Ok, so surely this title is some kind of oxymoron, right? Isn’t stress management all about letting go and chilling out? When you understand that there is more than one form of stress and that some stress is actually necessary for us to achieve anything in life, no, it’s actually perfectly logical. Stress management becomes less about letting go and more about gaining control of variables and unknowns, which is where the real stress lies.
I was prompted to give this all some more thought after being hired by Bath Spa University to speak to GSCE students about stress management last week. They may be teenagers but I remember how hard I found the run up to those exams, with all the pressure starting to be piled on about A-Level choices, career paths and degree options, so I took it super seriously and gave them the same tips I give to business execs, and it’s what I’m sharing with you now.
Fundamentally, there are two forms of stress that guide us. One is distress, which is what usually comes to mind, being negative influences on our lives like time contraints, having too much to do, working for an evil boss etc. Eustress is the positive stress that gets us out of bed to work out, achieve things or that motivates you to succeed when you have a job you enjoy. We need eustress to help us get things done, but we also need tactics for managing distress so that it doesn’t overwhelm us; sadly, it isn’t going anywhere soon for most of us, and this is where the self-discipline comes in.
Develop discipline and healthy habits
Research has been around since the 1970s demonstrating that people are happier and more productive when they have more control over their workloads, as well as being intrinsically motivated i.e. they find their own way to complete their tasks and exercise a degree of autonomy. This requires the ability to set your own goals and find strategies to meet them.
So, my suggestions to you here are twofold: accept that you will be subject to stress and commit to getting the job done, but deal with what you can’t control by finding strategies through which to exercise some autonomy and individuality. For example, your boss sets you a task and a deadline but the way you achieve the task and the interim deadlines you set become yours. You can’t choose the task but you can choose how to tackle it and how to motivate yourself to do it.
This requires self-discipline to be organised and committed to achieving your goal. M. Scott Peck’s classic The Road Less Travelled is brilliant on how self-discipline is something we all need to practise and that without it very little gets done. This applies to many areas of our lives so, to improve how you manage stress, you might also want to do a little more in some of the areas below:
Exercise is one of the best natural anti-depressants. It doesn’t have to involve the gym, either. Getting outside and walking in the fresh air counts, and it may motivate you to move far more than hitting the treadmill. Choose something you enjoy doing, schedule it and follow through. Interestingly, people who fail to plan what to do with a day off often feel more stressed by the fact they let a day slip away on them, than the people who actually schedule in their fun…
Be a bit more controlled about how often you eat sugar and drink caffeine. I’m no anti-sugar bod and I drink my share of coffee but if you are prone to stress, avoiding both will avoid over stimulation and help you sleep better at night. We’d generally all feel better if we ate more veggies, drank a bit more water and snacked less, especially on the sweet stuff. Treats are occasional or they are not treats, right?
Manage your stress by getting more disciplined with your sleep rituals. Stick to regular bedtime and waking hours, and don’t stray by more than an hour each way on weekends to avoid the Monday sleep hangover. Make your room dark and keep it cool. As a light sleeper, I also recommend ear plugs to avoid being disturbed by a snoring partner, noisy neighbour or traffic; Snore Calm Elite have a noise reduction of 37db and you can buy them from Amazon. Sleep disturbance not only creates anxiety and stress, but can also lead to the disruption of hormones controlling appetite and encourage overeating, which is another source of stress best avoided.
Find your flow
In the field of positive psychology, ‘flow’ activity is the kind that we experience when we are so immersed in it that we lose all sense of time i.e. the opposite of watching the minutes tick by until you can leave the office. Whether it’s dancing, knitting or getting lost in a good book, schedule it in and make sure you find your flow on a regular basis.
So, why not pick one or two areas of your life you could apply some self-discipline to and develop some healthy habits? Just a few small tweaks over time could make a massive difference to your health, wellness and stress levels.