Just as physical fitness gives you greater endurance when you’re running around, there’s much you can do to build your stress fitness – your resistance to the toxic pressures and demands life can throw at you. Your heart races, your muscles get tense and it’s hard to think straight. For those of us who often find ourselves feeling stressed out, it’s tempting to think you’re just a born “stress head” and there’s nothing you can do about it. But just as physical fitness helps improve your endurance, strength and stamina, “stress fitness” makes you more resistant to the negative effects of excessive pressures and demands, says Sydney psychologist Sarah Edelman. And it’s something we can all develop if we work at it.
1. Know your enemy
As for any effective battle, a plan of attack is vital. To fight potential stressors, it helps to first make an “action plan” of your personal stress triggers. “Ask yourself ‘what are some of the key stressors in your life?’ and are there things you can work on. The very act of planning and executing a strategy helps reduce feelings of helplessness and frustration,” Edelman says. You will need to open your mind to all strategies which could conceivably improve the situation and be prepared to work through trying them one by one. “If it’s a relationship problem, it might be that learning more about effective communication could help. Or you may need to have an honest conversation – to reduce the threat in the relationship through self disclosure. If the problem is being overwhelmed at work, you might talk to your supervisor or your work style may be a factor.”
2. Get stress smart
Understanding the mechanics of stress in the body is a big help and you might be surprised how many excellent – and often free – resources are out there to help you do this. Did you know for instance that feeling stressed can change the way you breathe and this can alter the balance of gases in your body and make you feel bad? Deliberately controlling your breathing with specific exercises can help reverse this. (Try the 10-minute breathing exercise.) It can also help to read about how stress affects your emotions (it can cause anger and lead to depression and anxiety), the way we think (it can affect concentration and memory) and the way we behave (increased drinking and smoking, or insomnia).
3. Rethink your thinking
It’s easy to blame factors in the environment for our stress, but often it’s the way we think about situations that is a large part of the problem, Edelman says. Are you a tunnel vision person, filtering out the positive aspects of a situation and focusing only on the negatives? Or perhaps you’re a mind reader, who’s quite sure of what others are thinking of you, even when they’ve said nothing to give their feelings away? A job that seems too difficult or demanding, for instance, might be more manageable if you let go of certain inflexible beliefs, such as the notion you should never ever make mistakes, or that it’s essential everyone in your workplace approves of you at all time, Edelman suggests. “You’re human so sometimes you will make mistakes. Most of the time nothing terrible will happen.”
4. Practise relaxation
If you’ve ever noticed how stiff and sore your body feels after a rough day, you’ll know that tense muscles are a key part of the way our bodies respond to stress. That’s why relaxation exercises, where you learn to progressively release tension from major muscle groups, are a great stressbuster. But practising relaxation regularly – even when you’re not stressed – is also a buffer to becoming stressed in the first place. That’s because it helps lower “baseline arousal”, so we become less vigilant in anticipating threatening situations, Edelman says. Regular practice also means you get better at the skill of recognising and releasing tension. “You become more aware of when you’re starting to tense up and actually catch yourself [before it happens].” Initially you might need to practice a full body relaxation that takes 20 or 30 minutes. But do that daily for a couple of weeks, and a quicker body scan of say, just four key muscle groups, may achieve a similar result. Initially it helps to have a quiet place to practise, but over time you will get better at doing it in different environments. You can also learn to use “cue words” – such as saying the word “relax” as you exhale – to trigger a relaxed state. (You can try our Deep breathing relaxation.)
5. Be mindful
Overactivation of the body’s stress response (that prepares us to either fight off or escape situations we perceive as dangerous or threatening) is much more likely when we have a distracted or inattentive mind. Practising being mindful can help prevent this. Being mindful involves focusing your attention on what you are experiencing here and now, without reacting to or judging it. You can do this while just going about everyday activities like having a shower, washing the dishes or eating a meal. You can also do it in a more formal way, such as a mindfulness meditation. Being mindful involves focusing on sensations, such as the breath or feelings in different parts of the body, to help direct your attention onto the present moment. (Try out this short mindfulness meditation audio guide.) “The basic philosophy of mindfulness is that it’s the resistance to unpleasant emotions or sensations that creates added pain. If you can learn to just watch with curiosity, you don’t get the secondary distress. You learn that thoughts are just thoughts not truths.”
6. Balance work with play
When work deadlines are looming, your kids have a run of illness, and you’re up for some expensive repairs on your car, it’s hard to find the headspace to initiate a night out with friends. But spend too much time on challenges and difficulties and not enough on things you enjoy and your stress fitness will suffer. Put simply, “a balanced lifestyle reduces vulnerability to stress,” Edelman says. Absorbing interests take your mind off worries, and give a sense of fun and freedom to your life.
7. Nurture relationships
If your hobbies and leisure time can be spent with others, rather than solo, you’ll be nurturing relationships that can be a vital stress buffer. Friends help distract and relax us, they offer a different perspective on problems and can be a source of practical and emotional support in a crisis. “You could commit to book theatre tickets or say play bridge with a friend so you see them on a weekly basis,” Edelman says. “Give yourself permission to have fun regularly without feeling guilty. Just being aware of the need to prioritise it is important.”
8. Look after your body
We are much better able to cope with stressful situations when we have high levels of energy. That means getting regular physical exercise (even just brisk walking), eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and generally not abusing your body with alcohol or other drugs. “You need a wholistic approach to managing stress,” Edelman says.
This article first appeared ABC, 30 March 2015.