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Reduce stress in 3 steps

If you type the word ‘stress’ in the google search engine, it returns about 519,000,000 results, making stress a more frequent word than ‘mum’ which bears about 203,000,000 results! On one hand, it is true that a lot of people experience stress on a daily basis and this affects their work or school performance, the quality of their relationships or even their ability to sleep. Moreover, research has shown that stress can lead to physical disturbances, most common of all the much feared tension headache and can lower the immune system. On the other hand, the word stress is overused and misused so much so that it has lost its original meaning. So “what is stress?”

What is stress?

According to one definition, stress is experienced when the perceived threats and demands of a situation exceed the individual’s perceived ability to cope with these. This definition suggests a crucial aspect of stress, that it depends on the individual’s perception of both the situation and his ability to cope with its demands. Therefore, perceptions play a crucial role: they explain why the same situation doesn’t necessarily cause all people to experience stress. To illustrate this, not all students are stressed when they take an exam: some are very relaxed, a few spend the night before awake because they are worried, and others experience different degrees of stress during the actual exam, e.g. clammy hands, faster heartbeat and problems concentrating, just to mention a few. Additionally, if one’s perceptions are mistaken, one could experience stress unnecessarily. Finally, experiencing stress in a given situation might bias our stress response to a similar situation in the future. So, perceptions are the culprit in how you respond to a number of stressful situations. So, what can you do about your perceptions? Basically, if you modify your perceptions of a situation and at the same time improve your abilities to cope with that situation, the gap between the demands of the situation and your ability to cope with it will decrease. As a consequence, the amount of stress you experience will also decrease and in the long run you will be able to change the way in which you respond to stress. I know that you are probably thinking “easier said than done”, but read on and follow the steps outlined below and start immediately to work towards reducing stress.

3 steps to reduce stress

1. IDENTIFY THE STRESSOR

In order to combat stress, you need to know what makes you stressed. How can you gain such insight into the potential sources of stress in our life? Keep a diary. This way you can become aware of events or situations that trigger stress, you can monitor the amount of stress that you experience and you can keep track of how you responded to stress physically and emotionally. This will allow you to identify any patterns in your response to stress. Only when you identify such patterns you can then work towards breaking them.

2. VIEW THE STRESSOR OBJECTIVELY

Similarly to optical illusions (and we’ve all been tricked by them!), your perception of the stressor might not be an objective reflection of reality. This might happen because you perceive that the demands of a situation are greater than your ability to cope with them. In order to get an objective view of the stressor, you need to re-assess the demands of the situation. Ask yourself questions such as: “Is what is being asked of me reasonable?”; “Is the task doable within the given time frame?” In some circumstances, such questions can decrease the demands of a situation, but if this should not be possible, you can definitely improve your skills in order to become better equipped to deal with the demands of the situation. This will lead you to experience experience greater self-efficacy and less stress as a consequence.

3. RE-THINK STRESS 

For years we have heard that stress is the enemy, and research has certainly shown that only people who believe that they are negatively affected by stress develop stress-related illness while people who don’t hold such a belief are not affected by stress. This means that the way in which you think about stress affects the extent to which it damages you. Therefore, you should view your response to stress as your body’s way of helping you to meet the challenges of the task at hand. If you view the bodily symptoms of stress as the means by which your body gathers energy to allow you to succeed, you will be empowered by it. Stress is your friend!

 Two worked examples

1. EXAM STRESS: You have logged in your dairy that during exams you are always tense and you start breathing faster. So you have identified exams as a major source of stress in your life. You should ask yourself questions along the lines of “Is the course that I’m taking within my abilities?” or “Do I have the time to study for the course that I’m taking?” Some people work and study at the same time and they feel stressed about exams because they don’t have the time to focus on their studies. However, the majority of students will unwillingly admit that they often experience stress when taking an exam not because the exam was difficult but because they didn’t study enough. So in this case it is possible to reduce the demands of a situation: the more you study, the easier the exam will become. At the same time, preparing well for the exam will increase your competence in answering the exam questions and you will feel that you have the ability to cope with the demands of the situation. If during the exam you feel that you are breathing faster, think that your body is increasing the oxygen supply to the brain in order to increase your performance. Your body is doing what it can to help you do well in your exam!

2. WORKLOAD STRESS: You have logged in your diary that every time your boss walks into your office and drops a pile of paperwork on your desk, your heart starts pounding. So you have identified workload as one of the main causes of stress in your life. You should ask yourself questions along the lines of “Do I have the ability to do the work I’m asked to complete?”, “Am I using my time effectively?” or “Can I complete the task in the given time frame?” Many employees don’t feel that they can negotiate the workload with their boss and by saying nothing they actually convey the message that they are ok with what they are being asked. So if you honestly think that the workload is too much for the given time frame, let your boss know otherwise he will continue to have unreasonable expectations about what you can do. On the other hand, make sure that you know exactly how to carry out the tasks given: you might discuss potential training with your boss explaining that this will allow you to be better equipped to do your job. Finally, don’t interpret your faster heartbeat as a sign of weakness but as the way in which your body prepares for action as there’s a lot of work to be done!

I hope that these example have shown you how to apply the 3 streps to reduce stress and I would definitely like to hear from you as to whether you have found the advice in this article useful. You can also read another article about more ways of reducing stress.

About Francesca Stregapede

After pursuing a degree in Psychology, I further explored the relationship between neurochemistry and behaviour in a Masters in Brain Imaging and Cognitive neuroscience. I write about various areas of Psychology as well as articles at the interface between Neuroscience and Nutrition as I believe that nutrition has a huge impact not only on our physical wellbeing but also on our psychological states.

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