How can you deal with stress? Before I answer this question, let’s start with a quotation.
A growing body of research shows that — by teaching people how to cope with ever increasing amounts of stress — corporate stress management programs often change low-level stress into acute breakdown. People learn to cope with more and more stress until they simply can take no more. The results are often catastrophic.— Bruce Elkin
Dealing with stress
I’m not a big fan of approaching stress as a “thing” to have to manage and cope with. Handling it this way seems, to me, to give this thing called “stress” all the power, to make it into an agent that decides when and where to attack. While we, as its victims, have no choice but to suffer in silence as best we can.
This is pretty much what Bruce Elkin is saying in his above quotation about stress management. We have stress, the thinking goes, so let’s learn lots of new skills to suffer less while we suffer from stress.
There are healthy levels of stress and unhealthy levels of stress. A healthy level of stress is where you have a high motivation, and the stress is simply the effort involved in going for your goal.
An example might be skiing: there is the stress involved in (for example) balancing, exercising, thinking ahead. This is healthy stress, because it all contributes to a safe and fun ski run. Without this healthy stress, skiing would be boring and unfulfilling.
Unhealthy stress is when the load exceeds the amount that you can deal with. Going back to skiing, imagine trying to do that while you have a seriously ill relative in intensive care in the hospital down the road. You will be trying to deal with your skiing with the thought of your relative’s condition on your mind, hardly conducive to a fun ski.
Now, imagine that you also have a broken leg. At this point, the stress of skiing becomes too much, and you are unable to cope.
The same can apply in a work environment or at home. At the right level, it’s healthy and productive; too little, it’s boring; too much, it’s unhealthy and unproductive; and far too much, it’s potentially destructive.
A better approach
A far better approach, surely, is to address the source of stress itself. Make sure that we are the agents who get to decide, and that stress is the result of actions and events, preferably our own.
Of course, I’m not saying that unhealthy stress is entirely avoidable. We all have situations beyond our control — illness, war, economic problems, redundancy, and so on.
But when you take a holistic approach to your entire life and lifestyle, it is possible not just to have to learn how to cope with stress, but also to reduce the amount of stress in the first place. We want the unhealthy levels of stress to be the unusual exception, rather than the norm.
This is something that, fortunately, more and more corporations (though not enough of them) have started to understand, and they have started to reduce unnecessary stress in the workplace so that their workers can be not only more productive but also happier.
Reducing outside stress
Reducing stress is not a small topic. It’s huge, and entire books have been written about it. The reason is that outside stress comes from a large number of different places, whether work (colleagues, business problems, legal changes, poorly-trained bosses, …), home (children, school, spouse, financial problems, illness, DIY problems, …), the environment (the economic situation, political upheaval, war, unpleasant neighbours, …), and so on.
Some of this outside stress you can do something about. A good starting point might be to hire a life coach who specialises in whatever area you are struggling with most, to find practical and achievable solutions to your situation.
Reducing internal stress
Outside problems are not the only source of stress.
Have you ever noticed that there might be a situation or a person that makes someone feel utterly stressed out and angry, while the same situation or person hardly affects you? Or vice-versa, where you are the one getting upset and angry, while your friend is saying, “Why are you letting that bother you?”
The point is that internal stress comes from inside. It’s our response to the situation, rather than the situation itself, that causes the stress.
This is, in fact, true of any situation at all. Some people are so calm in their minds that even something like redundancy leaves them worried, maybe, but not stressed. And they do this without recreational drugs.
Could you be the same? Could you relax into a stressful event with a philosophical response? It would be better to do so: not only is it healthier for your mind and body, but also you are better able to discover and act on a solution when you are calm and unflustered.
Indeed, that’s something that I learned in martial arts. When you are being attacked, the first response is to have a calm mind, because that allows you to react to the attack swiftly, accurately, and effectively. A person who panics is unlikely to come through successfully.
We also know that when you are calm and relaxed, your immune system functions better; you are less likely to turn to drugs, overeating or any other addictive behaviour; more likely to find a solution; and more likely to learn a valuable lesson that you can use later in life or pass on to others.
How to deal with stress
This brings us back to the question: How can you relax into a stressful situation?
I find that the key point here is to think of stress not as a “thing” but as a process. Stress is something that you do — you breathe shallowly, your brain instructs your body to release adrenaline, your heart beats faster, you create certain thoughts in your mind, and so on.
So, if stress is something that you do rather than something that happens to you, this brings it entirely within your control! This is great news, because it means that you decide to get stressed — or not.
This is partly what stress management is about, so it feels like I’m contradicting myself, compared to what I wrote earlier in this article. To some extent, that is indeed true. It’s the mindset that changes things, and that allows the appropriate skills and behaviours to work.
Using these skills doesn’t eliminate outside sources of stress, naturally, which is why it is still vital to address those. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are in keeping calm and philosophical, if you have (say) an abusive spouse or boss, unmanageable debt, illness, or whatever, you still need to do something about those. But having the skills will make you more effective in doing so.
Tools to destress
There is a huge range of tools that you can use to destress. Here is just a short list.
- Breathing techniques
- Dietary changes
- Changing your thinking patterns
- Spas and massage therapy
- Sport, walking or other exercise
- Prescription drugs from your doctor
- † Recreational drugs (whether legal, such as alcohol and nicotine, or illegal)
- † Overeating
- † Addictive behaviours
† The last three, you probably have realised, are terribly unhealthy ways to destress. They work only short-term; prevent you from acting in your best interest; stop you from maturing, growing and learning; frequently hurt others, not just yourself; make you more vulnerable to stress (which creates a vicious cycle); and causes you even more stress. Don’t do them! (If you find yourself addicted, please seek help straight away.)
