How to manage stress?

Be in charge of your stress, and thank it for keeping you alive
Stress is essential for our survival
Heart is beating fast, breathing is short, hands may shake and we might be sweaty or even dizzy.

The stress response in our bodies may feel uncomfortable or even dangerous. And in the long run, it can be.

But without it, none of us would be alive. Or be motivated or engaged. So how do we go from negative to positive stress?

What is stress?
The stress reaction in our bodies and brains is an automatic fight-or-flight-response – an essential mechanism that has evolved in us long ago to help us survive life-threatening situations.

Without stress, humans would not be alive today. Stress triggers a cascade of physiological and behavioral changes that help us survive. Blood flows to the large muscle groups in upper arms and thighs, away from gut activity and the planning, thinking and evaluating parts of our brains. Our heart beats faster to make sure there's blood where it's needed, our lungs breathe faster to supply more oxygen. Stress has evolved as a strategy for humans to face dangers, such as fleeing from a saber-toothed tiger or fighting off an attacker.

Even though bears, tigers or wolves have mostly disappeared from our present human habitats, our bodies still react just as strongly as if they were right in front of us.

So why then do we still stress? Our brains and bodies have simply not evolved to distinguish between the threat of a predator and the pressure in the conference room.

Most situations that trigger the stress response today are not physically dangerous. Instead, we feel stressed when we're faced with deadlines, have conflicts with loved ones, get stuck in traffic or have to make an important decision. As a result, our life-saving response is not really doing the job it evolved to do. In part, that explains why so many of us struggle with stress-related problems.
Stress can feel overwhelming and confusing
When an immediate threat is psychological it is harder to pinpoint. It may feel overwhelming and even confusing. High workloads, a diverse range of responsibilities, and complex relationships are some of the modern challenges for our brains and bodies – because there are no obvious solutions to most of these situations. And without obvious solutions the risk of a prolonged period of stress is higher.
When an immediate threat is psychological it is harder to pinpoint. It may feel overwhelming and even confusing. High workloads, a diverse range of responsibilities, and complex relationships are some of the modern challenges for our brains and bodies – because there are no obvious solutions to most of these situations. And without obvious solutions the risk of a prolonged period of stress is higher.

Stress has three components
Stress occurs when the demands and expectations we perceive exceed the resources available. Like this:
The division between demands and expectations may not always be perfectly clear, but one way to draw the line is to say that demands are explicit and expectations are implicit.

Demands are the outspoken things we are required to accomplish. For example: finishing a report on time, making x sale calls before Friday or hosting a workshop.

Expectations are both the silent (and often high) standards we set for ourselves and what we think others expect from us. Like, that report has to be perfect, those calls better be good ones and that workshop needs to be a success.

Finally, resources are what means we have to make the demands and expectations happen. On many occasions the resource we have is our own capacity and time.

To understand stress we need all three components of the model. And when we experience stressful periods – looking at the three components can help us find clues on what we can change.
Can stress be positive?
Some stress can be healthy and even exciting, such as the stress that comes from embarking on a new adventure like moving abroad or launching your own business.

Short-term stress can make us feel more alive and alert, motivated and get us going. For example, before an exam or big game, that surge of adrenaline gives us the energy to perform better. So in many ways, stress is our friend. It tries to help us solve problems and survive – and without it we'd be bored and unmotivated.

The key is to get enough stress to trigger us to perform or take on a challenge. But not too much, as it tends to make us overwhelmed, indecisive and unable to perform. An upside-down U-shaped curve can help us understand this:
Stress is the body's natural response to any challenge or threat, whether it is from the outside environment or from inside our heads. Our bodies are made to deal with it perfectly fine, when it comes and goes in waves. The recovery systems – with digestion, complex thinking and planning – get activated when the stress response goes down, and when the stress system is activated again, digestion, planning and complex thinking is put on hold until the next period of recovery.

So – and this is important – stress per se is not dangerous. It is when we experience long periods of stress and don't get to recover in between that it may hurt us.
Try these 29k courses for managing stress
What are signs of stress?
A short-lived stressful event is often called acute stress and usually ends relatively quickly. But it is the stress that goes on over time that can be problematic. It can even affect our mental and physical health if it continues for long without enough recovery.

