Stress management should be more accessible.
Did you know… anxiety and stress related disorders impact 33,7% of people in their lifetime. However, less than 40% go for help. Whether you are reading for yourself or want to help a loved one, this article provides a practical guide to managing your stress.
Learn how deal with your stress by reading on.
Table of Contents
Thee above symptoms of stress tells you a part of your life is taking strain. This is normal! Seeing these indicators of stress as a warning sign, helps you mobilise to face your challenges. When you don’t listen to these warning signs, it becomes a problem.
Stress has a very cunning way of putting you into a corner. It does this by numbing your stress indicators. Overtime, not listening to these warning signs, helps stress take control. Therefore, don’t see these symptoms as a bad thing. See them as a diagnostic tool for when you need to take control and apply some stress management techniques.
Knowing what causes you stress helps see the origins of your anxieties. Read on.
Causes of stress
Environmental sources of stress
Unfortunately, many of these environmental sources of stress are unavoidable. If you are reading this article you most likely are finding yourself in a related situation.
Luckily, over the years we, psychologists, have come to understand the interplay between our minds and stressful situations. Therefore, we have some really cool tricks to reign in our minds during stressful times.
Your beliefs about stress and your relationship to stress have an enormous impact on how you deal with it.
Keep reading as we unpack the inner workings of the mind and its relationship to stress.
More importantly! We will provide you with some practical resources to help you deal with stress.
The internal causes of stress
Did you know? The key to understanding internal causes of stress is something to do with our mind and our language ability as humans.
If you want to know more about the inner workings of your mind read the following section. Otherwise, just move to the section that shows you how to deal with stress.
Your mind, language and how it causes stress
Your mind has a prominent role in your life. It has evolved to make you survive and your tribe. Therefore, in order to survive your brain is wired to keep you safe.
Think about this:
Our minds have not made a major evolutionary change for the last 35 000 years!
One of the ways it keeps you safe is through our super learning ability. We all have a super learning ability that constantly creates relationships and associations between things.
This particular way we integrate information is unique to human beings, and not found in any other animals.
Our minds are super connection builders which automatically relates everything to everything. It creates these ‘relations’ automatically if like it or not. This ability to build relations and networks between things is called Relational Frame Theory.
Your mind’s ability to cause stress
The ability to automatically relate everything to everything, inherently causes us to assign value to things without being taught or told to directly to do so. (A skill crucial to our survival as a species). The ‘relational ability’ of our mind is the backbone of our language ability as humans. The mind is always ‘languaging’.
Left unnoticed and not reigned in, the ‘languaging’ ability of our mind causes unnecessary stress and suffering. Put differently, emotionally our mind is still running on software designed for a world 35 000 years ago. What this means is that in your own inner world, your mind might relate experiences and information unfairly to a stress response, without knowing it.
Think about this. Your mind is programmed to live in a world where we drew paintings like this.
Think about this. Your mind is programmed to live in a world where we drew paintings like this.
Language: The blessing and the curse.
It is very difficult to see what language really is and the power it holds to make our lives amazing and miserable at the same time! Let us demonstrate:
Imagine that you receive an email from a random person. The email states: You are an IDIOT and really, really ugly! In a sense, the email is very personal.
If you take this email personally it can raise your heart rate and upset you for a day and even longer.
But what did the email actually DO to make it happen? Your life is not in danger, and the person who emailed your did not shout this in your ear.
Think about how weird it is:
Someone typed something by pressing buttons on a keyboard which appeared on a screen and pressed “Send”. You saw alphabetic symbols of a certain sequence on a screen! These symbols raised your heart rate and can change your day.
Even for instance, if I spoke to you in person and told you ‘Your and idiot’, the same principle applies. I only made sounds through my vocal cords, understandable in your language. If I said it in an unknown language with a neutral tone, it won’t even offend you!
The key is that our mind’s ability to put things in networks and relationships can be very useful and VERY un-useful. While you are reading this it helps you understand, but when you react to symbols that cause un-useful stress it causes suffering.
How does the mind create stress?
