Reduce your worries using circles of control
Everything you need to know about stress and its management
Before I explain what stress is, I want to start by staying that our stress response is a normal, biological reaction that occurs when we encounter situations that feel threatening to us.
That said, we should be concerned about the detrimental impact stress can have on us mentally, physically and emotionally.
Whilst feeling under pressure can be motivating, it can help us to focus and get something done, according to the International Stress Management Association no amount of stress is good for us.
Excessive pressure or demands can quickly become overwhelming and, experiencing such situations for too long will have a negative impact on our mental and physical health.
What do we mean when we say stress?
Just like the word mind, there is no single definition of stress.
Generally when we talk about feeling stressed we mean circumstances that put pressure on us or make demands of us and/or our reaction to being under pressure.
Everyone responds to challenging situations differently. You might say each of us has a personal stress threshold, the point at which things start to feel too much for us.
This is why what might cause an issue for one person may not bother another.
I liken it to carrying a backpack.
If it feels light then you can walk for a long while but as it gets heavier you are going to need to rest every now and then and, if it’s really too heavy for you then you will struggle to move forward at all.
If we can learn what it feels like when the backpack is getting too heavy (recognise our personal symptoms of stress), we can manage the load and take responsibility for our mental and physical health.
LEARN: Simple ways to lighten the load
What happens inside the body?
It's helpful to view the stress response - also called the fight or flight response - as the body's alarm system.
Made for survival, when we feel we threatened (psychologically or physically) an inner alarm is triggered that rings throughout our body. And it continues to ring until we believe we are safe.
Whether it’s positively motivating us to meet a deadline, encouraging us to rise to a challenge or exciting us to try something new, we will feel it in both body and mind as it readies us for difficulty.
No matter the trigger, our system floods with hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – in preparation to fight or flight.
These hormones cause our heart rate to increase, blood pressure to rise and our breath to quicken delivering extra energy to our muscles.
At the same time, other functions which are not needed but using energy we need to mobilise, like digestion, are switched off.
That’s why you might feel butterflies in your stomach or lose your appetite, when you are feeling under pressure, worried or nervous.
Astonishingly too the thinking, problem-solving part of the brain is turned off. Who needs to think when there's a tiger around? You just need to run.
Once the threat or difficulty has passed, the stress response is switched off and the physical effects fade.
But if you are constantly stressed, the body stays pumped up in a state of high alert and over time you will develop stress-related symptoms and illnesses.
How does stress affect us?
Stress is known to impact how we think, feel (physically and emotionally) and behave.
How you may feel mentally
Struggling to make decisions
Unable to remember things
How you may feel emotionally
How you may feel physically
Muscle pain, tension
How you may behave
Avoiding situations that are troubling you
Eating too much/little
Snapping at others
What can you do to manage stress?
I use this 3-step framework in my coaching sessions to help people regain a sense of safety and control.
The initial focus is to dial down the stress response so that you can think more clearly about the situation or issue. Then we look at the issue that is causing stress and finally we look at what actions you might take to cope better.
1. manage the body
If you are not running for your life (or someone else's) you do not need stress hormones running around inside, pumping you up, switching off the thinking part of the brain and jeopardising your health.
So, the first step is to help the body turn down the stress response. Doing so will help you feel calmer and bring the logical, thinking brain back online.
Simple exercises, sometimes called grounding practices, are used to do this.
They usually focus on slowing your breathing, especially the out-breath, which signals to the body that we are safe and work by helping you to focus away from the triggering challenge.
TRY: Benson's relaxation technique
2. manage your stressor
Now that you feel a little calmer, let's take a helicopter view of the stressor and think about what actions you might take to remove, reduce or make peace with it.
USE: The circles of control method
3. manage yourself
Next have a look at how stress is manifesting and what you are doing to cope. Are your actions helping or hindering you?
Things to consider are what you're saying to yourself and others about what's going on, what you are doing to relax, how you are sleeping, as well as what you're eating or drinking.
What if it's work-related stress?
Stress, anxiety and depression caused by issues at work are the number one cause of workplace sickness absence in the UK.
The UK Health and Safety Executive recognises six factors that can cause work-related stress if they are not adequately managed.
Factors known to cause work-related stress
Managers have a duty of care to protect their colleagues. But, they can only take action when they know that someone is struggling, the onus therefore is on employees to speak up.
Whilst it is hard to admit that you are not coping well and can not do your job (I know, I have been there). It is in both parties interest that you are fit for work.
READ: Work-related stress and what you can do
How stress management coaching helps
One of the things that happens when we are stressed is we become myopic in our view of things.
We are effectively so lost in the forest of what we have to deal with that the trees blend into one and things can feel pretty dark.
Whilst this is natural (we are designed to deal with threat through single focus), it is unfortunate as we cannot take the necessary helicopter view to find our way out.
Working with a stress management coach gives you the time and space to explore what is going on for you and what solutions there might be to resolving or reducing the issue.
Are you struggling to manage stress?
If stress is having a negative effect on your ability to work and/or your personal life, it's time to take action.
Worklife coaching can help you regain clarity and a sense of control.