A while ago, (when we could see meet face-to-face, which seems like eons ago) I had the privilege of running a workshop for doctors training to become General Practitioners. It was great fun and while I was the trainer/facilitator, I learned an awful lot about what it was like to walk in their shoes. My own medical training was many years ago and of course things had changed a lot since then. We touched on various topics, including time management, team working, stress management and resilience. In the light of staff shortages and an aging population, it seemed like there had never been a time when managing stress well was so crucial as then. Little did we know what lay ahead. Never in our wildest dreams would any of us have imagined that we would be witnessing and facing such a time of stress and pressure as now.
I realise that while times may change, the lessons we learn stay largely the same. We just need to learn them on a different, higher level. We cannot really talk about stress management without also looking at the concept of resilience. Without resilience, it is almost impossible to manage stress well. While different people have different stressors and handle stress differently, one thing is common to all – stress can and does have negative effects on our emotional, mental and physical health.
Stress is a normal physical response to events that threaten or upset your equilibrium in some way. When you sense danger – whether it’s real or imagined – the body's defences react through an automatic response known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response. The body’s stress response is its way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused and energetic, and alerts you in emergencies or dangerous situations. The stress response can also help you rise to meet the challenges you may face. Stress is what keeps you alert at an interview, sharpens your concentration during an examination or presentation, and keeps you longer at work in order to finish a project instead of procrastinating. Most people have an optimum level of stress that they can cope with and beyond this, stress stops being helpful and becomes disruptive. Research has shown that stress can and does cause major damage to your health, mood, productivity, relationships, and quality of life as a whole. This latter is sometimes referred to as bad stress.
For most of us, stress builds up over time and we don’t realise that we are stressed until things come to a head and something significant happens. It’s a bit like blowing a gasket suddenly. There might have been a problem that developed over time and generally went unnoticed until, ‘wham’! The proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back descends. We can learn to recognise the signs of stress and do something about it before we reach that blowout point or even better, we can learn to reduce the stress in our lives on a continual basis so that we never ever get to the point where we feel overwhelmed. A major determinant of how an individual copes with stress is their resilience.
Resilience is defined as the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity. I often describe resilience as the ability to bend without breaking. It explains how two people can go through exactly the same challenges and emerge differently. While one person may end up with a nervous breakdown, the other might come out seemingly unscathed. Resilience is necessary for success in work, business and personal life. And you’ll be glad to know it is not just something you are born with, but a skill that you can develop over time.
There are several ways of building resilience. The benefits of increased resilience include quicker recovery from setbacks, less susceptibility to stressors in your life and the ability to turn challenges into opportunities. These are a few helpful ways you can start to build your resilience:
Acknowledge the challenge – don’t try to ignore what’s happening. Verbalising the problem or stressor goes a long way in reducing its bite.
Tell your story – a problem shared really is a problem halved. Talking about what you are facing to an empathetic, wise friend, colleague or partner will help you put things in perspective. They might even have some words of advice that will help you solve the problem.
Change your self-talk – Cognitive behavioural therapists help their clients change their negative self-talk because it has been shown that this has a direct impact on your feelings and subsequently your well-being. If your self-talk is very pessimistic and self-depreciating, then it needs to change to one that is more optimistic.
Learn to tune into positive emotions – this follows on from the previous pint. Recognise when your emotions are pulling you down and find something that you can focus on that will lift you up. Some people use music, exercise or meditation to achieve this positive state.
Develop flexibility – have the attitude that if one thing doesn’t work, there is something else that will. Make plans, but be willing to change them if they are not working. A rigid pipe is more likely to break than a flexible one. It’s the same with plans and goals.
Choose your battles wisely - learn which battles to fight and which ones to let go off because the emotional investment just isn’t worth it.
Where does your motivation come from? When you recognise what motivates you, then you can deliberately use that thing or activity whenever you feel demotivated. I love to read autobiographies of people who have overcome great challenges as this encourages me not to give up in the face of my own challenges.
Keep your eyes on the prize (visualisation). Athletes use this technique to focus when they are in a race. Reminding yourself of what you are hoping to achieve or where you are headed is good way of ensuring that you are not distracted by problems or stressors.
Finally, don’t be too proud to ask for help when you need it. An old proverb says: “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
If you would like to know more about managing stress, get my free E-book 10 Days to Reduce your Stress