Coping with Stress
Regardless of the degree of suffering you go through because of stress, it is worth taking a measured approach to stress management rather than reaching out to the first available and obvious solution.
There are three different approaches to deal with stress;
- Action-oriented approach
- Emotion-oriented approach
- Acceptance-oriented approach
Let’s look at the first one i.e., the ‘action-oriented approach’
Action-oriented approach where we seek to confront the problem causing the stress, changing the environment or the situation. When taking action to change a stressful situation, the situation can improve, lowering stress levels. Taking action can also lead to positive feelings of empowerment and control. Talking of control, you can use the action-oriented approach in dealing with stress only when you have a direct control or power over the situation causing stress in you.
What could be some of the ‘action-oriented’ strategies?
Practicing Assertiveness If you ask me, lack of assertiveness is a major contributor to your stress, not just in your place of work but also in your family and relationships. If you lack the ability to express or communicate your personal needs, feelings, opinions, and beliefs when interacting with others and are too passive it can cause buildup of stress. Such behavior over prolonged periods can lead to accumulated stress and a feeling of being undervalued. It will start to affect your self-esteem and you will be unable to withstand social pressures. When you stay in a passive state for long, it can also lead to aggressive outbursts – something of a passive-aggressive communication behavior. Some actually start to then practice social withdrawal as a coping mechanism to deal with their lack of assertiveness which in turn further adds up to the stress.
Manage time Whenever there is a talk of ‘stress’, the reference to time cannot be avoided. Most people experience stress when they start to feel or face the daily dilemma: “there is so much to do and not enough time to do it”.
Time management is an action-oriented approach to help us resolve that dilemma and the resultant stress.
You must realize that it is ‘Time’, not activities, that is the limiting factor. We must make tough choices about what to do and what not to do. Time Management is really self-management. Although time is not adaptable, people are. Managing time means adapting ourselves to its passage in some satisfying manner. It means managing ourselves. If time seems to be out of control, it means that we are out of control. To bring ourselves back under control, we must learn new, more appropriate habits. Habits are the key actionable behaviors to good time management. Good results come from good habits; poor results from poor habits. The important point to remember, though, is that habits are learned behavior. They can be changed. Your habits may control your destiny, but you can control your habits.
If you can get a fair bit of ‘time mastery’ then you will be able to reduce most of the stress which are under your control. Learn time management.
Delegating If you are a person who finds it difficult to delegate tasks to others then you are surely prone to stress from overload. There could be many reasons behind your fear to delegate and it’s important to know them as well. One which I find with most people who do not delegate is there need to feel in ‘complete control’ of the task. They are also people who feel and increased pressure of controlling the outcome. They could also be people who are highly conscientious as we discussed in the previous episode on the personality factors which influence stress. The need for ‘perfectionism’ in every aspect of life can cause immense stress in people. Add to that the obsession with results or outcome. If you fear failure, then you wouldn’t take the risk to delegate.
You must realize that when many tasks need attention, it is nearly impossible for one person to complete them all, especially when dealing with a chronic illness or chronic pain. Taking on too many responsibilities can lead to stress. Delegating tasks, such as asking a family member to help with the cooking, asking a coworker to help with part of a project, or even hiring a cleaning service to help around the house, can help reduce stress levels.
Problem solving If it is not clear what action to take in response to a stressful situation, problem-solving steps are going to be helpful. Problem-solving steps may include:
- Acknowledging that there is a problem
- Defining and Describing the problem or stressful situation in detail
- Brainstorming alternative options for improving or solving the problem
- Creating and then executing an action plan
Using an action-oriented approach to stress management may not completely eliminate a stressful situation, but it will likely reduce stress levels.
Managing expectations, commitments and setting boundaries Everyone has limited amounts of time, energy and resources. Managing and clarifying expectations is extremely important in avoiding stress at a later stage in a relationship. If you do a little bit of introspection, you would find that the cause for most conflicts in relationships and the resultant stress is because of the lack of setting expectations clearly, right at the outset. The mismatch does not ever help your cause.
You will also find that it is easy to manage your commitments if you had at the outset clarified expectations and gained agreement on the actions to be performed. Contracting is a great action you can take to care of residual stress.
Setting personal boundaries is another action which can help prevent overextension which leads to stress. Once boundaries are set, it is important to say “no” to requests or activities that go beyond those boundaries. Although it can be difficult to say “no,” it is an essential part of stress management. Learning assertiveness skills can go a long way in managing within boundaries.
Flexible or Relaxed standards Stress can be self-imposed when personal standards are set too high. A flexible and relaxed personal standard can help reduce stress significantly. Expecting perfection during any task is an impossible goal. For example, cleaning the entire house well enough to pass a white-glove test is unrealistic. A relaxed standard would involve cleaning the most frequently-used rooms in the house so that they are sanitary and relatively clutter-free to promote a safe and calming environment. This relaxed standard is achievable and can go a long way in helping you remain stress free.
Similarly in your workplace, you must be comfortable in changing actions to adapt to newer and evolving situations. You cannot remain rigid in your plans and take the “my way or the highway” approach to managing your work. There will be an increasing demand of you to be able to adapt to situations particularly in a VUCA world.
One way is learn analyzing your day and to prioritize based on the 80/20 rule.
Changing habits is the key in any stress management exercise. Some habits are relatively easy to change; others can be extremely difficult. A change in one part of your life often has a direct impact on other parts of your life. Some habits are difficult to change because they are interconnected. A single behavior becomes a cue for another behavior, which in turn may be a cue for still another. In this way, you develop habit sequences that form vigorous modes of patterned behavior.
How long does it take to replace a poor habit with a better habit? Many of your work related habits could be successfully changed in three days to three weeks. In other words, if you consistently practice the new behavior for three weeks, it will become your predominant response pattern. At that point, you have replaced the old habit with a new one. You have to eliminate your self-defeating habits and replace them with self-reinforcing habits.
Some of the actions you could take to change your habits could be to identify the habit which is causing stress; carefully defining the new habit which you wish to practice and then begin with the new habit as strongly as possible – like publishing the habit which you are going to demonstrate to as many people in your environment as you can.
Stress diary are useful for understanding the causes of short-term stress in your life. They also give you an insight into how you react to stress.
The idea behind ‘Stress Diaries’ is that on a regular basis you can write down how stressed you’re feeling, so that you understand these stressors and then manage them. This is important because often these stressors fleet in and out of our minds without getting the attention and focus that they deserve.
As much as helping you capture and understand the most common sources of stress in your life, ‘Stress Diaries’ help you to understand:
- The causes of stress in more detail; and
- How you react to stress, and whether your reactions are appropriate and useful
Using an action-oriented approach to stress management may not completely eliminate a stressful situation, but it will likely reduce stress levels. An action-oriented approach can also be combined with other approaches to stress management i.e., the ‘emotion-oriented approach’ and the ‘acceptance oriented approach’