Hands up who’s felt a bit ‘stressed out‘ before? I’m pretty sure that’ll be all of you reading this. If not, FAIR play to you. One of my favourite quotes about stress goes something like this – ‘Living a stress-free life is not a reasonable goal. The goal is to deal with it actively and effectively.’ And I agree.
So how do we define stress? There are many ways to do so, and that reflects a key point about stress – it will affect each of us in a unique way, and it means something a little bit different to everyone. My favourite definition (or the one that resonates the most with my perception of stress) is this – ‘A condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.’
How does that sound? Pretty logical right? Recently, two things happened in my life that made me reflect on the concept of stress, and want to write an article about it here for you guys. First, I was asked to give a talk on stress and mindfulness for healthcare students at Trinity College Dublin, which was an absolutely humbling and exciting experience, speaking to a totally lovely range of student physiotherapists, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists about my experience of stress as a doctor, and sharing tips on how to manage stress in our busy days at work, placement and home. Thank you DU Clinical Therapies for asking me – they even got me flowers and made energy balls! It was such a positive experience and the group gave such lovely feedback that I felt inspired to write this article for you guys. Second, I had a fascinating lecture on stress as part of my Health Psychology module at college (which I am LOVING, it’s so interesting), and also an assignment on the topic. Nothing but motivation to read into the area and share my experience with you guys!
As you’ve gathered from my introduction, there are two big things that contribute towards us feeling stressed. Number one, the event/situation/’thing’ we perceive to be a ‘stressor‘ – this might be an exam, a deadline at work, financial concerns, or an area of conflict that exists in our lives, for example. Number two, how we perceive, or appraise that ‘stressor’ plays a BIG role in our experience of stress. Perception is pretty much (for me anyway) a result of how we view the stressor combined with how we view our internal resources to manage it effectively. For example – how you view an exam coming up, or work deadline, is going to be influenced by how you view your ability to conquer it – resources like time, knowledge and your existing ability all factor in here. Consider this to understand what I mean – S + R = E. Stress + Reaction = Experience. We might not be able to control the stressor itself, but we CAN control our reaction, and that’s KEY to recognise in your own life, because it means you can influence your experience.
Aside from obvious reasons, why is stress such a big deal? Well, we’re all pretty familiar with the ‘fight or flight’ model of stress – that adrenaline rush, the fast heart rate, muscle tension, sweating, the ‘get ready to run from the bear chasing you’ feeling. That’s our acute (i.e. short term) stress response, designed for that purpose only. What we’re experiencing in modern society is the widespread issue of chronic stress, and the associations we have seen between chronic stress and it’s negative effects on our physical and mental health are enough to motivate me to want to optimise my own stress management. Chronic stress has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, unhealthy lifestyle behaviours and even poor immune function. Chronic stress has also been associated with poor mental health too, which I think we can all agree makes sense! There is a LOT of ongoing research in this area looking into how this happens in our bodies, examining our sympathetic nervous system (what gives us that ‘fight or flight’ response) and the role of cortisol (our stress hormone). Science aside, I think it’s pretty obvious that ‘feeling stressed’ is not a nice feeling, and every single one of us would be in favour of being the boss of our own stress.
Which brings me to the good stuff – stress management. My disclaimer, before I share what I like to call ‘my stress toolkit’ with you below. is that these tips are all based on my own personal experience. Various things I’ve tried over the past year or so, a blend of what’s worked for me! The key thing here, although I’m going to share a wide range of options, is that you need to find what works for you. Our modern world, so full of incredible technology, has increased the pace at which we do everything exponentially – and it ain’t stopping. We are ALWAYS ‘on’ – mostly via the little computers we carry in our smartphones, which many of us start and end our days with. We are constantly in a ‘reactive’ state as a result – updates, messages, emails, notifications – when do we switch off? This constant reactivity often only adds fuel to the stress fire, and I think its so important to learn how you can exert control over your response to the world around you. Now let’s look at how you can do that.
Start a Stress Diary
Before you roll your eyes at the idea of ‘another diary’, hear me out. If you really don’t know where to start, keeping a stress diary to track your pattern of response to life to a great place to. Jot down in the diary when a particular thing is making you feel stressed (either physically or psychologically with feelings like anxiety, helplessness and worry being common symptoms reported), and track your pattern over a week to start. You might find even little things like missing the bus are triggers, as well as the big stuff. Pattern recognition allows you to tune into your body and mind, and begin to think about making changes.
Bring it Back to The Breath
Ah, breathing. For years, we were told to ‘take ten deep breaths’ when stressed, but I don’t think I ever really started to use breathing techniques for stress management until this year. There are MANY breathing exercises out there, and I’m not a trained expert in them. But I find two particularly useful – Box Breathing, and 4-7-8 Breathing.
Box Breathing began as a Navy SEAL technique, but I think it’s fantastic and totally generalisable to us all. I even got the group from my talk to do it! Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold the breath out for 4 seconds. Repeat as many times as you need! 4-7-8 breathing is similar – inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7, and exhale for 8 (that’s the best bit!). If all else fails in a stressful situation guys, just remember this – deepen your inhale, and lengthen your exhale.
Mindfulness & Meditation
Mindfulness was defined by the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn, as ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.’ I love that definition – simple, easy to understand, easy to relate to your own life. Meditation is a different, but related topic – a definition I like is ‘a practice where an individual uses a technique, such as focusing their mind on a particular object, thought or activity, to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state.’ I keep the concept of mindfulness really simple, and at the end of this section I’ll share with you a couple of simple ways to be more mindful in your day.
I’ve written about my journey with mindfulness and meditation on my blog previously, which you can read here. I started using the Calm app, doing guided meditation for ten minutes a day using it in January this year, and it’s been a total game-changer for me. It helped me to engage with my breath, and has made me a much more mindful person day to day. My stress management was probably a wee bit non-existent until this year, and making changes to that has been a decision I thank myself for everday. Apps aren’t for everyone, but I think they’re a great place to start if you aren’t sure how or where to. Calm (I’m not sponsored by Calm FYI, I subscribed to it this year after a 7 day free trial had me hooked!) have now added a ‘Calm Body’ section too, with gentle movement exercises and stretches to start or end your day. I love the app for ‘The Daily Calm’, which is a ten minute guided meditation on lots of different themes (gratitude, acceptance, resolving conflict, you name it!), and also for it’s various different meditation series (7 days of Self-Esteem, Happiness and Gratitude for example). It also can play sounds like falling rain or waves rolling onto the beach to help you sleep! Lots of people love it for the ‘Sleep Stories’ – you can listen to Stephen Fry read Alice in Wonderland, among many others!
I’ll stop gushing now. What I will say is this – after about 2 weeks of using Calm, I noticed a difference. I was less reactive at work, I became a better listener, I was less affected by previous stressors, and more productive and efficient in my response. I was noticing and appreciating the beauty of the world around me, instead of rushing from one place to the next. So here’s how you can make your day more mindful. First, are you a coffee fan? If not, then take your cuppa tea instead. Tomorrow morning, as you sip your coffee or tea, really take in the flavour. Savour it. Appreciate it. Smile. Have a look around you, whether you’re outdoors or cosy inside. Second, on your walk to work or college or wherever, look UP. Yes, UP from your phone. What colour is the sky? The leaves on the ground? Take the time to tune in, and notice these things. Be grateful for them!
The Attitude of Gratitude
And that leads me nicely to this point. Mindfulness and gratitude are very closely linked for me personally. We spend so much of our lives running from A to B, from one to-do list to another, never accepting ourselves as enough. When in fact, we have SO MUCH we can be grateful for in life. I go through waves of this, becoming absorbed in little hassles of life and forgetting the bigger picture, until my mind brings me back to gratitude. The next time you’re stressing out because you missed the bus, or train, or a deadline, remember how much you can be grateful for. A voice to speak. A healthy body to get you from one chapter in your life to the next. Friends, family, a significant other. Hobbies that inspire you, a job you love. Smile for those things, and your load instantly becomes lighter. Remember, we often carry mountains that we were only meant to climb!
Spot Your Self-Talk
I’ll keep this one short and sweet. Next time you’re at peak stress, listen to how you’re talking to yourself. Is it kind? Is it positive? Is it negative? Finally, the best question – would you talk to your best friend that way? Probably not. We’re (especially Irish people!) terrible for tearing ourselves down – especially when stressed. It’s priority #1 to remember that YOU control your perspective, and how you talk to yourself. Therefore, YOU can change it. Remove ‘I can’t’ from your vocabulary. Ain’t no room for that phrase in a positive, fulfilled life in my opinion. Whenever it pops into my head, I replace it with ‘What can I do? Or what can I do instead?’ It takes time to re-train your brain and self-talk, 100%. But making a start is the hardest part – so get going today! Would you talk to your best friend that way? If not, then don’t say it to yourself.
Exercise – Work It Out
This one has been said many a time, but it’s something I developed a new perspective on this year. I used to hit the gym after my night shifts at the hospital – sprints, weights, spinning, you name it. I was ‘stress-busting’, right? WRONG. This year, after my night shifts would end in the morning, I started doing yoga at home for 30 minutes before bed, or going for a short walk or a swim. The difference? Ridiculous. All my past self had been doing was adding cortisol (our stress hormone) to a cortisol-filled night at work – I used to think it helped me sleep, but really all it was doing was leaving me wired and exhausted. Switching up my exercise on weeks of night shifts to gentler forms did wonders for my physical and mental health. A lesson learnt! So my message to you is this. Find the type of exercise you enjoy, as I always say, because it’s what you will stick to! But maybe think about going for gentler types of activity when you’re at the end of a stressful day. A simple walk for 15 or 30 minutes (even 10!) can make the world of a difference to a busy mind. Exercise has a vast array of potential benefits for our health – just remember to tune into what form of activity your body and mind needs when you’re having a particularly crazy day. If I have a day of studying ahead for example, I’ll often start my day with a long walk and ten minutes of yoga, just to clear the clutter out of my brain before the day begins!
Don’t Skip Your Social Life
I talk about 4 big areas of lifestyle that are key to our health – nutrition, activity, sleep and stress management – but there is definitely a fifth that we often forget to prioritise. Getting social! When we are stressed, often all we want to do is hide in the library, or hide under a duvet and pretend our to do list doesn’t exist. Be alone, ‘just get it done’, cancel all events! But actually, what’s really important is not to forget about your social life, even in the height of a busy time. I’m not saying go out every night of the week – clearly, that’s counter-productive. But scheduling little dates and catch ups around your busy week is a lovely way to have things to look forward to, maintain your close relationships, and also often talking (or venting!) something out with a friend or family member gives you a fresh new perspective on a challenge.
Who’s ready to be the boss of their stress?! I hope this article was helpful for you guys. My challenge to you is this – pick one (or more if you’re feeling ambitious, but one change at a time is usually best!) area from the stress management toolkit tips above. Try it out the next time you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. It might be Box Breathing, or starting a stress diary, or taking a walk this evening after work. Give it a go. You might be surprised just how much better you feel. And finally, remember that you need to find the toolkit that works for you, and your stressors. Spot that self-talk, and know you have the power to change it!
As always, any thoughts/comments/vibes, let me know! Leave a comment, send a DM, or email me! You know where I’m at – @theirishbalance on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook!
Ciara 🙂 x