written by: Kosjenka Muk
Long-term stress can have several main causes:
- Difficult external situation;
- Being overburdened with obligations and tasks;
- Toxic habits.
- Habitual way of thinking and emotional functioning;
When a person is under stress for a long time, tension becomes an automatic habit which can become difficult to get rid of. However, by investing a little effort, you can change your habits and ways of thinking which cause stress. Here are the most important tips:
1. Do not procrastinate. Procrastination is a powerful cause of stress since it creates an awareness of unfulfilled obligations and an ever greater time pressure. Often, while we delay our demanding and long lasting tasks for “just a bit later”, we spend our time in worthless and aimless activities which we might not even really enjoy, especially as the feeling of pressure is still there. Thus we can waste much more time than we need for the task itself. But how to stop procrastinating? Persuade yourself to perform your obligations immediately, motivating yourself with the feeling of freedom and relief that you will enjoy for the rest of the day (or even week). Perhaps your procrastination is motivated by fear of criticism or rebellion against discipline…? You might need some focused work on dissolving those feelings.
Maybe you are in habit of putting off small tasks, that would take you only a few minutes or even seconds: I’ll answer this email…, put that thing where it belongs…, make that phone call…later. All these small tasks become a part of the obligations list which echoes in your head. Later you may forget them and thus contribute to the decrease of your efficiency (even to the impairment of the quality of your relationships, if these little “to do” things are related to your relationships with other people), or forget some parts of the context (e.g. where you saved the enclosure that you should send along with your email…) due to which you will waste your time looking for the details needed. Create a habit to do such small things at once, as soon as they come up.
Make at least one small step towards starting the work that awaits you: prepare what is needed, prepare your working table, start with one small thing… once you’ve started, you might find motivation and discover that it’s now easy to proceed!
2. Get organized. Mess and disorganisation cause you to waste your time looking for displaced objects. While you do this, you feel stress due to the waste of time, especially if you also tend to procrastinate. Organise your PC data in easy-to-survey folders (and pay attention to save new data immediately where they belong). You can buy several different and well marked folders for paper notes. Organise your drawers and tables. A simple, but efficient extra advice: write down tasks which you cannot perform immediately, phone numbers etc. in an appointment book. This relieves you from the pressure of storing everything in your head and of the danger to forget these data.
3. If it is fair and realistic, delegate tasks to other people. Do you tend to take on too many obligations and responsibilities? Learn to say “no” and, whenever it’s appropriate, share your tasks with other people. Do you take over “small tasks” from your colleagues at work? Do you do all the household chores while your spouse and children have all the fun? Maybe you don’t dare to ask them to join in – you might be afraid of being criticized or rejected, or asking things would make you feel guilty, or you don’t believe they can do it as well as you? In the long run this doesn’t only harm you, but them as well, in several ways: they may become irresponsible, lack compassion, or may not feel capable to take care of themselves. Also, the lack of a good relationship – with you – can have numerous negative consequences. Likewise, by avoiding communication, you teach your children to act in the same manner in similar situations (or to expect other people to treat them the way you do). If the feelings of guilt or fear of rejection are strong, you might want to find a coach to help you dissolve those feelings.
I recommend asking your family to do daily chores all together, rather than giving them separate tasks at separate times. This increases the feeling of connectedness and reduces resistance and boredom. If you can include music and fun, even better!
4. Plan your relaxation. If you feel pressure and think about obligations most of the time, it’s probably difficult for you to truly relax, even when you finally manage to find time for it. Our brains tend to make our usual thinking and feeling habits automatic, even if they cause stress. Avoid planning longer periods of relaxation before you’ve finished your important obligations, because your mind will constantly get back to them. Plan your relaxation time after you have carried out important tasks. It is also good to determine in advance how much time you will dedicate to relaxation (so to avoid guilt and thinking of when should you go back to work) and to set an alarm clock to warn you when that time has passed (to avoid checking your watch every few minutes). Plan activities which you enjoy, or simply plan to do “nothing”. You may wish to plan a whole day, e.g. to dedicate one day in the week, only for relaxation. However, remember again to perform all important tasks first.
5. Invest effort in the quality of your relationships. There is no greater stress than when your most significant relationships are unpleasant and tense; neither there is a better source of relaxation than love and warmth with your family and friends. Learn about quality communication and how to express love, and put it to practice. Feeling that there are people in your life who you can share love with, who can give you a hug, support, advice and understanding, is priceless. However, to create such relationships one has to invest active effort and practice communication skills, which many people are not used to.
