Managing stress is critical to all elements of well-being. For more on why and how, see my previous article. The short version is that your body can’t tell the difference between the stress of illness, work, housework etc, and that of an actual threat to your survival. Every stressor, large or small, is going in to the same bucket. Living in a state of continual stress is not ‘normal’, though it is frustratingly common.
What might healthy stress management habits look like?
The ideal is to find healthy ways to relieve stress, and build your capacity to handle it better. Some of these ideas can reduce the overall load of stress in your life (taking some stuff out of the bucket). Others can begin to grow your resilience (get a bigger bucket). This is not a ‘should’ list. More like a menu to inspire thinking on a first step that feels right for you – and starting with a single small one is perfect.
Take some stuff out of the bucket:
Stage 1 - Awareness – understanding where you are is always the first step.
What sources of stress can you identify? Perhaps jot down some notes if you feel ready to move forward.
Consider your list – what can you let go of? What can you adjust? Where is thinking time required? What is outside your control that you might be able to re-frame, or perhaps find a way to accept?
Observe your inner critic – most of us would be horrified if we heard anyone speak to someone aloud the way we speak to ourselves. Try to notice your inner dialogue.
Stage 2 – Action
Ditch things you don’t need – e.g. stressful TV shows, the news, books, social media content or other input that makes you feel tense or negative.
Say no – finding your boundaries is protective. You can’t do everything. There are polite ways to decline. If this feels hard, how could you use a low stakes situation to practise?
Say yes – to help and support. Ask for it if you need something that is not being offered. Understanding where your stress comes from can illuminate where help might be most useful.
Be kind – to yourself. Introduce some gentleness to your self-talk, and your self-care. You deserve it.
Upgrade your bucket:
Stage 1 – Awareness
What do you already do that might fall under the banner of stress management? What have you tried in the past that felt good? What helps you to feel calm and/or restored?
Stage 2 – Action
Sleep – lack of sleep heightens the stress response. Conversely, working on sleep can calm everything down significantly, making every stressor that bit less stressful.
Move – exercise can be a huge reliever of stress, when it’s at the right level for you. Mindful movement is also powerful (e.g. yoga, tai chi, qi gong). YouTube is your oyster for guided practices from 5-10 minutes upwards [ii].
Nature – contact with nature calms the nervous system. If you can’t get out in it as much as you’d like, bring it in. Plants, a window with a view, sounds and scents of nature can all work some of that magic – even if you are stuck indoors.
Gratitude – sometimes this feels like a tough one. Those are the days when finding little things to be grateful for can be the most valuable. Something as small as a warm cuppa, or a smile from a stranger.
Say yes – to things that you find restorative. What is on your list?
Connect – to those that make you feel good, pets or people.
Read / listen for pleasure - books, audiobooks, podcasts, music and more. While you do something else if time is tight.
Smile – even a fake smile can shift your body chemistry – give it a go!
Laugh – comedy, good friends, talk to kids…whatever tickles you.
Play – we all need it, with kids or without. What absorbs you for its own sake?
I invite you to take it slowly. Choose one place to begin that feels good, and approach the change with an open mind. Try not to let stress management stress you out! Think of your chosen starting point as an experiment. No pass or fail, just learning. For more on how to approach healthy change with gentleness see this article. Whatever the outcome, you are taking your first step on the road to feeling better.
Further information / References:
My aim with these articles is to summarise key points from a variety of sources into a quick and accessible form. If you would like to know more, below are a selection of resources from my teachers, and other reputable sources. They include more detail on the above topics, and in many cases links to the scientific studies on which the information is based. I also include links to some of my own articles where relevant.