Stress Management Techniques, Strategies & Activities For Life
What happens when we continue “burning the candle at both ends” until we reach physical and emotional exhaustion?
Just like the candle itself, we risk burning ourselves out.
There is a parable of a frog sitting in a pot on the stove. If dropped into a pot of boiling water, a frog would likely notice and try to escape. But when placed in a pot that is slowly approaching a boil, the frog doesn’t notice until the water has already reached an unbearable heat—at which point it is too hot for the frog to survive.
Have you ever experienced a slow acceptance of the pressures around you, until everything is “just too much” and you can barely cope?
If so, you’re not alone. About 8.3 million American adults were reported to have experienced serious psychological distress in 2017 (“More Americans suffering from stress, anxiety, and depression, study finds,” 2018).
So what if we could notice the boiling signs earlier and even “turn down” the heat?
If stress “has become one of the most serious health issues of the 20th century and a worldwide epidemic,” then it is time to start growing our tools in handling stress
(“Workplace Stress,” 2018).
What is Stress Management? A Definition
Put simply, stress management is:
“set of techniques and programs intended to help people deal more effectively with stress in their lives by analysing the specific stressors and taking positive actions to minimize their effects” (Gale Encyclopaedia of Medicine, 2008).
Popular examples of stress management include meditation, yoga, and exercise. We’ll explore these in detail, with a range of different approaches to ensure that there’s something that works for everyone.
First, let’s set one thing straight: we’re not aiming towards being stress-free all of the time. That’s unrealistic. After all, it’s an unavoidable human response that we all experience from time to time—and it’s not all bad either.
However, we can all benefit from identifying our stress and managing it better. Before we dive any deeper into managing stress, let’s cover a quick 101 on stress itself.
What is stress?
Stress is the “psychological, physiological and behavioural response by an individual when they perceive a lack of equilibrium between the demands placed upon them and their ability to meet those demands, which, over a period of time, leads to ill-health” (Palmer, 1989).
Symptoms of stress
Although we all experience stress differently, some common symptoms include:
Weight gain or weight loss;
Sweaty hands or feet;
and obsessive or compulsive behaviors.
More examples of stress symptoms can be found here at The American Institute of Stress website.
Why is stress helpful?
Historically, stress was our friend. It acted as a protective mechanism that warned us of danger; a natural reaction that told us when to run. This response is now referred to as the “fight or flight” response, or the “stress response.” When your evolutionary ancestors saw a saber-toothed cat and ran from it, stress saved their life.
Stress has remained part of the evolutionary drive because of its usefulness in survival. When used at the right time, stress increases our awareness and improves physical performance in short bursts (Van Duyne, 2003).
Why is stress harmful?
Repetitive exposure of the stress response on our body is proven to lead to long-lasting psychological and physical health issues; these include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, anxiety and depression (“How Does Stress Affect Us?”, 2016).
Stress versus burnout
What’s the difference between stress and burnout? Stress is inevitable. Burnout isn’t.
While stress is our response, burnout is the accumulation of excessive stressors over time, which results in unmanageable stress levels.
American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first termed the word “burnout” in the 1970s, referring to the effect of extreme stress and high ideals placed on “helping” professionals, such as doctors and nurses (“Depression: What is burnout?”, 2018).
Today, the word has evolved. It is now used more broadly to refer to the consequences of “excessive stress” placed on any individual, no matter their occupation. When we get to the point of no longer being able to cope, we are “burned out,” like a candle.
This is where stress management can offer tools, and help people avoid the unpleasant experience of burnout.
14 Facts About Stress & Burnout
If you’re not yet convinced about the need to prioritize stress management, these 14 facts might help:
Stress has been referred to as the “silent killer” as it can cause heart disease, high blood pressure, chest pain, and an irregular heartbeat (Chilnick, 2008).
Telogen effluvium is the result of hair loss caused by stress that can happen up to three months after a stressful event (McEwen, 2003).
Stress accounts for 30% of all infertility problems. In women, stress can cause spasms in the fallopian tubes and uterus. In men, it can reduce sperm count and cause erectile dysfunction (Bouchez, 2018).
Researchers have found that stress worsens acne, more so than the prevalence of oily skin (Warner, 2002).
Stress can cause weight gain too. The stress hormone cortisol has been found to cause both the accumulation of abdominal fat and the enlargement of fat cells, causing “diseased” fat (Chilnick, 2008).
