This is a guest post by Dr Leah Bijelic, from the University of Sheffield Counselling Service. Leah is a trained and experienced therapist and trainer, and is supporting the Emotionally Demanding Research Network by sharing her expertise in vicarious trauma and stress management.
Would you like to be smarter, more creative and have better relationships? An essential step towards all of this is stress management. As well as taking a toll on our physical and emotional health, stress makes us inflexible. It triggers a response to threat – which prioritizes our ability to fight or flee, i.e. primal emotions and motor control. When this happens, abstract thinking and creativity take a back seat.
If we want to thrive in an increasingly competitive and fast-paced world and to look after our relationships, we must integrate stress management in our everyday lives. That requires some initial planning and some ongoing maintenance. It can be useful to think in terms of three principles – the A, B, and C of sustainable stress management:
A stands for Awareness
Awareness of how we are day to day helps us to recognize when things are getting unmanageable. Stopping and checking how we feel emotionally, physically and relationally once or twice a day helps prevent the gradual deterioration in wellbeing that is a path to chronic stress. Staying in the present moment – aware of what we are doing and how we feel as we do it, is both preventative and restorative. A journal or diary, regular mindfulness practice or other meditation helps cultivate this capacity.
B stands for Balance
As stress is caused by experiences of being overwhelmed or of relentless pressure, a key intervention is to stop or to shift pace. We need extended breaks like holidays yes, but we also need to build breaks in as a routine part of daily life. It’s important to have days off – spending at least one day per week doing something different and fun. We should take time every day to get out of the office or lab e.g. for lunch or coffee. Even regular 30-second breaks where we stop, change position, stretch, breathe deeply and notice how we are – contributes significantly to our wellbeing. A change may not be as good as a rest but it does help if we can modulate the day and the week by alternating the intense, challenging tasks with more routine jobs.
C stands for Connection
Feeling connected to oneself (i.e. one’s values and sense of meaning) and to others in our lives is one of the best protective factors. It gives us context and brings perspective to our work. Having a clear sense of how our work contributes to the wider field is important. Feeling like we belong – to communities, neighbourhoods, in the world – adds to our sense of worth. Having a rich life outside of work makes us resilient to ups and downs in our professional lives. Building relationships at work also helps.
Stress management plan
For many of us, if we have no solid plan, stress management will remain just a desirable aspiration. Start by identifying elements of your plan, e.g. physical activities, social activities, relationship goals, behavioural changes. Notice what may get in the way of you doing these things – and identify how you can overcome these barriers. Then list any symptoms that, when they arise would signal a need for change. These may include physical symptoms e.g. headaches or skin complaints; psychological symptoms such as sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating or low self-esteem; and behavioural symptoms such as irritability or a tendency to withdraw from relationships. Make a time each day when you will stop and notice these signs. Ask others for feedback from time to time. Make a date in your diary each month or two to review and revise your plan. Thrive!