S-t-r-e-s-s. A five-lettered word that’s as much a part of our lives as eating or sleeping. As a counsellor fielding queries on the subject on a daily basis, I see the extent to which people feel agony, pain, and growing self-doubt when things don’t seem to be going their way. While this is a common reaction to stress, what’s not common is how individuals handle it. And for that it is important to understand what stress is, and how to identify which type you are going through.
Eustress is a good stress. The kind that you feel before you leave for a holiday or before you start a presentation. The stress you feel when you are meeting your date for the first time. Eustress helps us through a situation that is new and challenging and is meant to energise us to meet the situation the best way we can.
However, sometimes when our stress prolongs for a long time, it seems like we are using all our resources to fight or flee from it. Like it did for Akshata, a 29-year-old homemaker Gujarat, who shared with me that she was happy when she got married, and slowly started to adjust to the new demands of her role and the balance her work life needed. “But it was hard and continued to get harder. I started getting headaches and severe mood swings. I didn’t know why I’d be so irritated. This went on for a year before my husband asked me to talk to a professional and seek help.”
What Akshata experienced is commonly called Distress, a kind that is damaging. When stress prolongs for a long time and your body uses all its resources to either fight it or flee from it, it’s then stress becomes your enemy, harming both your physical and emotional well-being. This is also a kind of chronic stress (as opposed to acute or short term stress, like traffic jams, an argument with your spouse, or criticism from your boss) which is a result of a situation that has not been resolved. It can further lead to hypertension, heart diseases or even ulcers. According to the American Psychological Association, 40% of adults suffer from chronic stress, becoming a major aspect to focus on and also heal from.
How to Identify Distress?
Dinesh, a 22-year-old student from Kashmir, would bite his nails excessively before a UPSC exam, and experienced a crushing sense of “I won’t pass, and I am not good enough”. But with time this became a pattern, a reaction to every challenging situation. He felt this growing sense of discomfort for more than six months, and it hindered with his daily life functioning.
So use these pointers to recognise the Red flags that change Eustress into Distress:
- When your momentary distress or discomfort stays with you for a longer duration.
- When it starts affecting your daily functioning. Your work, your family time and even ‘me time’, is spent with a sense of growing anxiety that nothing is in your control.
- When there is a constant feeling of exhaustion and irritability.
Once the red flags are recognised, it is important to develop external and internal resources to fight distress in a healthy manner.
How to Become Your Own Stress Manager
#Tip 1: Make Your Self Belief Stronger
In Akshata’s case, she was experiencing so much self-doubt that she forgot what her strengths were. She was told to remind herself to focus on her strengths – her husband’s support and her ability to take decisions quickly – and with better time management, she could again start achieving a balanced self.
During times of extreme stress, make a List of Strengths and also one’s support system, the people you can rely on for comfort. Remind yourself why you can beat stress. The situation will not change overnight, but your self-belief will strengthen your resolve to fight stress.
#Tip 2: Develop SMART GOALS
One of the Key factors in managing stress is Developing SMART Goals
- Specific (simple, sensible, significant)
- Measurable (meaningful, motivating)
- Achievable (agreed, attainable)
- Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based).
- Time-bound (time-based, time-limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive)
It’s important to have a specific goal, instead of focusing on too many at one time. Accomplishing one thing results in less stress, rather than focusing on many things together.
#Tip 3: Health is Wealth
No matter how clichéd this sounds, every word of it is true. To fight stress-releasing hormones like cortisol, it is important to take care and boost one’s health.
- Work out. Incorporating exercise into your daily routine releases endorphins, which ease anxiety.
- Eat well. Make leafy green veggies, low-fat cottage cheese and almonds part of your diet. Rich in vitamins, they build the body’s resistance and make you stress-immune.
- Roll with it: Roll your feet over a rolling pin for 5 minutes releases tension.
- Breathe it out: Practice deep breathing. It’s a quick fix, giving the body enough oxygen and slowing down the heart rate.
#Tip 4: Burst Your Balloon
Social support can act as a buffer against stress. Research states that around 57%people feel less stressed when they talk to someone supportive. Having that one confidant can help de-stress. So don’t keep inflating your worries in your head. Burst them.
#Tip 5: Opposite Action
Almost all of us, at some point or another, have yelled at a family member as a result of pressures that we have faced at work. When we are under stress, we are more likely to cause damage in other areas of our lives because we displace emotion. So one aspect of coping with stress is Emotional Regulation.
The best way to practice this is Opposite Action – doing the opposite action will help you change your emotion. If you typically start to yell when you are angry, try talking quietly and politely. If you withdraw when you are sad, make a point to visit a friend next time you feel this way.
#Tip 6: Say no to catastrophe
As individuals, we have a tendency to exaggerate even the smallest challenges we face. 34-year-old Anita, an IT professional, who I spoke with, had to take leave urgently, and even though she had earned leaves, she kept stressing about what if her boss thought that she was not adequate or trying to escape her duty. “I might lose my credibility. My career might get ruined”. This is called “catastrophizing”. When we are under stress, we tend to maximise our difficulty 10 times over. This adds more pressure and makes the situation even more critical.
So say NO. Whenever you feel this is happening, ask yourself “Will this matter in the long run? What are the aspects of my concern that are under my control?”
Always remember things or concerns that are not under one’s control, require least attention.