Tuesday, August 08, 2006

stress management : Five Strategies That Really Work

Please try this experiment right now: Google "how to reduce stress" and notice that about half the entries are essays of the form, "Top [number] Ways to Relieve Stress." It sounds like there are a lot of resources for the stressed-out people in our society, but if you look more closely you'll see that most of them are pretty lightweight. A typical list entry might read:

"Learn to Laugh at Yourself
Don't take yourself so seriously - learn to see the funny side of your predicaments and feel that stress just drain away."
I don't mean to be unkind, but whoever wrote this advice never had to work for a bullying boss who threatened her with firing if she wouldn't sleep with him. There is just no way to see that in a humorous light. So I want to offer my top five list - but these suggestions are all based on solid scientific evidence taken from the field of cognitive psychology. There are going to be harder to achieve on your own, but they will work.

Identify Your Stressors

Even though it seems like everything in your life is causing you stress, the bulk of it probably comes from a few sources: perhaps five or six, and dealing with those stressors will provide enough relief that you the rest of the stress will become manageable. The best way I know to identify your real stressors is to keep a stress journal (you can read more about stress journals here). As you journal your stress experience, you'll start to see a pattern of when your stress increases and what's happening when you get stressed. Those are the stressors you should concentrate on first, because you'll get much more relief for your effort.

Start Taking Control

Stress happens when you're under pressure or in pain and you feel helpless. The last part is important: if you feel like you're in control then you may be afraid or angry, but you won't feel stressed. So if you can start taking charge of your situation, even a little bit, your stress will start to subside. If there's nothing you can do about the big problem you're confronting (like a layoff) then try to take control of a smaller problem. Even if you only clean off your desk or decide not to take work home, you'll start to feel a little less stress.

Build a Support Network

There's lots of research that shows that people who have strong social ties and people they can rely on, survive stress much better than those who try to go it alone. So make sure that you have at least one person you can call at any time who will just listen to your side of the story. He or she doesn't have to fix anything, or even agree with you - he or she just has to listen sympathetically. (But don't use this as a bitching session - when you talk with your support person, just describe what really happened and how you're feeling: save the revenge fantasies for later.)

Eat Well and Exercise

Prolonged stress will wear your health down in many ways, so you have to take extra care of yourself in stressful times. Stress may make you eat more or less than you normally do, but make sure that you're eating a balanced diet, and that you're eating at regular times. Make meals a stress-free moment in your day and eat them with friends and family if you can. Even moderate exercise is effective in clearing the stress hormones out of your body, so try to get a little exercise as soon after the stressful event as you can. You don't need to go to the gym - even taking a five minute walk will help your body return to its rest state.

Take Care of Your Mental Health

Telling you to "just ignore the stress" would be stupid advice, because it's a fact of your life. But if you can counteract stressful, anxious thoughts with calming pleasant ones, the stressful thoughts will have less of an effect on you. So when you start worrying about the impending layoff, don't fight the feelings of anxiety. But at the same time, think of something you treasure: your family or your last vacation, or even the game of golf you'll play this evening. The pleasant thoughts will rob the anxious ones of much of their power and you'll get over the anxiety much sooner.

There they are: five techniques you can use to effectively counteract the stress management in your job and life. I know that none of these is easy - they require effort and persistence - but they're a lot more effective than advice like "learn to laugh at yourself."

Take stress seriously - fight back fiercely.

by Bruce Taylor

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