March 14th, 2019
My Top Five Tips for Managing Stress Effectively
I have been working within private practice for almost a decade now and still the most common issue my clients request is how to deal with stress more effectively. Of course, not all stress is ‘bad’ stress. Most of us thrive on some stress; it can give us a sense of purpose and is motivating. However, too much stress over a long-time frame can have a more detrimental effect. It’s important to remember that stress means different things to different people; we can all ‘handle’ differing levels of stress; and what stresses one person may not affect another.
Stress can present in a number of ways and impact all areas of our lives. We can find ourselves struck with indecision; feel panic or anxiety; low in mood; and irritable with others. I often find that instead of being kind to ourselves at such times our ‘inner bully’ presents and we can start to feel bad about ourselves, our abilities, and methods of coping. Client’s tell me: “I shouldn’t be feeling this way but coping better”; “Everyone else seems to manage, why can’t I?” It’s almost as if it is unacceptable to feel stressed although this is a normal and understandable emotion for many of us! We can spend much time ruminating and worrying over what’s going on. For me, this is often intermixed with racing thoughts and a general sense of feeling overwhelmed. People can suffer with accompanying physiological sensations such as an increased heart rate; stomach upset; headaches; nervousness and sweating; and can have issues with sleeping and feeling fatigued.
So what can we do then? Well, below I suggest my five top tips; strategies that work for me and my clients:
Look after yourself
When we are feeling stressed our natural tendency is to try and do more. We hope that this will make us feel better and for some people it does in the short-term. However, this strategy often doesn’t work well for many of us. We find ourselves feeling more exhausted, overwhelmed, and struggling to think straight; tasks just seem to take longer to complete. At these times people frequently forget the importance of good self-care. Try and reduce your intake of nicotine, caffeine and alcohol which can act as stimulants. Similarly, good sleep hygiene can give your mind a rest and facilitate a peaceful night’s sleep. Try and regularly exercise; it forces you to be more present focused and will enable your difficult thoughts and feelings to lose their intensity. Clients are often surprised with the amount of resilience that can be built from simply practicing good self-care.
Get a good effort-reward balance
The effort-reward imbalance is a theoretical model which suggests that a high effort spent at work and low rewards received in return can lead to feelings of stress and impact our health and wellbeing (Siegrist, 2017). We all aim to be in jobs which we enjoy and are fulfilling to ensure a good effort-reward balance. However, this is not always possible, and we can find ourselves imbalanced which can lead to feelings of stress. It’s crucial at these times that we don’t fall into unhelpful thinking habits such as comparing ourselves to others. This only leads to more feelings of frustration. Think about your effort and rewards and identify how they are imbalanced. Consider what you can do to change things. You may need to be assertive and talk to your boss so they understand your contribution to the workplace. Rewards also don’t need to be limited to the workplace. Our personal lives need to be meaningful and fulfilling and engaging in activities outside of work that give us a sense of pleasure and achievement will be rewarding. Try and plan things to do in advance like you would with a meeting at work. This will make it more likely your personal life doesn’t get left behind.
Don’t work harder, take control, and work smarter
Instead of following our natural instinct to work harder to combat stress, try and tackle the problem causing the stress. Consider all possible solutions and anyone who may be able to help. Often when we are feeling overwhelmed, we forget what resources we have to help and that we don’t need to be alone with stressors. By identifying and picking a potential solution to try it will enable you to feel more in control and ease stress. You also may need to foster a level of acceptance that you simply can’t get all the work done. Start prioritising tasks that need to be done immediately, within a short time frame and longer time frame. Try and delegate where you can. Stress is caused when we have lots to do and not enough resources to complete the to-do list. Learning to say “No” is vital.
Talk to someone
It can be hard to open up to someone about how we are feeling. As humans we frequently compare ourselves to others and often believe we ‘should’ be doing better and that we are ‘failing’ in some sort of way. Clients have also told me they have felt embarrassed to be suffering with stress. Talking to someone about how you are feeling can be incredibly cathartic and helpful. Another perspective from someone can provide new ideas and ways to cope as well as offering much needed support. You can also speak to your GP and engage in evidenced based talking therapy which has been shown to be effective for managing stress. I always tell my clients when I start working with them that I am now an ally and we will tackle problems together.
Take one day at a time
How many of us live in the moment? Frequently we spend our time worrying about the past or thinking about the future. Research and science have shown that those who can be more present focused experience more happy and meaningful lives. Therefore, when you are experiencing stress try and live for the moment or day. Think about what you need to do for this day and try not to let your mind wander any further. When you are completing tasks try and focus your mind entirely on the task, paying attention to everything you are doing. However, I know for me complete awareness of the present isn’t always easy! Indeed, often when we try and be mindful our minds do escape elsewhere and bringing our minds back to this moment a hundred times is totally normal so persevere. Many people find more formal mindfulness meditation effective for calming a mind when stressed and continuing to practice these skills means they can be drawn on when needed at times of difficulty. Importantly, mindfulness can teach us the ability to be more accepting of our experiences and open to them without getting caught up in our judgements of them. There are many mindfulness exercises available online and via apps. My personal favourite mindfulness exercise and one that works for me can be found here: