Positive stress management - at home and workplace
14 ways to help achieve positive change and reduce conflict at work
1. POSITIVE BELIEF SYSTEMS
Much of our stress comes from our beliefs. We have literally thousands of premises and assumptions about all kinds of things that we hold to be the truth. Most of our beliefs are held unconsciously so we are unaware of them. This gives our beliefs more power over us and allows them to dictate our lives. Beliefs cause stress in two ways:
The first is the behaviour that results from them. For example, if you believe that work should come before pleasure, you are likely to work harder and have less leisure time. If you believe that people should meet the needs of others before they meet their own, you are likely to neglect yourself. A person who believes "if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself" will not delegate well and will tend to get overloaded. In these cases, the beliefs are expressions of people's philosophy or value system, but all lead to increased effort and decreased relaxation - a formula for stress. There is no objective truth to begin with - they are just opinions that lead to stressful behaviour. Uncovering these unconscious assumptions behind our actions can be helpful in achieving personal change.
The second way in which beliefs cause stress is when our beliefs are in conflict with those of other people. For example a father had an argument with his son because the child wore the same clothes several days in a row. When asked why it bothered him he replied, "Because you should change your clothes every day." When asked where this idea originated he responded - "Well, my mother taught me that. Everyone knows you should change your clothes every day." He was then counselled in the respect that this was not "the truth," but merely his opinion based on the way he was raised and that there were other cultures where people did not change clothes often and nothing bad happened to them. This helped the father see that this was a premise he held but one that was not shared by his son. The argument was not over the clothes themselves but merely about a difference of opinion. Once he recognised his belief was changeable his anger diminished.
Much can be done by people recognising their beliefs and acknowledging that their assumptions are not truth but rather opinions, and then revising those beliefs or at least admitting that the beliefs held by the other person may be just as valid as their own. This is a mind-opening exercise and often diminishes the upset or threat the person was experiencing.
2. REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
A common source of stress is unrealistic expectations. People often become upset about something, not because it is innately stressful, but because it does not concur with what they expected. Take, for example, the experience of driving in slow-moving traffic. If it happens at rush hour, we may not like it but it will not surprise or upset us. However, if it occurs on a Sunday afternoon, especially if it makes us late, we are more likely to be stressed by it.
When expectations are realistic, life feels more predictable and therefore more manageable. There is an increased feeling of control. We can plan and prepare ourselves, physically and psychologically. There is much we can do to help others by letting them know when their expectations, of themselves and others, are unrealistic. As for expectations of others, someone said: "Expect less from people who cannot give you what you want. It makes it easier - not great, just less upsetting."
3. AIRING and SUPPORT
There is an old saying that "a problem shared is a problem halved." People who keep things to themselves carry a considerable and unnecessary burden. We can do much to help them by allowing and encouraging them to air or share their problems. We can also help by urging them to develop a support system, a few trusted relatives, co-workers or friends to talk to when they are upset or worried.
Another method of airing is writing, for example, in a private journal at home. Former tennis star Guillermo Vilas once said: "When my life is going well, I live it and when it's not going well, I write it". When people are angry they could write a letter to the person with whom they are vexed. These letters are not for sending; they are to be destroyed once they are written - unread. The value of this exercise is in dissipating pent up feelings and breaking the cycle of internal stress.
Reframing is a technique used to change the way we look at things in order to feel better about them. The key to reframing is to recognise that there are many ways to interpret the same situation. It is like the age-old question - "Is the glass half empty or half full?" The answer, of course, is that it is both or either, depending on our point of view. To quote Dr. Joel Goodman, "There is more than one meaning to the same reality." If we see the glass as half full it will feel different than seeing it as half empty because the way we perceive things dictates our attitudes.
The message of reframing, then, is that there are many ways of seeing the same thing - so we might as well pick the one we like. It often involves helping people see positives in a negative situation and assisting them in understanding the behaviour of other people. Reframing does not change the external reality but simply helps people view things differently and therefore less stressfully.
5. TIME MANAGEMENT
To many people time management is a "management" or "the boss" terminology about organising and tidying up the office environment, controlling meetings and setting deadlines for work to be done. To those people who hold this view, it very often has connotations of increasing tension and stress and loss of control.
Time management skills, when applied thoughtfully and correctly, both in the workplace and home environments, can have a significant impact in reducing stress. Simply time management is to do with self-empowerment, i.e.:
- setting objectives and priorities for our daily, weekly and future activities
- planning and using time more effectively
- creating more time, and controlling distractions
The skill of time management is really about avoiding potential stress by doing the essential tasks first and prioritising others to avoid procrastination and subsequent escalating problems. In its simplest form it may be just a checklist whereby a person obtains a feeling of satisfaction by checking off the list as each job is done.
No one would expect a tennis or football player to play an entire game without taking a break. Surprisingly though, many otherwise rational people think nothing of working from dawn to dusk without taking intermissions, and then wonder why they become distressed. The two major issues are pacing and work/leisure balance.
Pacing has two components: monitoring our stress and energy level, and then pacing ourselves accordingly. It is about awareness and vigilance - knowing when to extend yourself and when to ease up. It is also about acting on the information our body gives us.
In respect of work leisure balance, despite all our labour-saving devices, leisure is still an elusive commodity for most people. Statistics show that the average person is working an extra three hours per week compared with 20 years ago. That translates into an extra month of work each year. Add to that the phenomenon of the two-career family it makes family and leisure time even more scarce.
