Stress management – let’s dig into this topic a little more

 

We regularly hear from students that they want to learn more about stress management.

To be honest, most of us do. Our lives can be stressful for different reasons, but all of us encounter stress and have to find ways to manage it.

And there are good reasons to learn how to manage it. Chronic or severe stress contributes to many different types of illness and can negatively impact on our quality of life and life satisfaction. It can also get in the way of us being productive at either our study or our work.

What I wanted to do in this post therefore is dig into the topic of stress management and share what I’ve learned along the way from my professional training, as well as my personal experience.

I hope you find something useful in this analysis of the topic.

 

Stress management techniques

When we talk stress management, we tend to get mostly wrapped up in stress management techniques – things we can ‘do’ to manage stress.

There is nothing wrong with this, but often we are just reminding people of things they know already.

For example, if you asked me to list the most common ‘stress management techniques’, that are generally helpful to most people, most of the time, you’d get something like the list below, consisting of suggestions that are fairly standard and predictable.

  • Eat healthy (dietary guidelines)
  • Get plenty of sleep (7-9 hours)
  • Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day
  • Consider learning how to meditate
  • Deliberately allocate time to interests and hobbies outside of your studies (study/life balance)
  • Allocate time to catching up with and nurturing your most important relationships (friendships, family, partners, colleagues)
  • Utilise evidence-based study strategies to get the most out of your study time
  • Develop your emotional intelligence by doing an online course that teaches you some of the strategies that a therapist would teach you
  • Familiarise yourself with the many services available to students designed to help them with their studies and tackle the common barriers to study

See! – fairly predictable. Nothing really controversial.

What I’d rather do in this post is not focus on techniques, but instead on learning a bit more about stress itself, and its role in our life. My goal is that you develop a more nuanced understanding of stress, with the prediction that the more you understand about stress, the better position you will be in to make good decisions about how to manage it in your own life.

 

1. Stress is the response of the body and mind to the demands placed on them. Stress symptoms tend to fall into five categories.

Stress can be a full body and mind experience, meaning the signs of stress are diverse. One useful way to think about the symptoms of stress is to categorise them by type.

  • Physiological (experienced in the body) – low energy/fatigue, headaches, upset stomach, aches/pains/tense muscles, chest pain/discomfort, shallow quick breathing, more regular colds/infections, shaking, dry mouth, clenched jaw/teeth grinding
  • Psychological/thinking (experienced in the mind) – trouble concentrating, forgetful, indecisiveness, apathy, hopelessness, negative self-evaluation, worry, racing thoughts, disorganisation, inability to focus, poor judgement, pessimistic
  • Behavioural (how we act when stressed) – increased drinking or smoking, poor sleep, distracting activities (gaming/ internet), nervousness, avoiding other people, changes in appetite, procrastination, nail biting
  • Emotional (how we feel when stressed) – feeling anxious, out of control, overwhelmed, stressed out, unhappy, angry, irritable, tense, agitated, having difficulty relaxing
  • Interpersonal (how we act around other people) – short-tempered with people, clingy, aggressive, loss of trust

Although unpleasant, most of these symptoms aren’t damaging in the short-term. In fact, many of these symptoms are preparations that the body and mind are making to take action on a difficult situation. For example, those nerves that you experience in the lead-up to exams are part of trying to motivate you to study hard to present your best self on the day.

An interesting thing I’ve learned over time is that we each experience stress in subtly different ways. For example, I’ve learned that my stress manifests mostly as physiological symptoms and getting grumpy. For others it might lead to irritability or increased drinking or emotional outbursts. What are your most common stress symptoms?

We also tend to have unique patterns in the way we attempt to deal with stress. For example, I tend to be quite proactive in trying to fix stressful work situations, but quite avoidant in fixing stressful interpersonal situations. Approach vs avoidance is a good simple way to categorise our response to stress. ‘Approach’ means you try to tackle the stressor or problem head-on. ‘Avoidance’ means you do everything in your power to not address a problem. Generally ‘approach’ strategies work better, although ‘avoidance’ can work if used in the short-term to help you build resources before tackling a problem.

Sometimes people don’t even realise they are stressed until they start to accumulate symptoms. With this in mind, it is worth you trying to decipher what your most common stress symptoms are. Think of them as alarms that are going off to tell you there is something that needs addressing.

