A recurring ‘issue’ amongst under-graduate, post-graduate students and post-docs is dealing with stress. Perhaps the most useful short course I ever did was in stress management. I wish I had done it years earlier. This post is not about the good stress; the stress that helps us focus, the stress we may deliberately put ourselves under because we want to achieve something, or through events outside our control. It is about how to manage the bad stress that distracts our minds from more productive thoughts, compromises our work, makes us unhappy, and may lead to ill health.
Three ways to deal with stress are the (1) Rational, (2) Physical, and (3) Clinical. The last is when you are in a bad way and need to see a counsellor and/or doctor. The rational and physical are things we should build into our daily routines and are unique to each person. Practising them can avoid needing to get medical (clinical) help.
A problem with stress is that once stressed we by definition do not think as clearly as we should and can find it increasingly difficult to cope. To avoid that situation arising we need to build positive avoidance mechanisms into our lives before we get stressed. Here are somethings people in our research group have found useful.
Realise that stress is a response
Stress is how we respond to something. That is why different people, or ourselves at different times, are, or are not, stressed by the same things. For example, some people are stressed by driving a car, others enjoy it. Realising that stress is a response means that dealing with it is within your control. Why does something or someone stress you? Is it their intent, do they realise the effect their behaviour is causing? How can you avoid or deal with it? Separate the facts from your emotions; write them down. Is it really worth worrying about?
Let it go
If something regrettable has happened, it is in the past. If you cannot change it, you must let it go. The only alternative is it will stress you forever. Learn and move on. But cherish good memories.
Focus on the present. The future has not happened yet, so plan for, but do not worry about it.
Do not cause your own stress
How can you cause yourself stress? Think of the ways and it will help you avoid them. Here is a start (what NOT to do):
- Compare yourself to others who seem more productive, successful or richer. Get jealous.
- Try to be somebody else.
- Avoid thinking before you speak. Do something stupid. Say something stupid. Do not apologise and ask for forgiveness.
- Take out your frustrations on others. Let them feel your pain.
- Pre-judge or guess future things that might happen over which you have no control.
- seek perfection without knowing what it is.
In other words, be yourself, be thoughtful and be compassionate.
Do your best. Often nobody knows what is the right decision or solution to a problem at a particular time and place. Just know you did your best at the time with the resources you had available.
Build friendships A problem shared is a problem halved.
Try to see the funny side Laughing is great therapy. Smiling is too.
It is our nature to remember negative things, maybe it helped keep us safe from danger in the jungle. Therefore, we have to remind ourselves of the good things that are and/or will be. Write down what you have (e.g., health, friends, family, food, time) and check this list when you feel depressed.
Start meetings on positive notes. Celebrate wins of others in your community.
Be thankful and forgiving.
Reframe problems as challenges and identify steps to overcome them.
Know your purpose
This is the key to happiness: an active life directed by reason. This purpose directs what to do today and/or long-term. Big goals take time, even decades. They all happen in small steps. Start the journey and stay on the path. Each step or achievement then brings personal satisfaction and is motivating. When shit happens, move on and get busy on more productive things.
In her TED talk, “There’s more to life than being happy“, Emily Esfahani Smith argues that happiness is based on 4 pillars of meaning: Belonging (friendship, family, community); Purpose (family, children, work, pursuits); Transcendence (being ‘in the zone’ – immersed in writing, enjoying sport); and storytelling. I emphasised the first two above as the latter can follow from them.
How do we find our purpose? Many people spend years wondering about this, something called “finding themselves”. I suggest thinking about what we find interesting, enjoy doing, and/or feel is important (e.g., to you, people you love or value, your community, future generations). Probably this is something you need to reflect on for some time, at least months, and revisit every now and then as your situation (and age) changes. In another talk, Adam Leipzig says the key steps are knowing who you are, what you do, who you do it for, what those people want and need, and how it changes them.
Meanwhile, most of us need to earn an income and be financially independent. So think about the kind of income and lifestyle you want. Now, what do you need to do to achieve that? How will you get the necessary education, training and experience? Break this into small steps so you know that what you are doing is taking you on the road to those ambitions. Along the road enjoy the journey and look down the sidestreets (opportunities). Remember there will be some hard, perhaps tedious, unpleasant and/or boring things to do along the road. It is easier to work through these challenges when you know they will pass, and are necessary to get onto your CV or gain that qualification.
If you can make a living from something you enjoy doing well-done. Alternatively, have a job and enjoy those things in your free time.
Take time out
This should be the easy bit because it can be fun and relaxing.
Find what relaxes you. Some people meditate, do yoga, some pray, others chill out to music and/or sing, take a nap.
Be mindful of your body: control your breathing, stand/sit up straight, stretch, tense and release your muscles.
Witness awesome things and experience nature: walk in the forest, stroll on the beach, sit in the garden, listen to the birdsong, watch the clouds pass by, beautiful flowers. See what is wonderful in the world: people who do good, what makes you laugh.
Take exercise: go for a run, participate in a sport. If time is limited even short 10-20 min bursts of intense exercise are beneficial.
Relax with other people; friends and family.
You may find meditation does not work for you because your mind keeps ruminating on whatever is stressing you. If so, rather than meditate, ‘activate’ your mind. Do something that will focus your thoughts, such as a sport, friends, reading a book, going to a movie or concert.
Keep physically fit
Aim for an hour of exercise a day, especially if you are desk-bound most of the day. This is a double win because it can also be your time-out and take your mind off what may cause you stress, and allow you time to rationalise it away.
Better still, get fit outside (e.g., walking, running, swimming) and enjoy the outdoors. Research is increasingly showing the long believed health benefits of immersion in nature.
- Take one hour out most days of the week for exercise or other mental relaxation.
- Be present. Do not stress over the past (let it go) or future (it may not happen).
- Know yourself, what stresses you, and your purpose.
Further reading and listening
There’s more to life than being happy by Emily Esfahani Smith (TED talk 2017)