing with sabre tooth tigers, it was a life-saver (and it may still come in handy down a dark alleyway in a tough part of town!) but in our normal day-to-day lives, it's not always so useful.

The problem is that stress hormones remain in our bodies for some time after being triggered, and the resulting energy surge demands release in physical activity. Not so easy if we're stuck behind the wheel of a car – hence such inappropriate behaviour as road rage!

Most people have seen popular psychology lists of 'stressful situations' such as divorce, bereavement, serious illness, getting married and moving house. These are not necessarily all unpleasant experiences, but they do all involve change and uncertainty.

Interestingly, while many people experience change and uncertainty as stressful, many others (or sometimes even the same people!) find too little change to be extremely stressful – the boredom of the same old routine, day in, day out, drives them up the wall.

For most of us, whether there's too much change in our lives, or too little, the most stressful thing is the sense of not having any control over what's happening. And a double-bind situation is extremely stressful, for example, being required to take on more work than it's possible to do within the constraints of the time and resources available.

Stress-related symptoms can span a wide range, including rapid heart beat, breathlessness, headaches, stomach aches, back pain, skin rashes, insomnia, depression, emotional irritability, tearfulness, dizzy spells, fearfulness, anxiety and panic attacks. Many physical disorders, such as stomach ulcers, colitis, migraines and indigestion, are triggered or worsened by stress.

So, how to manage stress more effectively?

Begin by taking a step towards reclaiming control. Identify any obvious stress triggers. Recognise that it may not be the situation itself that is the problem; your response to it may be the more important factor. For example, one person may see an event as a challenge, and enjoy it; while another may see it as an ordeal, and hate it. The individual's perception of it and response to it is what matters. By taking responsibility for your own response, you put yourself back in the driving seat, and that is already a huge step towards alleviating the stress.

Be alert to the signs of stress building up. Don't wait until it overwhelms you and you either erupt in fury or collapse in tears over some tiny incident. It's easier to take responsibility and assert control sooner rather than later in any process, whether that process is an ongoing part of your life, such as a relationship, or an immediate emotional event such as the arising of anger.

Be aware of possibly harmful side-effects of your usual coping strategies. For example, the coffee that gets you up in the morning can itself induce symptoms similar to a stress-response, including heart palpitations, anxiety, irritability, and insomnia. And while one gin and tonic in the evening may help you to relax, it can all too easily lead to several more – and a subsequent hangover that makes it even harder to get through the next day. Find healthier ways to relax – maybe yoga or meditation, or some kind of creative expression such as music or art. Any physical exercise is great, as it enables you to release the pent up energy that is such a big part of the stress-response: try walking or running, or squash, or swimming; whatever works for you. This will not only help you to relax, it will also increase your fitness and stamina.

Learn to identify your own needs, such as quiet time for yourself, or opportunities to socialise, or to enjoy a favourite sport or hobby or pursue a particular interest. It's not only legitimate to acknowledge and take steps towards fulfilling your needs, it's necessary for your own sake and the sake of others; if you need to convince yourself of this, consider how, if you carry on stretching yourself as thin as too little butter over too much bread, you're likely to crack up, which would cause more problems for you and everyone else! It's absolutely vital to learn how to prioritise, set boundaries, and assert yourself kindly and firmly: practise saying 'No' in front of the mirror!

Learn to express your emotions clearly and kindly before they get out of hand; don't let things fester. It's no good expecting other people to read your mind: tell them howyou feel. Ask for help with the housework when you need it! It can really help to find someone trustworthy to talk things over with. And counselling or life coaching can be useful; employing professional assistance is not a sign of weakness, rather a matter of taking responsibility for addressing a problem.

As well as experimenting with these suggestions, you may also like to try some first aid techniques for emergencies. The most important thing regarding the stress response, as we've already seen, is to assert control. You can do that instantly by interrupting the rising stress-energy. Here are some methods to try; see which ones work best for you.

Breathe! Notice what happens when stress levels are soaring – your breathing changes. So take 3 deep breaths, and then count 10 more while breathing all the way down into the abdomen. This will help you to relax and release the building tension.

Laugh! See the funny side of a situation, make a joke, take time out to watch a TV comedy, even get someone to tickle you! Laughter is often the best way to dissolve tension.

Move! If you can, go out for a walk or a run; if not, jumping on the spot can really help – even if you have to hide in the loo to do it!

Change your perspective! A problem can dominate your vision. See things in a different way by imagining what it would be like if you could somehow float up above your body, as high as you need to go. Imagine going out into space so the Earth appears as a little blue green ball; or even further, so the Sun appears as just one of countless stars. Where is that little problem you used to have, now?

Stress is part of life, and so is the stress-response. Think how good it would be if you could learn how to manage it skilfully. Not only would you be healthier and happier, but the other people in your life would also benefit.

You might like to practise the emergency strategies and become familiar with them, so that when the need arises, you'll remember to:

Move, and
Change perspective.

I hope you've found this short article useful. Thank you for reading it. I wish you well on your journey.