While research continues to highlight the benefits of stress (for more on this read Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D’s excellent ‘The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It’), the position remains that some forms of stress e.g. long-term chronic stress can be destructive to our physical and emotional well-being.
The Problem With Standard Solutions to Stress
Although there are 101 strategies and techniques for addressing stress issues, people often perceive the solutions as being ineffective, drawn out and just another list of tasks to add to their already stressful to-do list and busy day.
An example of this was provided to me by a client who told me that her attempts last year to address her stress issues involved 2 CBT meetings a week, travelling 50 miles each trip. Her demanding role as CMO at a fast growing company meant that this “solution” left her feeling exhausted and more stressed.
Feeling Good About Dealing with Stress
The implications of the above means that those working in the field of stress management must provide solutions that are easy to integrate into busy lives and result in the recipients feeling better, not worse.
The easier to implement and more enjoyable the solution the more likely it is to be adopted and result in a successful outcome. The following 3 “techniques” that I use and recommend to friends, family and clients fall into this category.
Develop and Maintain Meaningful Friendships
Our brains rightly perceive our social networks as being essential to survival. Extended periods of loneliness and isolation consequently trigger our stress response. An extensive Harvard study concluded that a lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death by a staggering 50 percent.
Making and enjoying real and meaningful social connections — not a shallow social media interaction — reduces stress and anxiety as a result of the release of the powerful “feel good” hormone, oxytocin. It is important to note that what matters is the quality of the relationships not the quantity.
In order to ensure we survive, our brains are hardwired to notice and focus on the negative. This is one of the primary reasons that media coverage of the news focuses on the negative. It goes without saying that operating with a negative focus goes hand in hand with being negatively stressed.
Research has proven that regularly acknowledging and feeling grateful for the people, experiences and things in our lives that we value, reduces stress and improves our overall well-being.
There are a number of effective ways to practice gratitude including:
-Writing in a journal several times a week, 3 things you are grateful for.
-Sharing 3 things you are grateful for with a loved one or close friend.
-Letting people know that you value and appreciate them.
While the research is clear as to the benefits of a gratitude practice, there are differing conclusions as to the appropriate frequency. Experiment with which practice and frequency works best for you, making sure you are connecting with and fully expressing your feelings of gratitude and not simply ticking 3 things off as though they were items on your to-do list.
Embrace Rather than Fear Stress
In The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, Kelly McGonigal identifies the many proven benefits of stress. Stress can improve your ability to perform and make you happier, smarter and stronger. McGonigal lays out a compelling argument based on extensive research, that choosing to embrace stress can result in you feeling more empowered.
Simply by changing our mindset and perception toward the stress we may experience, can have significant benefits for our health and happiness (e.g. having a positive outlook on ageing can add an average of eight years to our lives). In short, how we choose to perceive something can transform its effect on us from negative to positive.
While there are specific mindset interventions for changing our perspective, it is important to recognize that we change our opinions, beliefs and perspectives on a frequent basis. An obvious example occurs when we feel angry or disappointed at someone who has kept us waiting for a long time. We might initially think they are inconsiderate or inefficient. If, however, we subsequently discover they have an extremely good reason for being late, that belief is instantly dispelled. We can and must do the same when it comes to our perception of stress.
Image credit: CC by Sander van der Wel