 

2. Stress is both good and bad

We tend to interpret any kind of stress as a bad thing that needs to be changed, often because it is associated with unpleasant or undesirable symptoms (like those described above).

 

However stress can be:

  • motivating – the stress you feel before an assignment due date or exam date is there to motivate you to do your work.
  • a sign that something is important to you – being stressed about your studies is a sign that you are doing something that is important to you. If you weren’t a bit stressed, it would mean you didn’t care about your studies.
  • an indication that you are at your most productive – our performance is at its highest with a moderate amount of stress.
  • that you are in a good position to learn – the stress that accompanies an activity like study can actually prime your brain to learn more effectively.
  • a danger signal – letting you know that you need to remove yourself from a situation.
  • a catalyst for growth – something that triggers you to take a new perspective or approach to life

 

Everyday stressors

If we didn’t have some stress in our lives, we’d be motionless on the couch, with zero motivation or drive to do anything (kinda sounds like me on holidays to be honest). It is the everyday stressors that drive us to get up in the morning and do what we do. We have to get money, we have to get food, we have to get shelter, we have to do our work, solve problems, deal with people, try to stay healthy etc.

Everyday life is an excellent training ground for learning how to manage stress. All sorts of problems and inconveniences and frustrations need to be addressed on a daily basis. The better we get at solving those problems, the more resilient we get overall. This is the type of stress that is good for us.

As an example, a university degree contains many stressful components that are good for you. Assignments and exams help you learn how to manage your time. Group work helps you develop valuable social skills. Work placements help you understand what being in the workforce is like. The strategies you learn to and develop to address those stressors is part of the value of doing a degree and why you leave university with greater ‘life skills’ than when you entered.

Sometimes however, everyday stressors can become overwhelming. Losing a job, repeated assignment failings, relationship difficulties, a toxic work environment. For a stressor to become overwhelming usually means that it is severe (i.e. high intensity), chronic (i.e. repeated), inescapable (i.e. uncontrollable) and/or beyond our ability to cope (i.e. complex).

When this happens, it usually means we are going to have to develop, trial and implement different or new stress management techniques (see further in this article).

 

Isolated stressors

In addition to the stressors of everyday life, all of us experience isolated stressors, often that come ‘out of the blue’. These might be once-off incidents (e.g. accident) or losses that have a powerful impact on our lives.

We can’t always prepare for these because we don’t know when they will happen.

However there are things we can have in place that will help us deal with these when they happen.

  1. Good physical and mental health – where possible, invest time and effort in looking after your body and mind.  This means during stressful times, you will be less prone to getting sick or unwell, compounding the stress further. At a practical level this means focusing on nutrition, sleep, physical activity and breathing.
  2. A good financial situation – having some money saved or available during times of stress can make the stressful time much easier to endure, especially if the stressor is something like losing a job or a big expense. Financial wellbeing is a combination of good budgeting, spending less than you earn, saving and investing spare cash and educating yourself about money.
  3. A strong social network – having people to call on or ask for support during difficult times can definitely buffer the impact of stressful events. People in our social network can provide emotional support (e.g. a listening ear), tangible support (e.g. practical assistance), informational support (i.e. advice) or appraisal support (e.g. better understand ourselves or the situation). Building a strong social network is about investing time and effort in the relationships you have in your life (friends, family, colleagues and partners). This means being a support for people you care about during their times of stress.
  4. A sense of meaning and purpose – knowing what we are working towards and having a sense of purpose higher than ourselves can help provide direction and certainty during times of uncertainty or unpredictability. Finding meaning and purpose is a process of investing your energy in activities and people that bring feelings of happiness, satisfaction and coherence (i.e. where your beliefs and your behaviours are in alignment).

It is also worth knowing that there is such a thing as post-traumatic growth. Whilst we can’t avoid unpleasant things happening to us, many people report that the process of rebuilding after a stressful event can include positive aspects. This might include gaining valuable knowledge or a greater appreciation for life or the fact that the event sent them on a life path that was better than the one they were on previously.

Much like everyday stressors can have a positive function (building resilience and problem solving skills), sometimes the isolated stressful events can have positive impacts as well.

 

3. The baseline level of stress we experience depends on the balance between the challenges/demands in our life and the resources we have to cope with those challenges.

There are things in our life that cause us stress (challenges/demands) and things in our life that help us deal with stress (resources).

