Be in charge of your stress, and thank it for keeping you alive
Stress is Essential for Our Survival
Your heart is beating fast, breathing is short and blood is flowing from your brain to your larger muscle groups. You're feeling tense and overwhelmed. This is called the fight-or-flight response - an essential mechanism that has evolved in us long ago to help us survive life-threatening situations, such as an animal attack.
Without stress, none of us would be alive today. The irony is that today, most contemporary situations that create this stress response are not physically dangerous. Instead, we feel stressed when we're faced with deadlines and feel overwhelmed with our next presentation. As a result, we are running late to a meeting or handling unsurmountable demands upon us.
Clearer boundaries between work and home life
Just think, bears, tigers or wolves have mostly disappeared from our present habitats yet our bodies still often react just as strongly as if they were right in front of us. So why then do we still stress? Our brains have simply not evolved fast enough to distinguish between the immediate threat of a predator and the conference room.
No matter what the cause of your stress is, your body still releases the same mixture of hormones such as natural cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine that prepare you to directly confront what is frightening you or to run away. So the very first step towards managing stress effectively is understanding this difference.
Stress can feel overwhelming and confusing when the immediate threat is psychological and hard to pinpoint. According to behavioral psychologist Jenny Rickardsson, Head of Psychology & Research at 29k, we have a lot of modern stressors like high workloads, responsibilities, and complex relationships. She points out that an added stressor is the blurred barrier between work and personal life during the pandemic. So many of us enjoy the new opportunities of working out of home, yet we benefit from clear boundaries.
Recovery time is key to managing stress.
We often feel overly stressed because there is an imbalance between performance targets at work or expectations on ourselves and our own abilities to meet those demands and expectations. Jenny's advice for managing stress is to clearly identify what you can and cannot control while adjusting your expectations.
"If your workload is too high, don't hesitate to ask for help at work to help you adjust the level, short-term stress is a part of normal life, and we don't need to fear it - our minds and bodies have well-developed mechanisms to deal with stress", she says.
Not having the time or possibility to recover from stressful events is what causes us harm in the long-term.
Shift your focus to what you can control. Accept what you can't.
Pause and pay attention to what is happening in a stressful situation. Acknowledge your reaction to it and practice acceptance. Try not to get stuck with the stressful event, take a break and do something else. For example, just walking a few steps to the coffee machine and talking to a colleague can be enough to break the stress cycle.
Stress and stress-related problems are not a result of you and your actions only.
Instead, increased levels of stress are a structural problem in our society, says Jenny. She advises listing all the things that are stressful for you right now. Then, divide the list into a) what you can control and b) what you cannot. Seeing this in front of you on a piece of paper makes it easier to see the stressors more objectively and help you to focus on what you can do.
"Some demands that are put on us are not likely to change. When we see this, we can shift our focus to what we can control" - Jenny Rickardsson
Jenny's six tools to minimize everyday stress:
1. Set clear boundaries between work and home life. Do not work after working hours.
2. Turn off your push notifications – the constant updates are both distracting, socially interrupting and stress-inducing
3. Schedule your social media and email checks instead of shifting back and forth throughout the workday.
4. Exercising three times a week for 30 minutes minimizes stress. Small breaks for movement every day are helpful as well.
5. Walking in green spaces has been proven to reduce stress levels. So take a walk in the woods!
6. Make time for social activities
Jenny's personal de-stress routines:
Jenny's job is to listen to people's problems day after day as a psychologist. However, she sometimes finds it hard to leave thoughts about her workday after getting home to her family. She has therefore developed a simple routine to de-stress after work:
"When biking home, I focus on my senses to notice three things I can see, hear, smell, and touch. This grounds me in the present moment."
"I am attentive when I start canceling my social plans. This is a sign that I am getting stressed, so I pay attention and try to be more mindful of keeping myself socially and physically active. It can take me a few weeks to notice, but hopefully, I can get quicker at noticing the next time."
Stress may feel extreme or dangerous, but it is a natural part of our psychological makeup. Stress is necessary to motivate us and help us achieve things in life. Both are signals from our bodies that something important is at stake. Uncomfortable feelings can be successfully managed by creating a habit of thanking your mind and body for doing its fundamental work - to keep you alive.
What is the difference between stress and anxiety?
Anxiety is a physiological and psychological reaction closely related to feelings of stress. Long-term stress can be a major trigger for feelings of anxiety. It is associated with feelings of nervousness, tension, restlessness, and panic. Stress is when we have a hard time coping with demands and expectations on us that can be both internal and external, anxiety on the other hand is related to feelings of fear, avoidance of potential fear and also fear or fear. We can experience panic attacks when we get scared by what's happening inside of us.
Stay tuned to read more about anxiety and how to manage it in upcoming articles on this topic.
About Jenny Rickardsson
Jenny Rickardsson has a PhD from Karolinska University in Stockholm. She has researched digital interventions with chronic pain patients and has previously worked with juvenile delinquencies.