Most of us are ill-equipped to deal with the stress of modern life. Our bodies and brains evolved to deal with threats that we could either fight or run from, two strategies that usually don’t work well with things that stress us in the 21st Century! Of course, a certain amount of stress can be positive if it gets us motivated to take action, but all too often we end up suffering from too much. It takes its toll as we become chronically tense and worn-out by the situations we face and the worries we fall prey to. Too much stress lowers your willpower (you feel too worn out to resist not eating junk food, or having a cigarette even though you’ve ‘given up’) and it can also weaken your immune system, making you vulnerable to colds etc.
There are three main routes to relieving stress: changing your environment, changing your perceptions and learning to relax.
Changing your environment
It may be an obvious point, but think carefully if there are stressful situations or people that you can minimise your exposure to. Are these people or situations really worth the toll they could be taking on your health? Even if it takes a while, could you rearrange your life to cut back on the number of stressful situations you are in each week?
Another stressful thing in our environment is clutter. Hoarding endless stuff just in case you might need one day, can leave you feeling psychologically drained. Not only does it make it hard to find things, but it can make you feel cramped and overwhelmed, especially if you have limited space anyway. Be ruthless in throwing things out. If you really can’t bare to throw stuff away, then put as much of it as possible into a box, and vow that any of the things in the box after six months or a year that you still haven’t used must be thrown away!
Lastly, being stuck in one environment all day – e.g. at work – can become stressful. A change of environment, even for short breaks, can be a good idea. Or try to go outside for a walk at lunchtime and get some fresh air. Even better, try to make time, when possible, to spend in the countryside. Being around nature can be very soothing and relaxing.
Change your perceptions
Most of the worrying we do is a waste of energy. It doesn’t change anything, and often we worry about future things that never even happen! What a lot of unnecessary stress! There are a couple of techniques you can try to help stop worrying. Firstly, assign a particular time to worry about things. Say, one hour during the day, and forbid yourself to worry at any other time. Alternatively, think of the three worst possible things that could happen, and prepare for them, but then stop thinking about it.
Next, challenge any negative beliefs you hold. It’s easy for us to let negative beliefs dominate our thinking, particularly when we don’t stop to examine them. Ask yourself ‘is this definitely true?’ and ‘are there any other possible alternative explanations for the facts?’
Also, avoid the tendency to ‘catastrophise’ in your thinking. In other words, don’t always exaggerate every negative thing into a ‘catastrophe’. Put things in perspective. Equally, don’t always immediately jump to the worst possible interpretation of events. If someone, for example, makes a remark that you are tempted to take offense by, first consider other possible interpretations. Maybe the person genuinely didn’t mean offense at all? Maybe it was a compliment that came out wrong, or perhaps they meant something entirely different from what you heard?
Learning to relax
Lastly, learning to relax is obviously of great importance in combating stress. The more practice you put into relaxing, the better you can get at it.
Try learning breathing or meditation techniques. Or even just try spending regular time slowing your thoughts down. Sitting quietly and just letting your thoughts arise and disappear, without getting involved in them.
A useful relaxation technique is to slowly tense then relax each muscle in your body. Lay down somewhere quiet, and begin with tensing then relaxing the muscles in your feet, then your legs and so on, all the way up your body.
Getting enough sleep is also important in keeping stress manageable. Avoid working or watching TV immediately before you go to bed. Give your mind time to wind down before you try to sleep.
It’s impossible to avoid stress in life. There will inevitably be events that are stressful which we can’t avoid. However, there are steps we can take to minimise the stress we encounter daily, and doing so can significantly increase our quality of life.