As relationships at work are often one of the greatest causes of stress, it is good to avoid work related stress by bulding good relationships with colleagues from the moment you first get to know them. Act responsibly, friendly, show appreciation. This does not mean accepting unfair behavior, but finding your boundaries and the wisest possible way to express yourself.
Perhaps your very preoccupation with work and obligations decreases the quality of your relationships? It’s wise to share as many activities and tasks as possible with all of your family. Apart from the opportunity to create a fun atmosphere and closeness with your family members when working together, this will also give you an opportunity to teach your children to develop work habits AND you will avoid feelings of anger, resentment, irritability, fits of rage or passive aggression, which can happen when you feel that the work is unfairly distributed.
6. Take care of your body. Eat healthy food, get enough sleep, exercise and avoid unhealthy habits. A healthy body, apart from having many other advantages, will bear more easily both short and long-term stress, and it will also have more energy for your everyday tasks. People very often use stimulants and sedatives, not only medicinal drugs, but particularly products such as coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, sugar etc. as a substitute for resting and relaxation. They cause a short-term relief or appear to provide more energy. However, as soon as the effect of the substance on the brain weakens, we feel even more exhausted and out of balance. In such situations, many people reach for yet another dose of such substance, creating addictions which damage and weaken their bodies.
Physical exercise might be the last thing a scared, nervous and tense person may desire. However, physical activity raises the level of serotonin in the brain and, what is even more important, reduces the production of stress hormones. It also helps relax the muscles and release the accumulated frustration, helping a person sleep better as a result of healthy tiredness.
Insufficient and irregular sleep is by itself stressful for the body, while mental stress can make falling asleep and getting a good night’s rest even more difficult. In stressful situations, under the influence of stress hormones, the body remains in the state of alertness for longer periods, and the unused energy accumulates. Your way of thinking about a particular situation can contribute to this process. Even if we are exhausted from stress, the mental, emotional and physiological level of activity can still be high enough to stop us from falling asleep or from sleeping long or well enough. If you cannot fall asleep in the evenings, or if you wake up during the night without being able to fall asleep again, because you keep thinking about the current stressful events, try to apply some of the relaxation techniques, which can help you fall asleep again if you are perseverant.
7. Take care about your spiritual life. Remind yourself that you are a spiritual being and that all external situations present a chance to grow; if your external circumstances are difficult, you might have to remind yourself regularly about this. Meditation, visualization, positive thinking and similar activities are not only a source of relaxation, but help you feel strong and resourceful.
8. Create a relaxing environment. There are many easy, simple ways of shaping your environment so that it promotes relaxation instead of being neutral, or even stress inducing:
As much as possible, make your work surroundings pleasant. In rare cases, you will be able to participate in the decision making regarding the colour of the walls, furniture and similar major changes. However, even if you cannot take part in such decisions, small details can make a big difference:
a) One or more living plants;
b) Relaxing pictures or photographs with natural motifs, inspirational pictures of happy people or anything that makes you feel good;
c) Little things such as photographs of the people you love, toys or room fountains.
The same approach applies when decorating your home. Here you have much more freedom to invest your time and imagination in order to make your home as pleasant a place as possible, with many enjoyable stimuli. Carefully choose the colours, furniture and decorative objects which you will truly enjoy.
Music. For many people, music has a profound influence on their emotional state: it relaxes, calms, comforts or helps us get in touch with our feelings. Gentle, slow and pleasant music prevents or alleviates stress, while fast and stimulating music raises our energy and encourages feelings of optimism and strength. Use music whenever you can, at home, in the car, if possible also at work. However, pay attention not to surrender yourself to the choice of radio stations; surround yourself with music which has a strong positive impact on you. (Also, avoid creating stress for your neighbours; if you like loud music or penetrating beat, use headphones.)
Aromas. Aromas can be a way to induce bodily and emotional comfort. Choose smells which you find especially pleasant and relaxing and use them in essential oil burners and diffusers.
Relaxation approaches and methods
1. Muscular relaxation. There are quite a few different methods whose main purpose is to release the accumulated energy and tension from the muscles and to prevent further accumulation of tension. The most common and the simplest approaches are: relaxation of muscle groups through conscious intention, alternate intense tightening and relaxing muscles, or imagining warmth or weight in the muscles.
2. Deep breathing. When we are under influence of stress, we tend to breathe superficially and irregularly, sometimes even hold our breath repeatedly. This reduces the intake of oxygen in the body which aggravates the stress reaction. Deep breathing, especially abdominal breathing, not just by using the diaphragm, is a well known method of relaxation. Breath control can be practiced anytime and anywhere. It’s good to combine it with other relaxation methods.
