It’s important to say first, that stress at work is not your sole responsibility. Your place of work or study has a responsibility to ensure you have reasonable working conditions and workloads, and that you have time to yourself, time away on leave, and breaks during the day. The University of Sheffield expects all members of staff to treat each other with dignity, courtesy and respect at all times. If you feel your working conditions are not reasonable and respectful, please see sources of support here for staff or here for postgraduate students. – Kay Guccione
Below is a guest post by Laura Armstrong, an Occupational Therapist working in the NHS.
As an Occupational Therapist I aim to increase a person’s function in their ‘occupations’ otherwise known as your activities of daily living, and consequently improve their quality of life. Activities of daily living are all the things that you want to do and all the things that you need to do; activities that are purposeful and meaningful to you. Hobbies, friends, family, interests, sports, games, holidays and recreation, as well as work and study.
Unmanaged stress and anxiety can impact on your ability to carry out these meaningful activities; this understandably leads to deterioration in physical and mental health.
The key to managing anxiety is being able to relax. Are you good at relaxing? By relaxing I don’t mean sitting in front of the TV, and then realising you have no idea what just happened for the past twenty minutes because your mind was thinking about something else. Relaxation is defined as the state of being free from tension and anxiety.
Unfortunately most people are not good at relaxing – the culture we live in encourages that we should always be ‘doing’ something, and we feel guilty if we rest and relax. There has been a lot of recent press coverage naming academia as a particularly competitive and stressful environment, and reporting the impact of this on the health of the people who work within these cultures. Research staff and students often describe feelings of guilt, it prevents them from taking a break, or from really relaxing.
You may have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response – this is our body’s biological stress response. In order to manage your fight or flight response, you can take steps to trigger your ‘rest and digest’ response – your relaxation response.
The following techniques are some of my favourites. However, there are lots of techniques that are designed to trigger your relaxation response, and you need to find the techniques that work for you. Many relaxation techniques assist your body and mind to focus on one thing at a time which has been proven to be very stress reducing. You may have heard of this before under the term ‘mindfulness’ whereby you are practicing being mindful of each thing you do.
Give each relaxation technique a go at least three times before you decide whether it is for you or not. Before you start a relaxation technique, ensure that you will not be disturbed, move your phone away from you, and make sure you are comfortable (also make sure you don’t need a wee and you aren’t hungry or thirsty!). You can sit up or lie down, you can be in silence or use music. You can close your eyes if you want to.
Relaxation technique 1: Progressive Muscle Relaxation
The idea is to focus on each part of your body at a time and tense and then relax the muscles, in order to let go of tension.
The important bit: at each part take time to notice the difference between the tension and relaxation.
You can do each bit twice if you like:
- Bring your eyebrows together into a frown, and then relax your forehead.
- Clench your teeth together and then let your jaw relax, feel your face relax.
- Bring your shoulders up towards your ears, then relax.
- Clench your hands into a fist, and tense the muscles all along your arms, then relax.
- Clench your thigh muscles and buttocks, then relax.
- Point your toes to the ceiling with your heels on the floor and feel tension in your calf muscles and then relax.
Relaxation technique 2: Relaxed breathing
Our breathing is often affected by anxiety and we may not even be aware of it. You can take a few minutes to ensure you are breathing in a relaxed manner.
Make your breath out longer than your breath in. The breath in is a gentle breath (doesn’t need to be really deep). If it helps, breathe out for a count of 6, and in for a count of 4. Or think about breathing around a rectangle – breathe out along the long side, and in along the short side.
Some people like to breathe out through their mouth and in through their nose, but it’s up to you. Try and breathe from your tummy and rest your hand there (your tummy should move out when you breathe in, and back in again when you breathe out).
Why not have a go at noticing your muscle tension or how your breathing is at regular intervals – for example you could take time to check when you’re waiting in traffic or waiting for your bus, or perhaps before bedtime or just before your lunch. Maybe set a computer screensaver or your phone lock screen with a reminder to notice your tension and breathing. Check in with yourself and become more self-aware about any tension and anxiety you may be holding.