Stress: How do I manage it?
By Ore Taiwo Makinde
How to manage stress is a question I often get from patients, co-workers and friends.
I get questions such as, ‘How do you manage to come to work smiling despite having to drive through heavy traffic every day? “How do you cope?” “How did you pass that exam with all this stress?” Many of us get such questions, but how do you explain it.
What is Stress?
Stress occurs when the pressure you are facing exceeds your perceived ability to cope with a certain circumstance or situation. Consequently, the more you think about that situation, the more overwhelmed you feel. External stressors trigger internal stressors such as fear, anger, frustration as well as feelings of insecurity and inferiority. Therefore, it turns out that the interactions between our external and internal environment determine how stressed we feel.
Sharing pieces of stressful seasons
Let me delve in a bit further by sharing an example of a stressful season I went through. This was during the second year of my postgraduate residency program way back in 2010, I was pregnant with our third baby. I was shuttling to work between two states. The syllabus was wide and the pressure to pass my exams mounted with each passing day. I had to develop certain coping mechanisms in addition to my faith to come through.
Another stressful moment was on a flight to Poland en route Frankfurt for a conference a couple of years ago. I was flying with my husband but he seemed quite unperturbed, enjoying the movies while I was jolted from sleep into wakefulness by the announcement that something was burning, necessitating an emergency landing on a desert airport in Tamanrasset, Algeria. I wondered how he was able to watch a movie! This was however short-lived as the entertainment system had to be turned off as a safety precaution. So why did we each react differently to the situation?
We handle stress differently. Two individuals may be faced with similar pressures, however, they have different ways of perceiving that pressure and responding to it. You must have noticed that the more skilled, knowledgeable or confident you feel about a task, the more comfortable and less pressure you are likely to feel about carrying it out.
A number of factors affect our ability to cope with stressful situations. These include the social environment you are in, for example, how toxic or supportive your family members or colleagues and superiors are. In addition, your genetic predisposition and your emotional status at that time determine how you manage stress. For instance, a bereaved individual is more likely to perceive his work as being stressful during that period.
Sources of Stress
Everyone goes through stress including children. No one is exempted, no matter the colour of your skin or the size of your pocket. Some are major life events such as bereavement, loss of employment, sexual violence, family violence and dysfunction, separation or divorce. For now, let us focus on stressful situations that relate to our jobs which are akin to us all.
These include job overload, role conflict or ambiguity, poor working conditions and non-participation in decision making. Other work stressors include unfair performance appraisal, tight deadlines, job insecurity, lack of recognition, having to take responsibility for others whether it is the managing director of a company or the president of a country. Poor relationships with colleagues can also contribute to work stress.
Why do I need to curtail stress?
Managing stress helps you to control overwhelming feelings and negative emotions. It enables concentration and productivity. Due to the hormonal influence of stress, some of us would have noted that stressful moments also result in unhealthy weight gain and acne. The ability to cope with stress is also a key factor in preventing and controlling lifestyle-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
However, no matter how stressful your life seems, there are steps you can take to relieve the pressure and regain control. Stress management taking charge of your lifestyle, thoughts, emotions, and the way you deal with problems. Here are a few tips to keep in mind in attempts to manage stress:
Change the way you think. Work stress has much more to do with how you feel about the pressure coming from your job rather than the number of hours you spend doing it. Remember that pressure from your boss or supervisor is not likely to go away in a day or two. So instead of reacting with feelings of animosity or feelings of being under-appreciated, meet the challenge with positive thoughts of having an opportunity to do your task better.
Practice breathing exercises. When you are boxed into a corner, take in a deep breath. Hold it for about five seconds and exhale. It will help you to relax.
Engage in work-outs at home. This boosts your mood and productivity. You can also keep yourself active at work by moving every 20 minutes.
Plan your schedule. Following a set daily or weekly schedule will help you to focus on your tasks at work. Practice keeping to the schedule and avoid distractions from your phone or social media. Avoid procrastination.
Engage in mindfulness. Learn to enjoy what you do. As far as it is possible, avoid taking up tasks or staying too long in a job that does not match your skills or passion.
Practice self-assertion. There are times you need to say no or demonstrate candour. Put your suggestions or ideas forward rather than staying silent to show that you are up to an allotted task. This could be during an interview or meeting. Expressing yourself adequately can help to relieve psychological stress.
A healthy diet which consists of more fibre and less caffeine and sugar is advised. These can give temporary highs but later crash your mood and energy. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. Take breakfast. It will serve as fuel to provide energy for the day’s work. Remember to get enough sleep at night.
In conclusion, stress management is a life-long endeavour. The ability to control the way you react to life issues is a sure way to relieve the effects of stressors at work. Changing your thought pattern will change your beliefs, your expectations, your attitude, your behaviour and your performance and therefore your ability to cope with stress and life.
Dr Ore Taiwo Makinde is a Consultant Family Physician and certified Lifestyle Medicine Physician.