If we have lots of challenges, but depleted resources, we will feel high levels of stress. However if the challenges in our life are matched by the resources and coping strategies we have, our stress levels will be lower. If our resources are greater than our challenges, it means we have the room to thrive and explore.

Common challenges/demands include:

  • The demands of study (e.g. assignments/deadlines/ placements)
  • Work pressures/ job loss
  • Time pressures – long hours
  • Poor sleep
  • Being away from home
  • Adjusting to a new culture
  • Grief/loss
  • Financial difficulties
  • Illness or injury (personal or family)
  • Daily stressors (traffic, transport, things breaking)
  • Caring for a family/ family members
  • Traumatic events
  • Relationship problems
  • Bullying/harassment
  • Concerns about life direction and purpose
  • Housing insecurity
  • Food insecurity
  • Unhelpful expectations/attitudes of our own or other people in our life

It is impossible to go through life without challenges. They are an inevitable part of the human experience.

However, the challenges in our life are at least partly offset or buffered by the resources we have at our disposal.

Common resources include:

  • Healthy habits (regular sleep, good nutrition, regular exercise)
  • Being well organised (i.e. good time management skills)
  • Mentally healthy habits (e.g. journaling, meditation)
  • Positive and helpful attitudes/expectations
  • Social supports – people who you can talk to and can help you out
  • Effective study strategies
  • Hardiness/ resilience/ grit
  • Emotional and behavioural regulation skills (i.e. knowing how to handle strong emotions and resist bad habits such as drinking)
  • General life knowledge and skills
  • Medications/medical treatments
  • Hobbies/interests/rejuvenation activities
  • Money/savings/investments
  • Purpose and meaning
  • Being a good problem solver

 

 

 

4. If we have too much stress in our life, we have two broad options. Coping with stress means tackling the challenges and/or increasing the resources.

First, we can attempt to modify the challenges in our life.

This involves identifying the main sources of stress in our life and brainstorming and implementing solutions to those problems. Because our problem solving abilities tend to diminish when we are under stress, this process is helped by asking people you know for help. Humans are social creatures and we tend to solve problems effectively with each other’s help. Your first stop is family and friends. Tell them what is happening and ask for advice/assistance. If the problems relate to something university related, you can ASK Flinders or make contact with the Flinders Support Network.  They can tell you if there is a service within the university that might be able to help. Finally, you can go online and read about what other people have done to solve the same problem.

Having found some potential solutions, your job is then to implement them and see if they work. Keep trying different solutions until you find one that works.

For a more clearly articulated problem-solving process, try this worksheet from the CCI. It might seem strange at first to tackle life problems using a worksheet, but what the worksheet does is help you step out the process.

 

Your second option is to build up your resources and coping strategies.

This is where that list of ‘stress management techniques’ I wrote at the beginning of the article become relevant:

  • Eat healthy (dietary guidelines)
  • Get plenty of sleep (7-9 hours)
  • Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day
  • Consider learning how to meditate
  • Deliberately allocate time to interests and hobbies outside of your studies (study/life balance)
  • Allocate time to catching up with and nurturing your most important relationships (friendships, family, partners, colleagues)
  • Utilise evidence-based study strategies to get the most out of your study time
  • Develop your emotional intelligence by doing an online course that teaches you some of the strategies that a therapist would teach you
  • Familiarise yourself with the many services available to students designed to help them with their studies and tackle the common barriers to study

You might be thinking, ‘how does working on my diet help me deal with an issue like bullying or financial difficulties?

The truth is it doesn’t help directly. But every investment you make in the health of your body and mind strengthens you to withstand difficult circumstances in the future. Furthermore the discipline and self-control required to strengthen your body and mind benefits you in other settings of your life.

For example, if you discipline yourself to contact your best friends every couple of weeks and check in on how they are going and have a chat, when the time comes that you need help and assistance, they will be happy to return the favour and help you out, because of the help you’ve provided them in the past. This is how you build resources to manage the challenges in life.

In reality, the best way to manage stress is a combination of problem solving the challenges in our life, as well as building up your resources and coping strategies.

 

5. How we think plays a role in the stress we feel

I was trained as a CBT therapist.

CBT = cognitive behavioural therapy, a model of therapy based on the idea that our beliefs, assumptions and thoughts shape our feelings and our actions.

