No doubt that times are stressful. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a lot of uncertainty. This is causes a lot of stress, and the evidence suggests that people are more anxious and more stressed.
Interestingly, even before the pandemic, research suggested that as a society we are more stressed than previous generations.
There are many factors that contribute to this. This includes life circumstances, change, financial difficulties, etc.
Although this might seem a little dire, there is hope. As psychologists, the way we approach stress management is changing. We are getting closer to effectively managing stress.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO MANAGE YOUR STRESS, YOU NEED TO BUILD CAPACITY AROUND IT.
It is not stress in itself that is the problem, but possibly your relationship to stress. This is what we call psychological flexibility.
Here is a way to explain it.
Imagine your stress is like a glass of very salty and bitter water. Before you drink it, you believe that you need to remove all the salt molecules from the water. You get a microscope and you start removing the molecules. This approach will remove the salt, but will take you a very long time to complete.
Traditionally, the way we have tried to manage stress is by trying to remove it, which just like the salt water might not be the most effective strategy. Here is a radical alternative strategy:
Instead of trying to remove the salt, why don’t we make the glass bigger. Imagine we pour the salt water into a 5 litre bucket. Then we add some of your favourite beverages (our values)
into the bucket. The salt has not disappeared, but it is drinkable and actually tastes nice.
How do you increase your capacity around stress and change your relationship with it?
The key is to drop the struggle with stress and have more workable actions around it:
Activities that allow the following are some ways you can ‘make your cup bigger’.
- Do more of what is important to you.
- Practice mindfulness.
- Engage with your environment.
- Educate yourself
Here is a list of resources to help you change your relationship with stress:
Do more of what is important to you
Stress is not the problem, it is what stress keeps us away from that is the problem. In other words. If stress keeps you away from the people or activities that are important to you, then stress is a problem.
Trying to avoid or control our stress often causes a sort of tunnel vision. When we get into this mode, we only focus on getting rid of stress, which inherently moves us away from the things that provide us with meaning and purpose.
Avoiding and overthinking are short term reliefs but not long-term solutions. Basically, they are strategies we used to remove the ‘salt’. By just focusing on relieving your stress, it often makes you feel stuck.
Knowing what is important to you
and what activities brings you meaning and purpose allows you to build this capacity and manage your stress.
Here are three resources to help discover what is important to you.
Three resources to discover what is important to you:
Values In Action:
Often the things that cause us the most stress or pain, provide us with a reference to what is important to us. The Values in Action Inventory of Strengths
can help you discover what is important to you. You can open an account for free and complete the survey. This provides you with a list of values that are important to you.
Ask the right questions:
Asking the right questions and answering them openly and honestly, can help you discover your deepest yearnings. By discovering your deepest yearning can help you discover your values. Here is a list of questions from a previous blog that can help:
- What are your heart’s deepest desires for how you want to behave?
- What personal qualities and strengths do you want to act on or live by every day?
- What actions will you still do if no one knew you were doing this?
- In what way do you want to show up in the good and bad moments that you will be proud of in ten years from now?
Becoming aware of how our mind works and discovering thought patterns that lead to stress helps a lot in managing your stress. A mindfulness practice like meditation is a great tool. The purpose of meditation is not to remove stress, but rather to change our relationship to it.
Our relationship with our thoughts can mostly be changed in two ways:
- Not getting hooked by them, through noticing.
- Creating some distance between the thought and my action related to the thought.
Mindfulness meditation provides you with a little pause before you get hooked by the content of a thought. Dan Harris
describes meditation as a mindful practice as a superpower.