Leisure time and levels of distress are inversely proportional - the less leisure, the more stress. An analysis of work/ leisure ratio can be particularly revealing. Leisure is one of the most pleasant stress relievers ever invented. It is strange that people resist it so much by feeling selfish or guilty. Often people need to be "given" permission in the first instance if they will not give it to themselves. Once they experience a payoff, the benefits will reinforce the behaviour. After that, they are usually able to give themselves permission
7. ANGER MANAGEMENT
The cause of excessive anger generally lies deep within us. It probably has more to do with our inability to communicate effectively or to "forgive those who have trespassed against us". The following are areas to pursue in the management of anger:
- Identify the mistaken attitudes and convictions that predispose us to being excessively angry.
- Identify those factors from our childhood that prevent us from expressing our anger as appropriately as we otherwise might.
- Learning the appropriate modes of expressing our legitimate anger so that we can begin to cope more effectively with anger provoking situations.
- Bind up the wounds that may have been left by the potentially devastating emotional impact of "anger wounds" left in us from those that may have wronged us in the past.
8. LEARNING TO LISTEN
It is often the case that when we are under stress ourselves we hear the other person talking to or shouting at us but fail to really listen to and understand what is being said. Being able to listen to another person's viewpoint and maintain control during another person's emotional onslaught is as good a test as any in evaluating a person's ability to manage their own stress. It is not only a test of our ability to remain inwardly calm but also to "see" and "feel" outside of ourselves and to evaluate the cause of someone else's stress objectively.
The more successful we are at managing and controlling our own stress, the better able we become in appreciating the other person's difficulties. The key to learning to listen is to quickly envisage and empathise with the other person's standpoint.
9. EXERCISE and BREATHING
Exercise is the most logical way to dissipate excess stress energy. It is what our bodies are trying to do when we pace around or tap our legs and fingers. It is much better to channel it into a more positive form of exercise like a brisk walk, a run, a bike ride or a game of squash. During times of high stress, we could benefit from an immediate physical outlet - but this often is not possible. However, regular exercise can drain off ongoing stress and keep things under control. At the very least, it is important to exercise three times per week for minimum periods of 30 minutes each. Aerobic activities like walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, racquet sports, skiing, aerobics classes and dancing are all suitable. For chronic or acute stress, exercise is an essential ingredient in any stress reduction program.
Where exercise is not possible, such as when driving or being held up in traffic, deep breathing and tensing/relaxing muscles can be beneficial.
10. PANIC and ANXIETY
Anxiety symptoms can appear in anyone experiencing a difficult situation. The line between normal anxiety and panic or anxiety disorder occurs if overwhelming tension/stress presents even when there is no real danger. These panic attacks or stress-induced phobias are the result of the victim's inability to cope with the surge of emotion experienced as a result of real or imagined threats.
Although these acute feelings of fear seem uncontrollable and almost life threatening to the sufferer, in most cases simple basic steps can be put in place to enable these "attacks" to be controlled from the onset. Confidence and self-empowerment gained by using a given technique to control these surges before they begin enables the person to maintain control and invoke relaxation skills to eliminate this alarming problem.
As obvious as it may seem, getting the right amount of sleep is an important way of reducing stress. Chronically stressed people almost all suffer from fatigue. This fatigue is often caused by stress-induced insomnia. People who are tired do not cope well with stressful situations. These dynamics can create a vicious cycle. When distressed people get more sleep, they feel better and are more resilient and adaptable in dealing with day-to-day events. People need to assess how much sleep they are getting, whether they wake up rested or tired, and how much sleep they generally need to function well. Most people know what their usual sleep requirement is. The range is five to ten hours per night, the average being seven to eight. Surprisingly, a large percentage of the population is chronically sleep deprived. People may be persuaded to go to bed, say between a half and a full hour, earlier and to monitor the results after a few days or a week. Eventually, they find what works best for them. The three criteria of success are waking refreshed, good daytime energy and waking naturally before the alarm goes off in the morning.
Drugs, alcohol, caffeine, sugar fats and tobacco all exert strain on our body's ability to cope with stress. Most people do not realise, for example, that caffeine, in the form of coffee, tea chocolate and cola, is a stress-generating drug. Often, after people have become aware of the potential impact diet can have on their well being, will modify their intake of these stress-generating substances resulting in significant and sometimes dramatic improvement in their well-being.
13. REGAINING HUMOUR
Humour is a wonderful stress reducer - an antidote to upsets. Laughter relieves tension. In fact, we often laugh hardest when we have been feeling most tense. Humour is an individual thing - what is funny to one individual may be hurtful to another. It is wonderful when people can poke fun at themselves. When it is done sensitively, laughter can be a great gift to people we care about.
Relaxation is an excellent way to bring down the body's stress level. Relaxation neutralises stress energy and produces a calming effect unlike exercise, which dissipates stress energy and tends to produce a stimulating effect.
Whereas the stress reaction is automatic, the relaxation response has to be achieved by an intentional action. Restful activities such as sitting quietly by a lake or fireplace or listening to music can generate a gentle or shallow state of relaxation as required.
Just as we are all capable of mounting and sustaining a stress reaction, we have also inherited the ability to put our bodies into a state of deep relaxation. In this state, all the physiologic events in the stress reaction are reversed - pulse slows, blood pressure falls, breathing slows and muscles relax. There are specific skills that can be learned which are particularly efficient and if used for as little as 20 minutes per day can provide significant benefit. A state of deep relaxation, achieved through meditation or self-hypnosis, is more physiologically restful than sleep.
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