There are other ways to destress. All of them (apart from the unhealthy ones) are great, and it wouldn’t hurt you to do all of them! (Except for the prescription drugs unless your doctor tells you to.)
Here, I shall address two of these points.
When you realise that not only does your mental state affect your body, but also your body affects your mental state, you can understand that to reduce your mental stress levels, you need to reduce the stress levels of your body.
Many people, maybe most, in our modern society, filled with junk food and junk drinks, are chronically dehydrated. Substances such as caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, refined sugar, and some illegal drugs, all contribute to this.
Dehydration increases your body’s stress levels, which in turn make it harder for you to cope with daily activities. This increases your mental stress levels, even without you realising it.
The easy answer to this is to increase your healthy liquid intake (if you don’t already do this), and decrease your unhealthy liquid intake.
- Drink water instead of coffee, tea, alcohol, and fizzy drinks. If you don’t like the taste of water, try getting a good quality water filter and taste the difference. You can also mix water with squash, or drink fruit juice slightly diluted with water. Herbal and fruit teas (without caffeine!) are also good ways to drink water. Fresh juicy fruits such as apples, pears, grapes and so forth are excellent sources of water.
- Cut down on, or better, cut out, coffee, tea and any other caffeinated drinks.
- Likewise, reduce your alcohol intake. Try drinking one glass of water for every unit of alcohol (to limit the harm that alcohol does to you) — but beware of excessive water intake. Speak to your doctor or other health professional if you’re unsure.
- Avoid other recreational drugs, such as nicotine and illegal drugs.
- Don’t take medical drugs unless your doctor or other health professional advises you to do so.
There is an easy way to tell whether or not you’re drinking enough water. When you go to the toilet to pass water, your urine should be pale yellow or clear. If it’s dark yellow, you are dehydrated. If it’s brown, speak to your doctor.
Be aware that certain drugs interfere with this test, especially diuretics such as alcohol and some medical drugs. They interfere with your kidneys’ function, meaning that your urine might be pale even when you are dehydrated. If you have any concerns, your doctor can advise you on hydration.
Your most important source of energy is oxygen. When you breathe shallowly, you don’t relax properly (there are also reasons other than oxygen for this, but I won’t go into them here).
To relax properly, you need not only to be hydrated but also to breathe well.
How to breathe well
Humans — in fact, all mammals — breathe naturally from their stomach. Yet, because of stress and bad habits, we humans tend to learn to breathe from our chest. Chest breathing doesn’t use the muscle that your body is supposed to use when breathing — the diaphragm. This has various effects, and one of them is that we struggle to relax.
Stomach breathing is known as diaphragmatic breathing. As the name implies, this makes use of the diaphragm, which is how you are supposed to breathe.
You are born knowing how to breathe properly, but, as I already wrote, we learn to breathe badly. Some people have (re)learned how to breathe poorly; this is usually taught in martial arts, singing, acting, and certain other activities.
If you breathe with your chest instead of your diaphragm, here’s how to do it…
Since writing this article, I’ve created a tutorial for diaphragmatic breathing. Feel free to read that instead of the following.
Take a baseline measurement
Let’s start by noting how you breathe at the moment. Stand in front of a mirror. Pretend that the person you see isn’t you, but someone else, and watch them closely.
Take a deep breath. How did you know that the person in the mirror took a deep breath? You probably noticed their chest expanding and their shoulders rising. That would be chest breathing.
If the shoulders were completely relaxed, and the shoulders and chest did not move (maybe the chest a little), you might already be breathing correctly.
Learn to breathe diaphragmatically
Follow these steps to learn how to breathe with your diaphragm. Practice this in front of the mirror. Repeat every day until you can do it easily.
- Empty your lungs. Breathe out every last bit of breath in your body.
- Force out the last bit of air by pushing your stomach in. You want your stomach to be a small as possible.
- Relax your stomach (so that it automatically pushes out). You should find that you breathe in automatically.
- Continue to push out your stomach. You should find that you breathe in some more air.
- Empty your lungs by pushing your stomach in.
- Repeat steps 3, 4, 5 to continue breathing.
When you do this exercise, it’s helpful to imagine (pretend) that your stomach is a balloon. When you breathe out, the balloon shrinks (you push your stomach in). When you breathe in, the balloon grows (you push your stomach out).
Your chest does not move in and out. The only exception is when you take a deep breath, in which case your chest expands only right at the end of the breath to take in a little extra air.
Your shoulders do not move up and down. They also should not be tense. Ensure that your shoulders are completely relaxed and at ease.
When to use diaphragmatic breathing
The short answer is: Always!
When I first learned diaphragmatic breathing, after practicing it for a few days, I tried doing it while exercising (running, lifting weights, playing sport, etc.). It make a difference! I was able to take deeper, slower breaths, getting more oxygen, more efficiently, into my body than before.
When I had an abusive partner, by breathing with my diaphragm, I found that I was able to stop reacting, and start thinking and understanding. I have helped a client eliminate their road rage primarily by changing their way of breathing while they drive.
Diaphragmatic breathing is more than a “trick” to relax. It goes right to the heart of your energy, both physically and metaphorically, to give you power and a sense of calm. Learn — or, rather, relearn — this skill if you don’t already have it, and use it.
Other ways to reduce stress
If hydration, diaphragmatic breathing and changing your environment don’t solve your stress, it might be that your thought processes are contributing to your problems.
If that is the case, I recommend therapy. Your GP might recommend CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), or you could try other forms of therapy such as EFT (emotional freedom technique), hypnotherapy, and more.