What is stress?
Stress is your body’s natural way of responding to an event it perceives as challenging or demanding, such as learning for an exam, completing a work project on time, or going through a major life change. When stress lasts for a short time, it can be a great motivator and, once the event is over, you experience a feeling of accomplishment. This is called “eustress”, or “good stress”.
However, when stress never seems to go away, and it follows you every day of your life, it becomes a harmful factor that prevents you from enjoying your life, and that can lead to a number of dangerous health conditions. This is what we call “bad stress”, and should be limited as much as possible.
To a certain degree, stress is inevitable. There will always be events in your life that disturb your emotional balance and make you feel tense and on edge. The goal of stress management is to help you understand what triggers bad stress and control your response to it so that it doesn’t affect your health and general mindset.
However, coping with stress isn’t the same for everyone. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to chronic stress because we all experience stress in different ways. To regain balance and handle challenging events without feeling trapped and overwhelmed, you should first understand what causes stress, what relationship you have with it, and then try out several self-help strategies.
What are your stress triggers?
According to a 2020 survey, these are the most common stress factors experienced by people in the UK:
- Work-related stress (79%)
- Financial stress (60%)
- Family stress (48%)
- Health stress (45%)
- Relationship stress (35%)
In general, people acknowledge the main cause of stress in their lives, so you may be thinking something like My job is making me feel stressed or I’m stressed out by my credit card debt.
But, if you want to manage stress, you have to self-reflect and go a little deeper than that:
- Is your stress temporary, such as a busy month at work, or is it something that has become a part of your life at this point?
- Is the stress caused by something you can change, or is the stressor completely out of your control?
When stress has been a part of your life for a long time, identifying the main stress factor may not be that simple. For example, a stressful job can affect the way you interact with people around you, leading to relationship stress, but until you address the root of the problem, you’ll only experience temporary relief. Or, you may feel that things have always been like this. Keeping a stress journal is a great way of logging the things that make you feel distressed, how they affect you, how you respond to them, and how you feel afterwards.
An active, balanced lifestyle can boost your resilience.
If you’re going through a divorce or have trouble finding a job, working out won’t make the problem go away. However, it will clear your head and help you look at it from a new perspective. Studies have shown that working out regularly makes your body release more endorphins, which are key to managing stress. Exercise also improves your mood and helps you counteract the side effects of stress (anxiety, irritability, depression, etc.). You don’t necessarily have to go to the gym to experience the stress-busting effects of exercise. You can get the same results by going for a walk in nature, walking your dog, or playing with your kids.
Healthy nutrition goes hand in hand with exercise. Having a balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, has been proven to strengthen your body’s natural defences and make it more resilient to external factors – stress included.
It’s also important to control unhealthy coping mechanisms that only provide temporary relief.
When you’re stressed, you may be tempted to do things that give you instant satisfaction: eat comfort food, have a drink, smoke a cigarette, or buy yourself something nice. But these habits can do more harm than good in the long run because they don’t solve the source of the problem. They’re just a form of escapism and can snowball into other serious problems such as binge-eating, alcohol abuse, or addiction.
The power of communication
If you tend to bottle up your concerns instead of talking about them, you may experience stress more intensely and for a longer time. Many people are afraid that talking about the things that bother them will be perceived as confrontational and get them in trouble, but you can be assertive and communicative without coming across as rude.
On the same note, you should count on your personal support system when life becomes stressful. Connecting with others may not always come easy – especially if you’re a private person who doesn’t like talking about their problems – but overcoming this barrier can help you boost your resilience. If you asked for fewer tasks at work and were turned down, your friends and family won’t be able to help you with that. But simply by listening, they will help you better cope with stress.
Find time for self-care
When things get chaotic, our needs tend to fall on the last place. If we’re working on a major project at work, moving house, or going through a rough patch with our romantic partner, and we focus our attention only on that negative thing, it’s a matter of time until we begin feeling overwhelmed.
Even when things don’t go as planned and life throws unexpected challenges at you, it’s important to unwind and find time for yourself. In the UK, we have some of the longest working weeks in Europe, and when we get home, we’re often too rushed to deal with all our other responsibilities instead of taking some time off for ourselves. However, spending as little as one hour every day to do the things you love can ease that “fight or flight” sensation and help your body enter relaxation mode.