How do we know if we're stressed? There are a number of signs that indicate we may be experiencing too much stress for too long:

  • Feel on edge or tense, often without knowing why.

  • Loss or increase of appetite.

  • Feel irritable and even angry, especially at small things.

  • Muscle tension, stomach aches or headaches.

  • Sleep problems, which can range from trouble falling asleep to restless nights and early mornings.

  • Heaviness or tightness of the chest.

  • Hopelessness, apathy or pessimism.

  • Tunnel vision, memory problems and/or concentration issues.

  • Increased anxiety and worry.

  • Fatigue (tiredness that won't go away even after sleeping/resting).

  • Behavioral changes, such as skipping lunch, canceling social activities, trying to do everything faster or always working late.

If we experience several of the issues above for a longer period of time, it may be a wise thing to take it as a trigger to start changing the way we work (and live).
We often experience stress because we feel overwhelmed with work demands – and with personal strain
Stressful situations at work now and then are – for most of us – unavoidable. But a stress problem is seldom one single thing, but many. It's often when several areas of life feel stressful, when there is no room for recovery, that we run into more severe problems. When we find ourselves in stressful periods, there are steps we can take to manage stress. Some may seem simple, but can be surprisingly effective.
Stressful situations at work now and then are – for most of us – unavoidable. But a stress problem is seldom one single thing, but many. It's often when several areas of life feel stressful, when there is no room for recovery, that we run into more severe problems. When we find ourselves in stressful periods, there are steps we can take to manage stress. Some may seem simple, but can be surprisingly effective.

Stress management techniques
Work smarter – not more

Adjusting (or clarifying) the demands and expectations is one way to cope with a stressful situation.

Rank priorities - adjust demands When we are stressed, it is often hard to know where to start. If we find ourselves incapable of getting going when the to do-list is long, one trick is to do a matrix with four quadrants:
  1. Draw a matrix like the one shown in the picture.

  2. Place all your tasks in a quadrant considering if the task is important, yes or no, and urgent, yes or no.

  3. Start doing the tasks in the upper right corner – those that are both important and urgent.

  4. Secondly, start with the tasks that are important but not urgent.

  5. The tasks that end up as being not important - exclude them from your to do-list.

  6. If all your tasks end up in the upper right quadrant – ask somebody for help. It can be a colleague or a manager. Someone who can help you see things from another perspective.

Make the implicit explicit (and adjust some expectations)

The unspoken is often very stressful or even scary, the outspoken not as much – because we can deal better with the known than with the unknown. To make all expectations clear we need to ask both ourselves and others about what expectations there are. Others seldom expect us to be perfect but rather good enough.

In most projects or tasks there are three dimensions to consider:
  1. Scope – how much, what quantity needs to be done?

  2. Time – when is the deadline? How much of our working hours can be put into this?

  3. Quality – on a scale from 1 to 5, how good does this task or project have to be?

These three dimensions are interdependent. If we have a task with a deadline that cannot be moved – we can change the other two aspects: scope and quality. If the scope is set in stone but not the other two, we can postpone the deadline or have more of our working hours devoted to this task, and/or lower the quality demands. If the quality needs to be a 5, then perhaps the scope can be lowered and/or the deadline postponed.

Saying no

Saying yes to requests of different kinds is a common pattern for many of us. It's nice to feel needed, other people tend to like a yes-sayer (and most of us want to be liked) and it feels good to be able to contribute. But in stressful times we are better off saying no, or at least ask for some time to think about it. Because when our plate is full, something else needs to go if we say yes to another thing. And that something is almost always our own time for recovery.

Saying no can be difficult, and sometimes it's hard to have one's no's respected. If that's the case, here are some pro tips:

  • Repeat your No, I can't help you with this over and over again, for every argument from the other person. If you sound like an old broken record stuck on repeat, there you have it.

  • Validate the other person. Let them know you understand that this task is important for them, but you are unable to help out.