Correlations have been found between stress and the top six causes of death: cancer, lung ailments, heart disease, liver cirrhosis, accidents, and suicide (“How Does Stress Affect Us?”, 2016).
In children, chronic stress has been found to negatively impact their developmental growth due to a reduction of the growth hormone in the pituitary gland (Van der Kolk, B. et. al., 2007).
The word itself, “stress” stems from the Latin word stringere, meaning “to draw tight” (McEwen, 2003).
In the event of chronic stress, dominant hormones are released into our brain. These hormones are intended for short-term emergencies and in the event where they exist for extended periods they can shrink, impair and kill brain cells (Wallenstein, 2003).
Stress can increase the likelihood of developing blood clots since the blood prepares itself for injuries and becomes “stickier” (Chilnick, 2008).
Chronic stress can place pressure on, and cause damage to arteries and organs. This occurs due to inflation in our bodies caused by cytokines (a result of stress) (McEwen, 2003).
Stress is also responsible for altering our blood sugar levels, which can lead to fatigue, hyperglycemia, mood swings, and metabolic syndrome (“How Does Stress Affect Us?”, 2016).
On a positive note, we can reduce our stress levels by laughing. Having a chuckle, lowers the stress hormones, including cortisol, epinephrine, and adrenaline. Laughing also strengthens our immune system by releasing positive hormones (Wallenstein, 2003).
More good news, especially for chocolate lovers—dark chocolate has been found to reduce stress hormones (Wallenstein, 2003).
7 Tips for Stress Management
Before discussing stress management techniques, there are several factors to consider.
The following 7 tips are adapted from The American Psychological Association (“Check Out the Stress Tip Sheet,” 2018) to support individuals with a stress management plan:
1. Understand your stress
How do you stress? It can be different for everybody. By understanding what stress looks like for you, you can be better prepared, and reach for your stress management toolbox when needed.
2. Identify your stress sources
What causes you to be stressed? Be it work, family, change or any of the other potential thousand triggers.
3. Learn to recognize stress signals
We all process stress differently so it’s important to be aware of your individual stress symptoms. What are your internal alarm bells? Low tolerance, headaches, stomach pains or a combination from the above‘Symptoms of stress’
4. Recognize your stress strategies
What is your go-to tactic for calming down? These can be behaviors learned over years and sometimes aren’t the healthy option. For example, some people cope with stress by self-medicating with alcohol or overeating.
5. Implement healthy stress management strategies
It’s good to be mindful of any current unhealthy coping behaviors so you can switch them out for a healthy option. For example, if overeating is your current go to, you could practice meditation instead, or make a decision to phone a friend to chat through your situation. The American Psychological Association suggest that switching out one behavior at a time is most effective in creating positive change.
6. Make self-care a priority
When we make time for ourselves, we put our well-being before others. This can feel selfish to start, but it is like the airplane analogy—we must put our own oxygen mask on before we can assist others. The simplest things that promote well-being, such as enough sleep, food, downtime, and exercise are often the ones overlooked.
Self-care is group-care.
7. Ask for support when needed
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, reach out to a friend or family member you can talk to. Speaking with a healthcare professional can also reduce stress, and help us learn healthier coping strategies.
13 Different Stress Management Techniques & Strategies
These tips are thing we can all benefit from doing more of. The techniques are categorized into three groups:
Action Orientated Approaches: used to take action to change a stressful situation
Emotion-oriented approaches: used to change the way we perceive a stressful situation
Acceptance-oriented approaches: used for dealing with stressful situations you can’t control
Explore the below options and find what combination works best for keeping your stress levels under control.
Action-oriented approaches allow you to take action and change the stressful situation.
As Nelson & Hurrell said:
“Stress is inevitable, distress is not”
1. Be assertive
Clear and effective communication is the key to being assertive. When we’re assertive, we can ask for what we want or need, and also explain what is bothering us. The key is doing this in a fair and firm manner while still having empathy for others. Once you identify what you need to communicate, you can stand up for yourself and be proactive in altering the stressful situation.
2. Reduce the noise
Switching off all the technology, screen time, and constant stimuli can help us slow down. How often do you go offline? It is worth changing, for your own sake.
Make time for some quietness each day. You may notice how all those seemingly urgent things we need to do become less important and crisis-like. That to-do list will be there when you’re in a place to return to it. Remember that recharging is a very effective way of tackling stress.
3. Manage your time
If we let them, our days will consume us. Before we know it, the months have become overwhelmingly busy. When we prioritize and organize our tasks, we create a less stressful and more enjoyable life.