One key idea from CBT is that the stress associated with an event is both a function of the event itself, but also our interpretation and thoughts and beliefs about the event.

This is why two people, attending the same meeting, can emerge with very different reactions to the meeting. One might be frustrated, feeling that the meeting ‘wasted their time’. The other might be relaxed and just happy they got to see some of their colleagues.

We each bring to a situation our own collections of beliefs, thoughts, interpretations

The implications of this are profound. It means that sometimes we can change the impact of an event on us, simply by shifting our beliefs about the event.

It doesn’t necessarily mean an upsetting event is completely cleansed of its negative impact, but that the impact might be softened or buffered.

For example, getting dumped could be:

  • ‘a sign that I am not a lovable person’ (maximum negative impact)
  • ‘a sign that the other person isn’t ready for someone like me’ (a little less negative impact)
  • ‘an opportunity for me to find new and supportive people in my life’ (potentially a positive impact)

A willingness to entertain a different perspective on a situation is the starting point for such changes.

 

 

6. Managing stress isn’t just about what we do when we are stressed

Humans, despite their intelligence, still tend to wait till things are going wrong before trying to fix them. Take climate change as an example.

In our individual lives, when things are going well, we don’t tend to spend too much time thinking about potentially stressful future situations.

But it is during the good periods of time in our lives that we should try embedding some good habits into our everyday lives.

It is during those good periods that we should try to:

  • establish a healthy sleep routine
  • establish a program of regular physical activity
  • experiment with things like meditation
  • organise to catch -up with friends and family
  • explore ways to being more efficient at our work

With these positive habits in place, our bodies and minds will be healthier and more resilient at the point at which stressors arrive.

Habit formation is an interest of mine and I’ve got a lecture on our Oasis Online FLO topic that you can access – https://flo.flinders.edu.au/course/view.php?id=63157#section-11 . If you aren’t enrolled in that topic, you might have to enrol first before accessing the lecture.

 

7. Stress is often better managed in the context of caring relationships

Some people are very good at calling on their social network when stressed.

Others (like me) tend to withdraw from other people when stressed. If this is you, you might want to re-think your strategy.

Humans are social creatures (even the most introverted of us) and we tend to be much better at solving problems, building things, having fun and relaxing when in groups of people we trust.

There have been multiple times, in recent history, where I’ve ruminated, by myself on an issue for days or month, getting increasingly distressed. Yet, when I presented the issue to a friend, there was often some kind of resolution within hours, at least emotionally.

This is because when we get stressed about an issue, our thinking narrows and we fail to see or entertain multiple different viewpoints. However a friend or family member can usually (easily) provide multiple different perspectives on the issue from their standpoint as an outsider.

When we engage our social network in helping us solve problems, we outsource the problem to a less encumbered brain 🧠

 

8. Stress can trigger reflection and reconsideration of values

I talked before about how stress can often signify positive things.

Stress can be a sign we aren’t living according to our values – maybe we have people or work or things in our lives that aren’t right for us, or conversely, we are lacking those things that we truly do want and are avoiding accepting dealing with these realities.

The realisation that we aren’t living according to our values can be difficult, inasmuch as it means confronting the reality of our own behaviour or difficult truths or having to reconsider the motives or intentions of others.

But this is also a point at which we can start making other choices that take our lives in a different direction.

I know that for me, the decision to finally go vegan was about getting my views about animals consistent with my behaviour. Doing so has helped me immensely in sending me off on a different life path. The pathway to that decision was however quite stressful, including ill health and internal conflict.

I’ve seen similar transformations in people I care about, who have used periods of stress to kickstart new careers, new relationships and new hobbies.

 

Final words

Whilst it can be helpful to learn about different stress management techniques, more important is understanding stress itself, as a signal, a catalyst for change, and as a measure of the discrepancy between the challenges in our life and the resources we have to deal with those challenges.

This understanding helps us view stress in a more balanced way as well as understanding that there are two key pathways to stress management: problem solving the challenges in our life AND building up our coping resources and capacities.

If you want to learn more about stress management, as a starting point I recommend an online course that teaches you the type of stuff a psychologist would teach you, were you to visit one.

 

Posted in
Academic skills Healthy Lifestyle Life Skills Mental Health Physical Health Psychological Tools Talks given

Leave a Reply