If you stood in front of 100 professionals in a large conference room and asked for a person that had never experienced stress to raise their hand, do you think anyone would? We have asked that question several times, and so far, it has never happened.
Stress is something we all experience from time to time. If we aim towards being stress-free all of the time, we are setting ourselves up for failure, as stress is an unavoidable human response. However, when we start to accumulate stressors over time and begin to experience psychological distress, we are at risk of developing psychological and physiological health issues.
In the early 90s, the International Labour Organization identified stress as one of the most serious health issues in the 20th century and it has been named the worldwide epidemic of the 21st century by the World Health Organization.
The International Labour Organization considers stress to be the harmful physical and psychological response caused by an imbalance between the perceived demands and the perceived resources and abilities of individuals to meet those demands.
So, how can we prevent developing a more serious stress problem and avoid accumulating stressors over time?
What we can and/or should do is generally related to how stressed we are already. The general pointers – if you are not yet feeling overwhelmed but have a demanding job, relationship or living conditions – would be to first look at the following aspects of your life:
Preparation: If you prepare things ahead of time, you have a much larger range of freedom when it comes to carrying out whatever it is that you are doing. If you prepare the clothes the day before an important meeting, or if you program fun activities ahead of the weekend, you decrease the risk of discovering the day of the meeting that what you had planned to wear needs cleaning, or that the restaurant that you had planned to visit is full, etc.
Routines: If you have structure in your life, you decrease the unnecessary stress that might come from having to make decisions about routine tasks on a daily basis. If you have the same breakfast every morning on weekdays or if you make a dinner plan ahead of the week, you don’t need to improvise or spend time thinking about what you feel like eating every meal.
Sports: According to research, physical activity is a huge stress reliever, and it also decreases depressive and anxious feelings. Our bodies produce more endorphins, serotonin and dopamine when we are physically active and they decrease the production of cortisol (the stress hormone). This physical activity should also be planned, as one of the first things that we deprioritise when we feel stressed and feel that we need to work over is physical exercise. Moreover, it has been found that people who have hobbies and a rich life outside of work, are generally more efficient than others who only focus on their work. One explanation of this might be that they get to decompress and think about other things when they are going through busy times at work, which makes them feel more relaxed when they return to work the next morning.
Sleep: One of the first signs that someone is moving towards burnout or exhaustion is that they can’t sleep even when they try to. It has been found that we tend to think more irrationally when we are tired, which may cause us to experience anxious feelings, and this may in itself increase our stress levels. Therefore, it is important to create calm routines towards the end of the day to help us wind down and relax, so that we can get the hours of sleep (6-8) that our bodies need, to help us fuel our minds.
Diet: Many people report that they increase caffeine and sugar in their diets when they are stressed. They tend to look for the quick fixes that these substances provide, but forget that these quick fixes often lead to an increased feeling of exhaustion or crash in mood or energy, as they are absorbed by our bodies. Therefore, if you eat nutritious and well-balanced food, you provide your body with lasting energy and might even feel more relaxed and sleepy towards the end of the day.
Relationships: Most of us tend to withdraw from our friends when we have too much to do. This is very unfortunate, as according to recent studies, loneliness is even more harmful than lack of physical activity. Face-to-face and physical contact with others have been found to trigger several hormones that counteract the body’s stress reactions. We might actually connect with others in many ways, and these ways don’t need to steal time from the rest of our demands. You may talk to someone on the phone on your way to or from work; you could call someone on Skype if you are living in another country away from your friends or family; you could have lunch with someone outside of your office; you could go for a short walk together with someone during coffee break, etc.
Focus: Most people who are stressed tend to do several things at once. However, this only makes us become less efficient as we tend to lose focus and we don’t allow ourselves to feel ready with one thing before we start with the next. Therefore, it might be very helpful to organize our workday in a way that allows us to focus on one task at the time, and to set aside time for e-mail checking/answering and instead turn off the notifications for other times when we don’t want to be interrupted.
If we are already feeling stressed, there are more strategies that we may need to put into practice, in order to prevent further psychological or physiological effects. These are related to learning to understand what stress looks like for me, to identify my stress sources and to recognise my own early signs of stress. Watch out for our next post to know more.