  • Just say no. No excuses, no explanations.

  • Say no and add a brief explanation. You can't do this because you've already decided this other thing.

  • If you would like to do this thing, but another time, be explicit about it. You're busy today, but next week this would be nice.

  • Take responsibility for your no's. If you don't want to do something, say it.

  • Let the other know that you can do this, but then you would have to let another task be down-prioritized or postponed (very helpful with managers).
Set smart goals

Good goals are SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Accepted
  • Realistic
  • Time framed

Set smart goals

Good goals are SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Accepted
  • Realistic
  • Time framed
What is it that you want to achieve? Specific means that a goal should be specific enough to know when we've achieved it. Perform better at work, improving sleep, and doing better in school are all examples of non-specific goals. While keeping deadlines, sleep seven hours per night and raising my geography grade one notch are specific. We know when they are achieved.

The pro tip here is to set, or at least add-on, behavioral goals – goals that aim to increase or decrease an activity rather than the result of that activity. For the examples above the first one is already a behavior, while number two and three could be, start using a sleep routine and studying geography.

M for Measurable

How much and/or for how long should you be doing something? Measurable means setting up some sort of number to your goal. Like keeping three deadlines, introduce a ten-minute sleep routine and studying geography for two hours.

A for accepted


Accepted means that you, the owner of this particular goal, find it meaningful and important. If it's somebody else's wish behind it and not your own – it's not accepted.

R for realistic

Given where you are right now, is it possible to achieve what you aim to do within the available time frame (see below)? If there's only one week left before grades are set, it is not realistic to aim for a higher grade now. If you've been sleeping no more than five hours per night for some time, maybe it is not realistic to aim for sleeping seven hours within one week?

T for time framed

Smart goals have a timeline. When and how often will you do this? Like keeping three deadlines the coming two weeks, trying a ten-minute sleep routine for a week and studying geography for two hours every week.

Smart goals also have a time frame for evaluation: Try this for two weeks, evaluate and if needed, iterate.
Work in units

Working long hours may feel effective, but the opposite tends to be true. More hours do not equal more quality output. Instead, working in units – 45 minutes of focused work, then 15 minute break – may produce better results and actually reduce stress. The unit method involves setting a timer for 45 mins, interrupting your work right where you are, setting the timer for a 15 minute break, and repeat.

Reduce interruptions

In order for units to work at their best, we need to be focused. That means we need to make sure we are not interrupted. So, no phone, no Facebook, no internet, no email, no doing the dishes, no cleaning, no chatting to colleagues. Just focus on one task for the entire unit.

Batch simpler tasks

Batching is a word borrowed from the printing industry, where one prints similar stuff – like business cards – together, before adjusting the machines to print for example books. When it comes to other work, batching means to collect a bunch of minor tasks – like answering emails – and do them in chunks instead of now and then as they easily interrupt high quality work.

Do one thing at a time

Multitasking may feel efficient – but in fact it is not. Try this:

  1. Start a timer and write your name and phone number on a piece of paper. Note the time.

  2. Start a timer and write the first letter of your name, then the first number of your phone number. Then, the second letter of your name, and the second number of your phone number, and continue like that until you have written all the letters of your name and all numbers in your phone number. Note the time.

  3. Was there a difference between the time it took to complete the task in 1 and 2?

For most of us there is a big difference, favoring doing one thing and then the other. The effort it takes for our brains to try to do two things at the same time is also often much higher – so it also makes us more tired.

Set clear boundaries

An added modern day stressor is the blurred barrier between work and personal life that has increased massively the last few years. Even though many of us enjoy the new opportunities of working from home, it is so easy to go down that slippery slope and start checking emails, taking a zoom meeting, writing some extra or reading up on something in the evening. The research on this is however very clear: we benefit from boundaries. When work hours are work hours, family hours are family hours and me-time is me-time. Work-life-balance may be a worn out expression, but a very valid one.

