Stress management skills are important for good mental health in general, but are particularly necessary if someone is in the midst of an addiction problem, is in recovery, or is relapsing.
Stress and its common causes
Stress can be defined as an intense feeling of unrest, where a person experiences substantial emotional (and sometimes physical) strain as a result of challenging or demanding circumstances.
Different things can be deemed stressful by different people, of course, but there are some situations and stimuli that have statistically been found to be highly stressful. These include: sudden life changes, such as a change in your job or relationship status, moving house, or changes in your health; or more chronic situations, such as having to go to a particular place, use a particular form of transport, or perform a particular task.
People suffering from other emotional difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, grief, or low self-esteem, may very often experience stress in conjunction with their other symptoms.
The fact that not everyone shares the same stressors makes it even more pertinent for each person to develop their own way of relieving and managing their individual stress. Below are a variety of different techniques that can be used to manage stress better – and as mentioned above, there is no ‘one size fits all’, so it is okay if not all of them chime with you.
Some tips on how to handle stress
Clarify what the stressor is so that the specific issue can be addressed.
- The first thing to identify is what is a stressor and what is not. We can sometimes confuse two separate stimuli when they are closely linked. For example, a person may find going to the gym stressful and may begin to actively avoid going there because of this assumption. However, it is important to look at the component parts of the stressful experience, to see which element/s of, in this case, gym-going are the true stressors. In this example, then, it could be the journey to the gym that triggers stress in the individual, or it could be the car park there, with limited spaces, or the staff in the gym itself, or the experience of exercising surrounded by other people — to name just a few options.
Identify whether, in an ideal world, you would want the stressor, or whether you want to work on managing the stress it causes.
- One of the ways to decide whether a stressor needs to be eliminated, or simply managed better, is to consider the effects it has on the person; both good and bad effects can be incorporated. Let’s continue with the example of the person who finds it stressful going to the gym. If there are positives as well as negatives to gym-going — better physical fitness, management of a healthy weight, improvement in mood through exercising — the person may not want to eliminate going to the gym altogether, but rather, work on managing the stress it causes them. The work at hand becomes about how to modify the effect it has on them.
Reflect on previous experiences of stressful situations and their resolutions in order to pick out how these were managed in the past, and thus how they could be managed again in the future.
- If the individual feels they do want to work on their stress, something that can be effective is looking back on past experiences that either were or had the potential to be stressful, but which they nonetheless managed to get through. What was it that stopped that situation from tipping over into overwhelming stress? What did they find themselves doing to rectify the situation? How did they contain their emotions and actions in order to manage the situation effectively? At this point, a list can be made of these previous ‘success stories’ that the person has experienced. This is a way of reminding ourselves that we have actually handled stress before, we just maybe didn’t actively know it at the time.
Learn your limits. If something is simply stressful, learn to say no.
- There may well be things that do inherently feel stressful and that we have tried to combat and tried to work through, but have not managed to do so. If that is the case, it is about learning our limits and putting in place boundaries to protect those limits. To return to the example of the stressed gym-goer: having evaluated the situation, the person may still decide that the benefits of exercising are outweighed by the negatives of going to the gym. They may ultimately choose to carry on with physical exercise, but in another environment, such as exercising privately at home, going to an open, outdoor space rather than a confined indoor one, or choosing exercise classes rather than working out publicly in the main gym. The important thing is that they will have made the right decision for them, and will say no to putting themselves in a situation that caused too much stress.
Find a personal sanctuary outside of stress, whether that is a person, an activity, or a place.
- Finding balance in life is key. Some people find that having something to look forward to, like a hobby or an arrangement to spend some quality time with loved ones, can see them through demanding situations because they know there is some respite at the end of it. It is so important to incorporate relaxation into our daily lives, otherwise life can indeed feel very heavy and tiring. Relaxing experiences also work as a visualisation technique on a difficult day: the person can picture a fond memory or someone they feel comfortable and calm around, and this can help in lifting their mood, but also in reminding them that there is a bigger picture outside of the specific stress they are experiencing in that moment.
Ask for help. We are all human beings and we cannot manage alone, nor should we have to.
- The final (and possibly most important) tip in handling stress effectively is reaching out to others when it all does feel too much. It is easier said than done, but the truth is that as individuals, we cannot do it all. Sometimes things are just too much to handle alone, and we need a co-worker to help finish a project, a friend to listen to us on the phone, a loved one to give us a hug and let us know that we have their support. We need that reminder that we do not, in fact, have the whole world resting solely on our shoulders. It can be difficult to delegate, to relinquish control and to trust that others will be there for us if we need support, but it is important to take the risk.
Even if someone can’t actively change your circumstance, they might empathise or have had a similar issue in the past; they may have a solution to offer or just a shared experience that alleviates the intensity of what you’re feeling in the moment. It is certainly worth reaching out.