Stress as we know it, is inevitable in our day-to-day lives. We also know that if managed appropriately, stress can, in fact, be a driving force to strive further. One of the most significant aspects of poor stress management is that it can lead to people often resorting to the use of alcohol, smoking and recreational drugs for relief. However, as we know the relief or 'good feeling' that such substance use creates is temporary and may lead to poorer mental health and coping skills.
So how do we get into the headspace to use stress as a catalyst rather than a bump on the road? There are several therapies and tools that can be utilised to achieve this. These include the 4As of stress management , the ABC approach and cognitive behaviour therapy ( CBT )
The 4As of stress management :
Avoid – not something we can always do but it is worth considering e.g. saying NO to a request that might overwhelm your already hectic schedule
Alter - changing the way we communicate with one another so that our opinions are heard
Adapt – changing our expectations, practice gratitude, try look at the bigger picture
Accept - that there are unavoidable stressors, and we must try look at the positive side
Albert Ellis, a psychologist, came up with a simple algebra for stress management:
A+B = C
Activating event – friend turns down your invite to your house
Belief – friend does not like me
Consequence – feeling miserable and unwanted
We have no control over A or C, hence if we can try to change 'B' and by doing so the net effect of our experience ('C') can be more positive. It certainly is not easy to change our belief, but a thought diary can be a good reflective tool. Over time, with practice we may be able to retrain our brain from its default 'negative' mode.
CBT is not only limited to the cognitive approach i.e re training our thought processes as illustrated as above but also the behaviour component which includes autogenic training, grounding, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation etc. There are many websites that provide relaxation strategies which describe how these techniques can be carried out.
Physical activity and sleep are also important components to stress management. Gentle stretching exercises such as yoga can help us practice some breathing exercises and calm our mind down. However, some individuals may find a cardio burst more effective such as going out for a jog or doing a HIIT session. Physical exercise has also been shown to reduce anxiety and depression levels. Sleep is significant as it is the time when our brains undergo several restorative and reparative processes. Parts of our brain that control our emotions benefit greatly during our sleep. Therefore, when we lack good 7-9 hours of sleep, we are in a state of heightened anxiety and are more likely to overreact to stressors.
While some people resort to the consumption of vitamins, the evidence from research is inconclusive. Put simply, the basic teachings of lifestyle medicine suggest that vitamins are best consumed through diet and therefore, a diet that is made up of whole food, or one that is predominantly plant-based would be ideal.
It is no wonder many of us struggle with stress management as it not only requires hard work such as CBT techniques and resilience, but we also need to pay attention to other aspects of our lives to ensure that the stress we experience has a positive or enabling impact on our lives instead of being debilitating. But with the right mindset, guidance and support, this is possible.