Why is this important? Here is an example. Let us look at the relation of similarity (“same as”) from one person’s specific history; someone writing an examination:
For an individual stressing about their final exam, the following relation of similarity might apply:
The above relation learned from the person’s experiences makes it very hard to not stress about the final exam whilst studying for it or writing it.
There are many other relations that automatically happen such as
- One thing comes before or after another
- Something is bigger or smaller
- Something is hotter or colder
- This thing is over here, that thing is over there
The secret to managing you mind for stress
Now this is the secret! We cannot unlearn these connections our minds make. There is no delete button for the relations of the mind.
In other words, the answer to your stress is not to ‘delete’ the stress but to build more fruitful connections around it.
Keep reading as we discuss practical tools and methods proven to help deal with stress. You will learn to tackle this relational machine, the mind, by building more capacity instead of trying to delete it. Trying to delete your stress will just increase it.
The primary focus of this article is to incorporate what we know about the mind in such a way that you can deal with stress and manage it effectively.
How to deal with stress
This is what you have been waiting for. Thank you for sticking with us. Here are the practical strategies for you to deal with stress.
Stress impacts you on different levels. The different levels include your emotions, your thoughts, your focus, your self-perception, your motivation, your action, your body, and your social environment.
Luckily for you the way you can deal with stress at each of these levels by learning to be more AOA:
Manage your stress by being Aware, Open & Active
Mentioned previously, we don’t have a delete button for our stress. Stress is any demand or perceived threat placed on you by your inner world or environment. Your mind has built millions of relationships to your stressors already. Instinctually, we want to delete our stress or get rid of it. However, this just seems to increase it. It’s like tying a knot.
Trying to get rid of our stress, just adds more tension on the network and tightens the knowledge.
HERE IS THE PARADOX:
Having an aware open and active (AOA) attitude helps you untie the knot instead of blindly tightening it. To untie a knot, you need to move towards it and not pull away from it.
Put in another way. The secret to dealing with stress is not to put your energy into controlling or preventing it. Rather, expand your capacity to deal with it!
Ironically the word ‘deal’ means A division, a portion, a share. Stress has a way of claiming the largest share of your experience.
So to ‘deal’ with stress is by letting other life giving activities have the larger share in your experience.
Here are the evidence-based activities to help you deal with stress.
Using awareness to deal with stress.
Become more present: The gift in stressful times
Five Senses Awareness Activity
- Touch: If you are sitting, notice that it is warmer where your body is in contact with the chair. Give yourself a few seconds and just notice the warmer contact areas where your body is touching the chair and just be with the sensation.
- Hear: Take the time in this moment and just notice the sounds you can hear. See if you can receive the sounds without trying to filter it.
- Sight: You can also consider what you see in a more mindful manner by just noticing the colours of the objects in front of you or the colours of the clothes people are wearing
- Smell: What about becoming aware of the aromas that you can pick up through your nose? Take a moment and notice it.
- Taste: It may not be feasible right now to notice, but another wonderful sense is our taste. You seldom enjoy and notice the plethora of different tastes available in every meal you have.
The Five Senses Awareness exercise helps you broaden your awareness when stressed.
Mindfulness as an awareness strategy for stress management.
Empirically supported benefits of mindfulness are:
- Reduced rumination (getting caught up in your thoughts)
- Reduces stress
- Boosts to working memory
- Less emotional reactivity
- More cognitive flexibility
- Relationship satisfaction
Being Open as a stress management strategy
Unhook from your thoughts
A recent study has revealed that on average we think about 6000 thoughts per day! This means that if you are awake for 16 hours, you have a new thought roughly every 9,6 seconds.
The content of these thoughts changes. However, if you are anxious, most of your thoughts are saturated with content related to your anxiety.
Negative thoughts are not necessarily the problem. It is when they unfairly dictate your present. Sometimes negative thoughts are very useful, like doing your budget or solving a difficult problem.
When negative thoughts spill over into your everyday life and dictate your actions it becomes unhelpful.
So, how do you deal with negative thoughts?
