Participating in a phone-in this morning (BBC Five Live with Nicky Campbell) on stress I was struck by the enormous range in capacity that people have when coping with stressful lives. This is perhaps not surprising since all human abilities show a complete spectrum of skill level. It’s also true that perception plays an important part in how we cope.
Inevitably, an discussion on stress becomes like a poker game of the ‘I’ll see your disaster and raise you a catastrophe‘ variety. However, stress is not a level playing field. Our ways of reacting to stress and coping with stress depend to a great extent on learning, such as how parents, family and friends cope with stress and whether we have inherited a pessimistic or optimistic outlook on life. It’s also our unique pattern of life events has also pre-disposed us to view stress in different ways.
The main thing that emerged from the phone-in was that sometimes it only look a brief respite from overwhelming stress to make things seem more manageable. It’s often the little things in life that make us happy and make difficult times more bearable. So, people might say that they need a ‘bloody good holiday’ when sometimes a cup of tea and a chat would do the trick.
It’s important to recognise that we all need a bit of stress in our lives to get us performing at our best. The good stress is called eustress. We talk about an ‘adrenaline rush’ that carries us through difficult times. The problem is that there is a tipping point. A little bit of stress improves performance but high levels of stress have a detrimental effect. The ‘bad’ stress is distress.
One of the things that we can do for ourselves is to build in little breaks throughout the day and take time out (away from our stressors) and just take some long, slow deep breaths. This cuts against the stress cycle and can take the edge off things. We instinctively do it every time we brace ourselves for a difficult task and ‘take a deep breath’. We do this to take the edge of our stress and get it back with in productive limits.
One thing we can do for others is to listen without feeling the need to trump their stress with tales of your own. Sometimes people just want to be heard. So do something nice for someone and just listen for a few minutes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fighter pilot listening to someone talk about a difficult boss. Just because you have experienced more stress than they can possibly imagine, that doesn’t take anything away from their own distress. In fact, there’s nothing worse than being told ‘you problems are nothing’. It only adds to the stress.
Sometimes people feel guilty for feeling tired and stressed out especially when others are depending on them. However, it’s not self-centred to need a break: it’s human and it makes good sense. Think of aeroplane emergencies. People are told to put on their own masks before they help their children. In short, you look after yourself first so that you are better equipped to take care of others.
Overall, the thing about stress is that we can learn to cope in ways that are more productive and that starts with taking a more strategic approach and building in relaxation to your schedule (however brief) whether or not you think you need it. So practising a few breathing exercises, getting some fresh air, having a cop of tea and a chat. The secret is to work out what works for you (and your circumstances) and then practice it, almost religiously, everyday. The more we practice the more deeply conditioned the response becomes. In short, these little safety valves become habits. Getting into the habit of improving your response to stress on a day-to-day basis can automatically help you be better prepared when faced with tough situations.