Having the right attitude and positive goals, as I discussed in the last issue of Prime Business Alert!, are important steps for becoming a stress master. But just thinking about mastering stress won’t make it so. You have to actually do things to relieve your stress. Here are some suggestions for taking action to gain mastery over your stress.
Mastering the Causes of Stress
Mastering stress starts taking control of the stress in your life and proactively doing things that can counter the psychological, emotional, and physical causes of stress.
Don’t overwork. You may be laughing at this suggestion because, especially these days, the only way to get ahead (or even stay even) is to work long hours. Of course, you have to do what you have to do for your work. At the same time, keeping your nose to the grindstone for extended periods is short sighted and will catch up to you. The result will actually be a decline in long-term performance and productivity. Yes, do the necessary work, but also place reasonable limits on the time and energy you devote to your work. I assure you that it will pay big dividends in the future.
Have healthy outlets. One of the best ways to relieve stress is to have activities that provide the exact opposite of what you experience at work. Experiences that produce joy, excitement, meaning, satisfaction, inspiration, and pride act to “refill your tanks” when they become depleted from stress at work. Common outlets include sports, cultural and spiritual pursuits, cooking, reading, watching movies, and other hobbies.
Build a social support network. A robust finding in the research is that social support acts as a buffer against stress. Family, friends, and trusted colleagues provide emotional support, sympathy, problem solving, encouragement, perspective, and just plain distraction from the burdens of stress.
Increase your resources. One of the primary causes of stress occurs when the demands of a situation exceed your available resources. By increasing your resources, whether by getting help from others, gaining relevant information and skills, or giving yourself more time, you are able to tip the scales of resources and demands back into a healthy balance.
Exercise. Stress acts to attack the body and the mind, attempting to break down and defeat them. Exercise resists those attacks by strengthening your defenses against those assaults. Improved strength, endurance, and flexibility provide you with the “armor” against the daily onslaughts of stress. Exercise also increases your energy, gives you confidence, and enables you to focus your efforts at defeating the stress and winning the battle at work.
Rest. At its most basic level, stress attempts to tear down and weaken the body. Following periods of stress, rest acts to heal the body of damage that is caused by stress. A good night’s sleep, at least eight hours according to the research, naps as needed, as well as meditation and yoga, are all essential tools that allow the body to rejuvenate itself and be prepared for the daily weight of stress.
Eat well. What you eat and drink is the energy that fuels your body and enables it to resist the debilitating forces of stress. If you put quality gas into your car so it runs its best, why wouldn’t you do the same for your body. Unfortunately, the lifestyle that stressful work creates, for example, little time to prepare healthful meals, caffeine and sugar to keep you going, and fast food that is readily available, only acts to sap you of energy and makes you more vulnerable to stress. In contract, a healthy and balanced diet every day (with some treats, of course, as a reward for your efforts) bolsters your immune system and gives you the energy to keep on ticking even when your body is taking a licking.
You can also use a variety of practical techniques to help your body and mind resist the stress that they experience. In the moment of stress, these strategies act to lessen the immediate symptoms of stress and make you feel more relaxed and comfortable.
Breathing. Something as simple as slow and deep breathing has a direct impact on a body under stress. Additional oxygen into your system slows your heart rate, reduces stress-inducing neurochemicals, eases your pace, relaxes muscles, and increases your sense of comfort and well being.
Muscle relaxation. In response to what the body believes is a threat to its safety, muscles tense up under stress to protect the body from further damage. Unfortunately, this reaction, which has been hard wired into us from our primitive days, has the opposite effect, making us more vulnerable to the stress. Engaging in relaxation exercises, whether through meditation, yoga, or targeted relaxation practices, the muscle tension caused by the stress is relieved and your body is better able to withstand the ongoing stress.
Music. We have all experienced the profound influence that music has on us psychologically, emotionally, and physically. Music can inspire, calm, fire up, and move us. It can transport us from our stressful lives into worlds of tranquility or excitement, either of which, depending on your musical tastes, take you far away from those stresses and re-instill in you a sense of relaxation and comfort.
Take a moment. Sometimes you don’t have the time to engage in elaborate relaxation strategies, but you need to do something. In these situations, it can be enough to just take a brief break. During this respite, you can step back from the stress and take a few deep breaths. You can look for the source of the stress and find a solution to the cause of the stress. And, finally, you can return to the formerly stressful situation with a more calm mind and relaxed body, and some tools you can use to directly relieve the stress.
Of course, none of these steps to stress mastery will alleviate all stress from your life. But that’s not what stress mastery is about. And I doubt, given that you have chosen a stressful profession, that you want to live a life free from stress. Stress mastery is about, when confronted with stress, you can control it so that it doesn’t have a harmful effect on your work or life. But even more than that, you can harness the stress so that, while others wither under its weight, you are able to stay energized, positive, focused, and working hard toward your goals.