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Don’t stress about stress!


While stress has become widely acknowledged as an issue in modern society, it has also developed a bad reputation. Stress is seen as something that is negative, that we need to reduce or even eliminate. However, wanting to get rid of stress is problematic in itself and can create more stress. When people are stressed about various issues in their lives, they then develop another layer of stress on top of this, as they become stressed about their stress levels (e.g., “oh no, I’m too stressed”, “this stress will never end!”). Instead of trying to get rid of stress, the key is to develop a different relationship with stress.

Stress is natural

Stress is a natural part of life. Acute stress is a way that the body prepares for action (e.g., increased heart rate and increased blood flow to the major muscles away from digestion) and these responses are fundamental to our functioning and survival. In fact, for many tasks, a moderate degree of some stress can help us to focus, energised and get things done (e.g. playing sport and meeting deadlines).

Professor Paul Gilbert developed the Three Systems Model of emotions to help us understand and manage our emotional worlds. This model was introduced in his 2009 book ‘The Compassionate Mind’ and is central in an approach called Compassion Focused Therapy.

The threat system is linked to emotions like fear, anger and disgust and is designed to protect us. It activated quickly either externally (e.g., a car or predator coming towards you) or internally (e.g., by a negative thought or memory). The drive system is about getting things done, achieving, and wanting – it can makes us feel motivated, excited or engaged. The soothing system is linked to sense of connectedness with oneself, others or nature. As shown in the diagram, the three systems are interrelated and can affect one another.

Stress is manageable

The good news is that once we start to understand our emotions, and work out what is triggering them, then we can start to manage them. Here are three tips to get started:

Tip 1 – Talk to someone

It is healthier to share your experience of stress. This could be a family member, friend, your manager, a colleague, or your GP. Sharing how you are feeling can help to get perspective and work out ways forward.

Tip 2 – Take a moment to calm your mind

Mindfulness can help us to slow down and self soothe. It involves paying attention to the present moment without getting caught up in judgements and worries. It is associated with reductions in stress, anxiety and depression, and improvements in sleep and focus. A great way to start is doing mindful in daily activities, like brushing your teeth or taking a shower.

Tip 3 – Look after yourself

Reflect on how you are sleeping, eating, and living. Adults need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep. A consistent pattern of sleep deprivation, even one hour less than recommended, can affect mood and productivity. Are you eating enough fresh food and taking regular, moderate exercise? If you feel pressed for time, try to incorporate lifestyle changes into your current routine. You could swap your mid-morning biscuit for a banana or get off the bus one stop early to walk home. What would you advise a good friend who was feeling stressed? Make one change to treat yourself more like you would treat a friend!

For more evidence-based information on understanding stress and tips on how to manage it, based on ideas from Compassion Focused Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, see the new pocket guide to Managing Stress by Kate Joseph and Chris Irons:

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