Take real breaks


A real break means to do something that's the opposite from working/stressing activity. Working in front of a computer? Break with movement and no screen time. Working with heavy lifting? Break with resting. Taking short breaks often is better than a single long break, for both brain and body.
Increase resources
Shift your focus to what you can control. Accept what you can't
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. Some of these stressors we can affect, others are outside our control. Let's try an exercise.

  1. List all the things that are stressful for you right now.
  2. Then, divide the list into
    - what you can control and
    - what you cannot.
Seeing this in front of us on a piece of paper can make it easier to see our stressors more objectively. And above all, help us to focus on what we can do instead of spending hours and hours dwelling on the things we can't. 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.

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. Some of these stressors we can affect, others are outside our control. Let's try an exercise.

  1. List all the things that are stressful for you right now.

  2. Then, divide the list into
    - what you can control and
    - what you cannot.
Seeing this in front of us on a piece of paper can make it easier to see our stressors more objectively. And above all, help us to focus on what we can do instead of spending hours and hours dwelling on the things we can't. 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.
Seven tools to cope with everyday stress
  1. Plan recovery first when planning a work week. And do not change those hours.

  2. Set clear boundaries between work and home life. Do not work after working hours.

  3. Turn off your push notifications – the constant updates are both distracting, socially interrupting and stress-inducing

  4. Schedule your social media and email checks to twice a day instead of shifting back and forth throughout the workday.

  5. Exercising three times a week for 30 minutes minimizes stress. Small breaks for movement every day are helpful as well.

  6. Walking in green spaces has been proven to reduce stress levels. So take a walk in the woods!

  7. Make time for social activities
Create a personal de-stress routine
Sometimes it is hard to leave thoughts about the workday behind after getting home. Or hard to wind down at home with piles of chores to do, children needing help or conflicts with partners or friends. Creating a personal toolbox can come in handy when times get rough.

Here's the simple routine to de-stress that 29k psychologist Jenny Rickardsson is using.

  1. Practicing being present. When biking home from work, I focus on my senses one by one. I try to notice three things with each of them: sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste. This grounds me in the present moment and helps me keep my thoughts in the here and now.
  2. Short breaks every hour. I try to stick to working 45 mins and taking real breaks for 15 mins, each working hour. Sometimes it is not feasible, but most of the time it is. And it really makes me go through the day more refreshed and focused.
  3. Stick to my plan for physical activity. I do mostly low intensity activity due to an injury, so walking, walking and some biking is what I do for exercise. Thinking of it as tooth brushing for the body.
  4. Staying social. When things pile up – I tend to cancel my social life. When I notice that happening – I de-cancel it, and instead make it my prio one.
Sometimes it is hard to leave thoughts about the workday behind after getting home. Or hard to wind down at home with piles of chores to do, children needing help or conflicts with partners or friends. Creating a personal toolbox can come in handy when times get rough.

Here's the simple routine to de-stress that 29k psychologist Jenny Rickardsson is using.

  1. Practicing being present. When biking home from work, I focus on my senses one by one. I try to notice three things with each of them: sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste. This grounds me in the present moment and helps me keep my thoughts in the here and now.

  2. Short breaks every hour. I try to stick to working 45 mins and taking real breaks for 15 mins, each working hour. Sometimes it is not feasible, but most of the time it is. And it really makes me go through the day more refreshed and focused.

  3. Stick to my plan for physical activity. I do mostly low intensity activity due to an injury, so walking, walking and some biking is what I do for exercise. Thinking of it as tooth brushing for the body.

  4. Staying social. When things pile up – I tend to cancel my social life. When I notice that happening – I de-cancel it, and instead make it my prio one.
Stress in a nutshell
Stress may feel extreme or dangerous, but it is a natural part of our psychological and physiological makeup. Stress is necessary to motivate us and help us achieve things in life. It is when it gets too much for too long that it can be dangerous. Making time for recovery is key, and distinguishing between what's within our control and what's outside our control can help us handle the situation when things pile up. Lowering demands and expectations and/or increasing our resources are also important measures to take charge in a stressful situation.

And remember to now and then send a ray of gratitude to our mind and body for doing its fundamental work - keeping us alive.
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.
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