Spoiler alert: THE ANSWER IS NOT WHAT YOU MAY THINK!
How do you deal with negative thoughts?
Accepting your thoughts as a stress management technique
Thoughts on a computer screen
- Think of a thought, memory or situation that really hooks you.
- Now this thought is being placed on a computer screen.
- Experiment with it. E.g. Change the font, color, and format.
- Animate the words.
- Think of a nice GIF that will help make it weird, funny, or describe it.
- Add in a karaoke bouncing ball to the thoughts.
- See how you feel.
Adapted from ACT Made Simple (The New Harbinger Made Simple Series) (p. 134). New Harbinger Publications. Kindle Edition.
Repeat the thought out loud to manage your stress.
- Think of something that is stressing you out.
- Write this word down on a piece of paper.
- Grab a stopwatch or a timer.
- Now repeat the word out loud for 2 minutes.
- While you are doing this
- Notice what it sounds like.
- Notice the muscle movements of your mouth.
- Say the word very fast, and then very slow. Even try to say it in a funny accent.
- Notice how different it feels saying it out loud.
Here is an example. Let’s say you are very anxious about the presentation you have to do. Just thinking about presenting makes you feel very rigid, nervous and closed off. It makes you edgy and even procrastinate.
Now, let’s take the word ‘Presentation’ and repeat it out loud for 2 minutes. While you are doing this notice what the sounds of the word sounds like when you say it fast and slow. Say it in a funny accent.
This helps you change your relationship with the word ‘presentation’. This provides you with more space around, so you can be more adaptable in your approach towards the presentation.
Thank your mind for the stress
Your mind is just trying to do its job, so don’t try to fight it. Acknowledge it for what it is trying to do and get back to what is important. Here is a step by step process you can follow.
- Notice that a thought is happening.
- Notice the format the thought is arising (memory, image, memory or a word).
- Say, ‘I am noticing…’, or ‘I am having a thought….’
- Accept the thought and realise it is just your mind doing its job.
- Thank and acknowledge your mind for the work it is trying to do.
- Now, you decide if you want to be entangled in it for now.
- Ask if it is helpful in my current situation.
- Once again thank your mind for doing its job.
Give your mind a name to manage stress
This is another cool trick to practice not getting hooked by your mind. Give your mind a name, that is not your own. It can even be a name like Mr Mind. Remember, it is just trying to do its job, so treat it respectfully.
Some more practical exercises to help with stress
Having your Emotions and not Avoiding them when stressed!
Do this practical exercise:
- Stretch out your right hand in front of you as far as you can from your eyes and raise your index finger so you can see the back of your nail. Take a long look at your raised index finger and be curious about what you see. Study the skin on your finger and the colour of your nail.
- Now keep your finger in the same position, but focus on any object that you can see beyond your finger that is also in your field of vision. You might still see a blurry version of your finger or even two fingers, but it is easy to focus on other objects if you choose to. The finger is still there, but you choose to attend to something else.
- What if I told you to keep your finger in front of you but to try to avoid seeing your finger? Without closing your eyes, what happens to the reality of having your finger in your field of vision but trying not to see it? Does it make the finger more of an issue?
- Paradoxically, if you accept having your finger in your field of vision, you can relax your eyes and see other objects too, although your finger might obstruct some part of what you see.
Acceptance as an alternative to manage stress
A practical activity to illustrate the difference between avoidance and acceptance
- Do this exercise, but only if you are comfortable in trying it.
- Get a stopwatch and see how long you can keep your breath.
- Take a deep breath in and start the stopwatch, but immediately turn the face of the stopwatch so that you cannot see the time. When you can’t keep your breath anymore take your next breath and write the time down.
- Repeat the exercise, but this time notice and stay curious about all that you feel whilst doing the exercise.
- Be willing to feel the discomfort and when you feel you have to take the breath, do so, and note the time.
- You might notice the difference in quality whilst comparing the two and might even see in the time difference
The last two sections provided you with some proven strategies to deal with the inner causes of stress. We highlighted that being more Aware and Open changes your relationship to your inner world. This helps you are not dictated by your stressful thoughts and memories.
