“For instant stress relief, try slowing down” are the words of actress and comedian Lily Tomlin. I share this quote with many young clients I work with, who are feeling the pressures of exam stress. In the UK there is a distinct focus on output, outcome and industry, with trying hard, doing and producing becoming measures of individual success and value. Yet we are human beings not humans-doing; all this pressure to “do” can stir us into a never-ending spin, leaving little space for stopping, slowing, resting and simply being.
Stress occurs when we feel overwhelmed by the pressures, demands, needs and expectations of a situation and we feel our ability to meet and manage these demands is diminished. We may feel pulled in every direction, as though we have reached or breached our limit. Or we may feel stuck in a stalemate situation where there appears to be no easy solution. When feeling this way we may feel driven to try harder, work longer and think deeper to relieve our tension. Or we may abandon or sabotage all hope and resolve through procrastination and giving up.
Yet all of these approaches will often reinforce and exacerbate our symptoms rather than alleviating them, as each avenue is underpinned by the message that our current efforts are not good enough; that we are not good enough as we are. What can be more helpful is to give ourselves permission to take a break; to clear our head and breathe and in turn get our concerns, achievements and priorities into perspective.
Sometimes we are all too aware that we are stressed and easily connect the dots between cause and effect. But there can be occasions when we do not recognise the stress we are under. It is at these times that it can be helpful to familiarise ourselves with the signs that we could be stressed. We may notice physical changes such as tension, tightness, aches and pains, upset stomach, headaches and fatigue. We may experience behavioural changes such as irritability, isolation, an increase in unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, drinking and harming, changes in eating habits and sleeping difficulties. You may find it difficult to concentrate, think clearly or remember things, feel hopeless, helpless and stuck or feel that your mind is full.
Although it is possible for anyone to experience any of these when they are stressed, it can be useful to track your own pattern of symptoms to identify your own common signs to support early identification and intervention. The symptoms we experience not only help us identify that we are stressed but provide clues as to how to ease our situation. Below I have listed 5 points which can help to manage the feelings of stress.
Movement and exercise are known for being beneficial for our physical health but they hold value for our mental health and wellbeing too. When we move we become more in touch with our bodies and begin to reset the balance between thinking and feeling. In particular, activities which encourage bilateral stimulation with rhythmic side-to-side motion, promotes cross hemisphere activity; engaging creativity, thinking and feeling. This could include to name a few, running, swimming, walking, drumming and boxing, which all involve a degree of alternating left-right movements which helps us process our experiences. Physical activity also increases levels of dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline, which all improve our mood. It also works to shift our focus and attention to support a more balanced and realistic view of things.
American writer Thomas Merton once said that “art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time,” demonstrating how creativity can provide a break from our stresses whilst also awakening our understanding and connection with ourselves. Participating in creative activities and hobbies such as art, music, writing, photography and so on aids relaxation and expression to heighten self-awareness. It also facilitates problem-solving by seeing things from a different perspective. Doing something that we enjoy also supports us to feel more satisfied with a sense of achievement.
Make time for focused silence that provides the room to truly listen to your needs and attune your senses. In the presence of silence the clutter and noise of everyday life is muted to carve out space for clarity and calm. When you feel stress, identify places where you can find quiet when you need it. If possible, take yourself into nature which can deliver a sense of space and simplicity, whilst its smells, sounds and landscape feed your senses to help anchor you in the present moment. Practice mindfulness and focus on your breathing through apps such as Headspace and Breathe, relax and reconnect with your body with a bath, massage or any other activity which helps you tune in with how your whole body is feeling.
Know your limits and maintain personal boundaries to ensure that you are not victimised or exploited by yourself or others. Saying “no” communicates that you need to be treated with respect and with regard for your needs and wellbeing. Saying “no” strengthens your sense of self and value. If you’re unpractised at saying “no”, reintroduce it into your non-verbal communication by raising your hand in the universal stop sign. This communicates your limits to others and pave the way for verbal expression of “no”.
In circumstances where we feel we have a lot on our plate and scarcity of time, it can be all too easy to assert that there is not enough time to take care of ourselves. However, managing our emotions and stress levels increases performance because our symptoms of stress are a call for action to change. If we respond to our body’s signals and attend to our individual needs, our symptoms ease. If we ignore our manifestations of stress, they will get progressively louder. This may bypass your permission and force you to stop through illness or injury.
As author Anthony, J D’Angelo said: