Stress is not what happens to us - it is a tension caused by an interaction between us and the outside world. It is due to a mismatch between the demands placed upon us and how well we feel able to respond to them, in which either the demands are too great or our capacity to respond to them is inadequate. How things affect us depends on our attitude to them. Our capacity to respond depends on our resources and our resourcefulness.
Often we intuitively know what stress feels like for us, but stress symptoms differ for different people and different kinds of stress. Stress affects our thinking, emotions, physical body and behaviour. Methods have been developed to assess how much stress we have experienced or are experiencing.
Stress is not what happens to you, it is what happens with you when you attempt to meet a challenge. Three stages are involved in assessing the challenge: we first become aware of a potential threat (it announces itself), then we weigh it up, then we weigh up our options. How a challenging event or situation affects you, depends upon an array of things:
- About you: your background, personality, experience, beliefs, values and self-belief.
- About the situation: its nature, proximity, magnitude and duration.
- About your resources: the material, personal, social and spiritual help available.
Nobody knows the trouble you've seen, because your own experience of stress is unique. Contexts in which stress develops can be daily hassles (“bothers”) or major life-changing events (“earthquakes”). Stress may be sudden and intense (“lightning bolts”) or long and drawn out but less intense (“desert crossings”). Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome describes three stages of stress: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. We shall call them "modes". Stress involves mental, physical and behavioural changes.
Stress can enhance or harm. The bodily effects of stress are regulated by our hormones and by the nervous system. The bodily and mental responses to stress have biological and evolutionary purpose, but ill health can be generated by long term stress. Our beliefs, attitudes and behaviour can make the difference between experiencing the negative effects of stress, and enjoying meaningful, fulfilling lives.
You cannot change your stress without first knowing your stress. Knowing your stress means knowing:
- What triggers it.
- What you feel when you are stressed.
- What kinds of thoughts you have when you are stressed.
- What things you tend to do when you are stressed.
- This knowledge will allow you to change.
There are many ways of coping with a given situation. Our habitual ways of coping can be counter-productive and detrimental in the long term. You can learn to recognise your habitual coping strategies and change them into better ones. To do this you must change your world within.
Behaviour experiments can help you to learn the benefits of new ways of coping. First observe your habitual ways of coping. A coping diary can help you to do this. Question yourself about the appropriateness of your responses. When you recognise the cues that make you stressed, stop your automatic responses, take your time and choose better ones. Review results, adapt and improve.
Problems are only as big as our attitude to them allows them to be. Beware of the thought goblins in your mind! You can change the way you think. Be prepared to question your beliefs. Imbue your mind with thought allies.
It is easier to have a healthy mind if your body is healthy. First get the basics right:
- Healthy diet and good hydration.
- Manage alcohol intake, cut out smoking and other "recreational" drugs.
- Good rest and sleep.
- Appropriated activity and exercise.
You can prepare yourself for stressful situations by:
- Practising basic positive responses in a safe environment.
- Learning some positive self-instructions.
- Stopping your automatic responses.
- Taking your time and choosing an appropriate response.
- Being aware, calm, flexible, brave and fair.
- Slow abdominal breathing.
- Imagination and visualisation.
- Voluntary muscle relaxation.
You can apply the principles of learning to change your thought patterns. Also, get used to asking yourself why you thought a certain thought (meta-thinking). You can swap thought goblins for thought allies by knowing yourself, questioning yourself, stopping your habitual responses, taking control, reviewing results. Behaviour experiments will set you on your way. See what happens if you approach things differently for a while.
A better ability to solve problems will reduce your stress. Problem-solving is a skill you can learn. Problem-solving requires method. A ten-step procedure for rational roblem solving is given. But intuitions and strong gut feelings can also provide valuable answers or insights.
Chronic stress deadens emotional experience. Emotions have useful functions and enrich our lives.It is not healthy to suppress emotions nor to allow them unbridled free rein. Allow yourself to experience emotions without interpreting them or attaching value judgements to them. It is normal for intense emotions to pass quite quickly. They do so if you do not dwell on them. All head or all heart are not healthy, they need to be balanced.
Good communication helps avoid tension and conflict between people. Good communication involves a number of skills which can be learned, and perfected through practice. A strong and balanced ego is an asset in good communication.
Help and support from other people is a major buffer against stress. It may be emotional, practical or material. Help and support are available to everyone. It can come from family, friends, support groups, charities, or government organisations. The Internet is a great resource.
Coping has the fundamental goals of reducing, simplifying, and/or sharing the challenges you face. Basic options: Alter, Avoid, Accept, Adapt. Challenges may be practical and/or emotional, from without and/or from within. Ask yourself:
- Does the challenge require solutions to practical problems or emotional ones?
- Do I have better leverage acting on the outside situation, or acting within myself?
Inner strength is a quiet confidence that you possess the capacities and resources to be able to deal effectively with the situations life confronts you with. Inner strength comes from mastery and belief. You can develop it by:
- Keeping good health.
- Positive thoughts and optimism.
- Being inspired by positive people.
- Personal development.
- Recognising your affinities.
- Keeping wise words in mind.
- Keeping an inner sanctum.
- Believing in something bigger.
Self-awareness empowers all your other efforts to live without stress. Some questions to ask: What is the nature of my pain and what is my deepest need? What am I like? What are my affinities? What are my strengths? What are my limitations? What are my valued principles of living?
My book ends with a chapter of "reminders, golden rules and tips". Obviously I recommend my book. It is called Stress: Survive and Thrive. You can buy the Kindle version from Amazon. The paperback version will be available shortly.