The next section provides some practical actions to help tackle some of your environmental causes of stress. Here we elaborate on the third letter of our acronym AOA: being active.
Actions as a way to deal with stress. (Being Active)
Get clear on your WHY!
What can I DO now to move me closer to what I care about?
Be proactive by anticipating obstacles of the mind.
The mind is very good at talking us out of any uncomfortable situations, even if they are important for us to do. It will be very useful to write the excuses your mind might give you NOT to act on what is important to you.
Writing your thoughts down might help you recognise habitual thoughts and get cleverer in dealing with them when they appear in your mind.
Now plan and be proactive around the excuses your mind might provide you. Write some rules you need to follow for the times the mind seems to have the control.
Commit with your “feet” in small steps
Change your way of talking from BUT to AND.
Here are a few examples:
I want to study hard BUT I am stressed vs I want to study hard AND I am stressed.
I want to go to the party BUT I am very shy vs I want to go to the party AND I am very shy.
When we change the sentence from BUT to AND it seems that we can have some of our excuses and get moving!
Practical writing exercise to deal with stress
- Write 3 things important to you.
- Write typical thoughts and accompanying emotions that might keep you from doing each of those important things.
- Write 3 things that are more probable for you to ACT on in the next two days despite you having stressful feelings
- DO STEP 3!
- Write what happened within you when you followed through on your actions.
There are some practical strategies you can do to expand your repertoire in dealing with stress. Especially when it is environmental factors mentioned above that can help you. These strategies include:
- Become better at time management
- Pomodoro technique
- Focus on high probability activities when stressed
- Meditate for stress relief
- Exercise as a stress management technique
- Stick to a healthy diet to manage your stress
Become better at time management to deal with stress
- Raising self awareness about how you use your time and plan
- Setting goals
- Planning tasks
- Prioritising tasks
- Making to-do lists and grouping tasks
- Monitoring your time management and having feedback loops.
The Eisenhower Matrix to help with stress management
The Pomodoro technique
Focus on high probability activities when stressed
Converting tasks to high probability steps for stress management.
- Think about something overwhelming that needs to get done.
- Take some time and do some freewriting. Writing down all the small little steps that need to happen.
- Give each step a rating out of 10 on whether you will achieve it in the next hour.
- If it is not an 8 / 10, think about how you can make it an 8 / 10.
- Now, take the step that has the highest probability to be completed and start with that.
Here is an example of how you can use this technique:
When you have an important presentation to do, it can feel overwhelming. You really want to impress, but don’t know where to get started. This causes you to stress. Use this energy to your advantage by writing down some ideas and what you need to do.
Let’s say that one of the tasks is to find a creative way of engaging the audience. You then complete the above steps, and realise you rated it a 5 / 10 on probability.
Now ask yourself, how can I move the 5/10 to an 8/10. An 8/10 probability activity in this situation might be to google ‘Creative Icebreakers’. You also have a 10/10 probability to go to Unsplash and find a gripping image.
Align your time management with your values and then the actions you commit to in order to achieve them. It is very important to write your goals.
Meditating for stress relief
Did you know? Mediation has been shown to:
- Remove accumulated stresses.
- Increase energy.
- Reduces stress and anxiety.
- Pain reduction (both physical and psychological).
- Improved memory.
- Reduced blood pressure.
- Reduce lactate.
- Reduce cortisol levels,
- Better oxygen utilization, and carbon dioxide elimination.
- Increased melatonin and blood flow to the brain.
- Increases of efficiency in the brain’s executive attentional network.
- Increase of grey matter in the brain.
- Reduces cholesterol.
- Can even help with smoking.
Adapted from Sharma, H. (2015)
Seeking out social support for stress reduction
Seeking out social support is a great way to manage your stress. Having supportive people around you, helps regulate you and have a more adaptive response. Social connection is also very good for your heart, as it limits the impact of the stress response.
Kelly McGonigal elaborates on how social support reduces stress is her very popular Ted Talk.
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