4. Creating boundaries
Boundaries are the internal set of rules that we establish for ourselves. They outline what behaviors we will and won’t accept, how much time and space we need from others, and what priorities we have.
Healthy boundaries are essential for a stress-free life. When we have healthy boundaries we respect ourselves and take care of our well-being by clearly expressing our boundaries to others.
Watch this video to help establish healthy boundaries:
One of the tips in the video can help you prioritize your wants. For example, let’s say you are invited to a social event this weekend, but you have not had any time for yourself. The idea of reading a book and eating Chinese take-out sounds like your dream, but you’re afraid of hurting someone’s feelings if you don’t attend.
It could be helpful to consider what you would do, if no one cared either way. If no one cares, maybe you decide to have a low-key evening by yourself. If someone really cares, and that relationship matters to you, you’d probably benefit more from making an appearance at the event.
5. Get out of your head
Sometimes it’s best not to even try contending with the racing thoughts. Sometimes you just need a break. Distract yourself. Watch a movie, phone or catch up with a friend, go for a walk, or do something positive that you know takes your mind off things.
Emotion-oriented approaches are used to change the way we perceive stressful situations.
In the words of William James:
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another”
6. Affirmations and imagery
The power of positive imagery and affirmations is now scientifically proven to increase positive emotion.
How? When you think of a positive experience, your brain perceives it to be a reality.
So, replace those negative thoughts with positive statements and challenge and change the way you see and experience the world.
7. Cognitive Restructuring
In the mid-1950’s psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis developed what cognitive restructuring, a technique for understanding negative emotions and challenging the sometimes incorrect beliefs that cause them. Cognitive restructuring is a key component of Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
8. ABC Technique
The ABC technique was also originally created by psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis and was later adapted by Martin Seligman.
The letters ABC stand for; A – adversity, or the stressful event. B – beliefs, or the way that you respond to the event. Then C – consequences, the result of your beliefs lead to the actions and outcome of that event.
Essentially, the more optimistic your beliefs, the more positive the outcome.
More information about this technique and how you can implement it here:
What are the consequences of your current belief systems? It is worth investing in.
Acceptance-oriented approaches are useful in stressful situations that you cannot control.
Epictetus, the Greek philosopher had it right when he said:
“Men are disturbed not by things but by the views they take of them”
9. Diet and Exercise
You’ve heard it before, but you are what you eat. Be mindful of having a balanced and healthy diet. Making simple diet changes, such as reducing your alcohol, caffeine and sugar intake is a proven way of reducing anxiety.
Another guaranteed way to reduce stress is exercise. It’s proven to also be as effective as antidepressants in relieving mild depression.
So… get moving! (We know it’s easier said than done).
10. Meditation and physical relaxation
Use techniques such as deep breathing, guided visualizations, yoga, and guided body scans. These activities help relax the body. Some examples for you to try out are included below.
11. Build resilience
Resiliency is our ability to bounce back from stressful or negative experiences.
To simplify, resilient people are skilled at accepting that the situation has occurred, they learn from what transpired and then they move on.
12. Talk it out
Don’t hold it all inside. Talk to someone close to you about your worries or the things getting you down. Sharing worries can cut them in half, and also give you a chance to laugh at potentially absurd situations.
Many of our worries sound a lot less worrisome when we say them out loud.
If you don’t feel up to sharing, writing them down is also a great way to release them. Or maybe engage with an independent professional. There are plenty of services available, including free services, which you can quickly google to find what’s available in your city.
Getting a good night sleep is fundamental for recharging and dealing with stressful situations in the best possible way. While it varies from individual to individual, on the exact amount of sleep needed, an uninterrupted sleep of approximately 8 hours is generally recommended.
Ensure that you get enough Zzzz’s.
Stress Management In The Workplace
Whether it be extended hours, near impossible deadlines, demanding colleagues or unappreciative bosses, workplace stress is something many people are familiar with.
According to the World Health Organization’s definition, occupational or work-related psychosocial stress “is the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.” (Leka, Griffiths, & Cox, 2003)
But the effects of workplace stress aren’t simply isolated to the workplace; they spill over into our personal relationships, our home lives, and our overall productivity.
Duke University found that workplace stress was responsible for over 70% of workplace accidents, 50% of absenteeism, and over $300 billion in associated costs (“Stress Facts in the Workplace,” 2018).