For me this goes back to the 90s when the catchphrase, ‘thriving under pressure’ was very much ‘in’. I remember not only using it in interviews as my signature strength but also trying to emulate everything that it signified.
The truth was that although I enjoyed problem solving and being busy, I don’t think that I ever ‘thrived’, when I was under pressure. It was the opposite actually. Studying the nature and effects of stress, a decade later, helped me to understand that the way in which we think about and interpret stressful situations, informs how we manage stress. Before that I’d just thought that when I wasn’t enjoying striving and achieving, then I must have been lazy.
So, is it necessary for us to feel stressed? Well yes and no. Firstly, it’s important to recognise that our stress response and the bio-chemical mechanisms which produce stress are really helpful to us. For example, if we tense because a dog in the park bares its teeth, then that’s a good sign. Our stress response, our early warning mechanism to danger, is active. Now the problem can come when we’re overly busy, distracted or can’t seem to stop and sit still for 5 minutes. At these times it’s all too easy for us to over-ride our stress response and become more stressed. Eventually we don’t know whether the stressor (the dog or a project) is the real problem or whether it’s our reaction to the stressor which is causing us to feel more stressed!
You see normally, we ‘should’ be able to respond to what represents as a stressful situation and then return to a normal state of calm or rest.
But what can we do if our bodies don’t easily return to a calm state? This is something that I work on daily. But here are a few things that I’ve found helpful.
Step 1 Admit that there’s a problem (at least to ourselves). Sadly, our society often stigmatises us if we feel that we’re ‘not coping’. In reality, admitting this is a strength. Also recognise that stress at this level is not uncommon. Mind, the leading UK mental health charity, tells us that 1 in 4 people experience mental health problems at some stage in their lives. So this is a common issue, but also one that we can do something about.
Step 2 Identify what’s really causing you to feel stressed. That may sound obvious, but it isn’t necessarily. Remember when I used to say that I ‘thrived under pressure?’ It took me years to figure out that whilst I was a good manager, what really stressed me out was saying yes to more than I could handle.
Part of the reason that I was stressed was because I just couldn’t say no. I didn’t want to look bad, or to let people down. But more than that, I thought that if I could just finish THIS project, this presentation or that catering event, etc etc etc, then I’d be okay. I’d be able to rest, but it was never quite like that. So beyond the obvious, what’s really stressing you out? Are you scared of not appearing to be at the top of your game? Maybe you can’t stop doing? Or maybe you too have a problem saying no?
Take some time to write down the situations which make you feel stressed. Then dare to look at the feelings that lie below the stress, because it’s both of these things that will help us to manage our responses.
Step 3 Reach out and get help. This doesn’t have to be scary or even formal. The kind of support that we need will be different for each of us. The main thing is that it meets our needs and helps us to turn things around so that we’re able to respond to our stressors in an effective way.
It could just start by opening up to a friend. Or it could mean (and this may be a tough one) getting more support at home or in the office. If you feel completely lost and out of balance, then speaking with your doctor can be a good place to start.
But if you’ve already worked out that you need a more structured approach, then stress management, counselling or life coaching may help. These approaches can offer a way to work through the real issues, but also, the sometimes uncomfortable sensations that come up when we feel stressed.
If we can calm our minds and feel grounded, it can help us to be less reactive when we encounter stressful events, people or triggers. Practices like meditation, or relaxing body work such as; yoga, Qi-gong or Tai Chi can help by slowing down our minds so that they align with our bodies. Some people will find that more physical activities like swimming, walking, running or bike riding, or even dance can do the same. By releasing and burning off tension we can return to a state of rest, but also tune into what it feels like for our bodies to feel good. And isn’t that what we all want.
Sometimes people experience physical symptoms, such as stomach aches or headaches or have a condition which is made worse by even small levels of stress. This is where seeing a qualified nutritionist can help. One of the things that we do is to thoroughly consider what’s happening in your body when you’re stressed and then provide a nutritional programme and support to help you move beyond just dealing with the symptoms.
Step 4 Congratulate yourself, not just now, but at every step that you take. Congratulate yourself for admitting that something isn’t quite right. Congratulate yourself for taking the time to work out what may be really causing you to feel stressed. Congratulate yourself for getting help and taking the steps to move to a less stressful state. Know that you’re doing something great for yourself, and for everyone around you!
If you want to find out more about how nutrition and stress management can help you, please click working together.