Managing stress, just as causation of stress, is a philosophical issue. It relates to our priorities and worldviews.
Managing stress is all about taking charge: taking charge of our thoughts, our emotions, our schedules, our environment, and the way we deal with situations and perceived threats.
Stress management involves changing the stressful situation when we can, changing our reaction when we can’t, taking care of ourselves, and making time for rest and relaxation.
The S-AMRT Approach
I am suggesting a 4-S approach to managing stress: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Self-Renewal and Self-Transformation or the (S-AMRT) Approach.
We need to be aware of what is happening to us and in us.
• Become aware of our daily routine, especially in regard to work and the effect that routine is having on our life and relationships and discern if this routine is one that enhances our wellbeing or saps our energies unnecessarily.
• Become aware of the kind of situations and reactions that trigger negative emotions and distress.
• Become aware of changes in our reaction patterns: of incipient fatigue, headaches, insomnia, gastro-intestine problems, and other bodily troubles. Such awareness lets us know that something is wrong and that we need to do something to correct things, to have a change of course.
• When we attempt a change of course, we need to become aware of our successful and unsuccessful modes of coping with stress. We then get rid of the unsuccessful ones and put more effort and energy into the successful ones.
We need to learn to manage our lives better. This we do by bringing about some helpful changes in our attitudinal and behavioural patterns.
• Developing more flexible attitudes towards self and work is a good place to start.
• We need to learn to manage our energy; know how much of it to spend and where and when and how.
• Time-management is a great help here. We need to set priorities, and learn to delegate tasks. We need to discern which are the tasks that need our personal attention and time investment, and which can be done by others.
• Learning to ask for help is another stress-buster. Too often we try to manage things on our own, and get frustrated. Frustration triggers a stress response. A simple way to avoid this needless stress is to ask someone for help — for advice as well as hands-on help.
• We need to be realistic in our job expectations. We need to make our job expectations our own and not somebody else’s. Trying to be and do what someone else wants us to be or do is a sure-fire recipe for continued frustration and burnout.
• We also need to set realistic goals and standards of performance. Setting standards far above our capacity to achieve them will lead to frustration and to stress.
• Occasionally dilute ordinary work with tasks of a different kind. If am a counsellor or manager, for example, I can set aside sometime each week to teach or play with some poor children, volunteer at a local charity and so on.
There are many ways we can renew ourselves and feel energised.
• Increasing physical fitness and overall wellbeing through vigorous exercise makes us less vulnerable to the negative effects of stress. Proper diet too assists in this.
• It is important that we have time to rest and relax.
Relaxation deactivates the sympathetic nervous system involved in increased stress levels and activates the parasympathetic system that decreases blood pressure, slows down heart beat and breathing rate and facilitates healing for the mind and body. Techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep abdominal breathing, visualization of serene environments, or even simply sitting or lying restfully with eyes closed thinking of nothing in particular activate the body’s relaxation response.
• Creative and meaningful relationships serve as sources of energy mobilization and provide opportunities for healthy relaxation.
This is accomplished especially by cognitive restructuring and changing our self-concept, the way we see ourselves, our environment, and conduct ourselves.
• We can bring about self-transformation through cognitive restructuring, that is, changing our perceptions and thought patterns. Changing our perceptions and interpretations, for example, of threatening situations or obstacles we face can help us both to find relief from stress as well as prevent stress.
• According to psychologist Richard Lazarus, simply changing the way we see events—as outside our control or within our control—may be the biggest factor in staying on top of stress. Believing we have control over events in our life has great leverage in management of stress. According to Lazarus, control is tantamount to health and lack of control is source of distress and disease. Even when we can’t control an event or situation, we can control our reaction to it. We can change our perception about it, and how we think about it.
• It is not only our perceptions of reality that we can change. It is possible sometimes to change the reality, or the stressor itself. It is true the real world is not always what we would want it to be. However, there are situations where we can change the reality. For example, our stress may be coming from an overcrowded day. We can eliminate or at least reduce the stress by creating lighter work schedules. Prioritising and delegating are two important ways to reduce work stress.
• How we appraise events (stressors) is influenced by our self-concept, how we see ourselves. Building a positive sense of self, strengthening our belief in ourselves and our capacity to be in control and achieve desired results can reduce our vulnerability to stress.
• There is less chance of being stressed out when our everyday work and activities are consistent with what we value and which provide meaning, purpose and satisfaction. It is not hard work that leads to burnout, but meaninglessness in what we do. There has to be a fit between our interests and the work we do. It is important to engage in work that suits us best, work that we find meaningful and fulfilling.
Importantly, the environment in which we work has to be one that is conducive to a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment. If the environment is not such, then we have to do the transformative work to change it. If we cannot change it, we may have to move into another more conducive environment.
• Living ethically, making our private lives congruent with the values we espouse publicly, and pursuing goals consistent with those values, also reduces the stress that results from guilt and fear of exposure. Behaviour that is at cross-purposes with our values and ideals cannot help but increase our stress level.
• Learning to live in peace with those who inhabit our relational world is also important. There are many interpersonal conflicts (major stressors) that we can easily avoid with a little effort. “Such an approach” psychologist Hans Selye, a father-figure in stress research, observed, “not only insures peace of mind but also earns the goodwill, respect, and even love of our neighbours, the highest degree of security and the most noble status symbol to which the human being can aspire.”
• Which of the stress-busters described here are ones you have tried and found helpful?
• Which others would you like to make part of your stress-busting programme?
Fr Jose Parappully SDB
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