Build your stress fitness
You can’t avoid stress, but there is much you can do to help build resilience to the toxic pressures of everyday life.
Your heart races, your muscles get tense and it’s hard to think straight. If you’re someone who gets stressed often, 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 gives you greater endurance when you’re running around, “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.
“There’s a lot you can do to build resilience [to stress] but some of it requires more consistent effort,” says Edelman who works in private practice in Sydney.
When planning a stress fitness regime, she suggests starting with a stress inventory.
“Ask yourself what are some of the key stresses 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.”
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.”
While we often blame factors in the environment for our stress, often it’s the way we think, rather than situations themselves that are a large part of the problem, she says.
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.
“You’re human so sometimes you will make mistakes. Most of the time nothing terrible will happen.”
Exploring some of the excellent online resources that can help you learn about stress – and the role your thinking style can play in exacerbating it – is a great place to start, Edelman says. (The further info section below lists some resources. There are also many good self-help books available.)
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.
Practising mindful awareness – the art of observing but not judging or responding to difficult thoughts and emotions – is also great for developing stress resilience, Edelman says.
“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.”
If you feel like you don’t have time to practise relaxation or being mindful, it’s probably a sign you need to, she says. Take the time to relax and be mindful and you’ll learn many of the things you believe have to get done can actually wait.
“When people are less anxious, they’re thoughts are less urgent and desperate,” Edelman says.
Keep your life balanced
When work deadlines are looming, your kids have a run of illness, and your car breaks down, 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, or on nurturing relationships, and your stress fitness will suffer.
Put simply, “a balanced lifestyle reduces vulnerability to stress,” Edelman says. Not only do absorbing interests take your mind off worries, but when you do them with friends you’re developing social networks that are a vital support resource 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. Give yourself permission to have fun regularly without feeling guilty. Just being aware of the need to prioritise it is important.”
If your fun or socialising can incorporate physical activity so much the better.
“We are much better able to cope with stressful situations when we have high levels of energy. Physical exercise is really important, as is a good diet, getting enough sleep and generally not abusing your body. You need a holistic approach to managing stress.”
In summary, elements of a regime to build “stress fitness” may include:
- Making an “action plan” of your personal stress triggers
- Educating yourself about the effects of stress on your mind and body
- Changing your thinking style to reduce your vulnerability to stress
- Regularly practicing relaxation, meditation and mindful awareness
- Maintaining supportive relationships
- Balancing work with play
- Regular exercise
- Getting enough sleep
Author: Cathy Johnson
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