3. Bath. Warm water is pleasant and relaxing by itself, and additives such as fragrant oils, foams, music etc. additionally intensify the sensation of comfort. Magnesium sulphate (bitter salts or Epsom salts) has a relaxing effect on muscles and softens skin, which makes it an excellent additive to bath water. Magnesium is also a very important mineral for our bodies, and it’s actually better absorbed through skin than oral ingesting. The best time for a bath is before going to sleep since warmth and relaxation can cause sleepiness and induce pleasant dreams.
4. Massage. There are a great number of various massage techniques, most of them having a similar goal – relaxation and releasing muscular tension. Many people find physical touch soothing, as it can remind of caressing. Sometimes, talking to the massage therapist can be an additional source of support.
1. Changing perspective. Our way of thinking considerably influences generation of stress and our ability to face it. Many people are so used to a „negative“ inner dialogue that they may not even notice how they exaggerate the situation when under stress, how they imagine the worst possible outcomes and negate their own strength and resources. Just as we move our body by thoughts and intentions, so our thoughts can cause a bodily stress reaction. The change of such a habit into a supporting and encouraging inner dialogue is of extreme significance for coping with stress.
2. Diverting attention. If you find it difficult to achieve a positive internal dialogue, or if you have very little control over the external situation, you can try to temporary divert attention from the cause of stress, as an introduction to more advanced techniques. Anything you find interesting or pleasant and which occupies your thoughts and body can help you, such as sport, hobbies, meeting friends, reading, movies… Pets are frequently one of the favourite source of entertainment and pleasure: a walk with the dog includes physical activity and meeting other people, while cat fans already know how soothing the sound of cats’ purring is. However, take care that diverting attention does not become your habit and a way of avoiding coping with stress. This is only a “first aid” approach that gives you some emotional space to regain energy and resources, to be able to then deal with the stress.
3. Active coping. Think what you can do to solve a stressful situation and start working on it. Even before achieving external results, you will start feeling that you are not helpless, that you are moving towards the solution and you will reinforce positive expectations. Stress is much stronger if we wait passively and surrender to external influences, than if we feel that we have some influence at least.
4. Focusing. A type of meditation in which you focus on a chosen object for some time, while avoiding mental chatter. It helps you to gain control over your thoughts. It is recommended to choose something that evokes pleasant associations as a focusing object, e.g. a flower, butterfly or similar. The focusing object can also be a word that you can repeat in your mind, such as “peace”, “confidence”, “happiness”, “love” or similar.
1.“Inner child(ren)” work. One of the main causes of stress, is the fact that in the moments of stress we often slip into so-called age regression, i.e. suppressed, unresolved feelings from our childhood start coming to the surface. From that perspective, the situation may seem hopeless, just as it seemed when we were children with very little power and experience. Such emotions can be especially strong and painful. Imagine your painful emotions as little children craving attention. Imagine that you give love and support to those child parts of you, that you encourage them to change their perspective. Integrative Systemic Coaching includes in-depth work with the “inner kindergarten”.
2. Affirmations. If you tend to create negative internal dialogue, you may need to consciously repeat positive ideas in order to slowly initiate a different way of thinking. The affirmations such as “It will be all right” or “I deserve love”, “I am strong and calm” etc. can pull you out of the thinking habits which foster stress. It is important that affirmations are short, positively expressed and pleasant. Say them with feeling; mechanical repeating won’t work.
3. Visualisation. Our subconscious minds react better to images than to words. Ranging from imagining beautiful, calming surroundings, e.g. a nice landscape or one’s favourite childhood’s refuge, to imagining a positive outcome of a situation, pleasant images are a type of affirmation which the subconscious mind can understand better.
4. Sharing emotions. Expressing one’s feelings to other people is a well known and needed type of catharsis, especially for women. While talking to others, you can explore and sort out your feelings and thoughts, especially if they are confusing. Other people’s compassion, understanding and advice are an important source of support. However, take care not to overload other people with your problems; talk only to those people who are ready to listen and avoid acting like a victim.
5. Expressing feelings. In a similar way as physical activity, but on a different level, expressing feelings releases accumulated tension. You can cry, laugh, scream, hit a pillow or a boxing sack… Choose the place and time when you can be alone and let your emotions out without provoking curiosity and undesired questions. Do not exaggerate in identifying with unpleasant feelings, though; take as much time for this as you feel to be healthy and necessary. Some people love this and say it helps them greatly, others feel that it pushes them even more into the unpleasant state. Experiment to see what works for you.