An Integrated Approach to Stress Management
Too often, in my line of work, people mistakenly think that stress management involves popping on an eye mask and meditating for an hour. And while both of these strategies can help manage stress momentarily, I would argue that they don’t provide long-lasting relief. The first step to managing stress is understanding it. Only then can we develop an awareness of how and why we are stressed and the impact it has on our actions, thoughts, and behaviours. My approach to managing stress has always been to come at it from a few angles – with awareness, nutrition, systems, and relaxation. All are equally valid and necessary.
This article will explore:
- What stress is and how we are wired to experience it
- How to build more awareness of stress
- Understanding the root cause of our stress and worries
- Strategies for stress management
- Ways to interrupt your response to stress and stop the spiral
Stress is a natural response to danger that is designed to save our life – literally. Worry, stress, and anxiety are complex processes controlled by the primitive and emotional parts of our brains. Our primitive brain subconsciously controls the “fight or flight” response. Its main job is to keep us alive. Think about a human’s primary purpose in life – to eat, sleep, drink, reproduce and repeat. Our ancestors lived an “authentic” human life many moons ago. They hunted and gathered, slept when the sun went down, and made many babies. Occasionally, they dodged danger like running from a wild animal. In these stressful and life-saving situations, their brains released hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to increase energy levels and allow them to flee to safety and live to see another day! These days though, there are no wild cats or dogs for us to flee from; instead, we trigger this “fight or flight” response through high-stress jobs, intensive workouts, busy schedules, late nights, and blue lights from devices.
How is it possible that emails and multiple tasks can feel as dangerous as the threat of a wild animal?
Unfortunately, we have evolved past what our biology can handle. We are pushing our bodies and brain past their abilities and functionality. Our ancestors had it all nailed down. They switched flawlessly between the sympathetic “fight or flight” system (when necessary) and regularly accessed their parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system to calm the F down. Unfortunately, a return to a relaxed state does not occur promptly or easily for today’s fast-paced society. Our brains are very intelligent machines that map neurological pathways. With ongoing stressors, we develop and condition responses to chronic stress responses that may allow us to “function” but also disrupt the natural functionality of our amazing bodies. Thus, leading to hormone disruption, anxiety, depression, and a host of physical health problems and diseases. Unless we begin to reprogram our brains to return to a calmer state, we only face burnout, exhaustion, disease, and health concerns.
1. Build awareness of what stress is doing to your mind and body
Knowing how your stress presents and the warning signs your body communicates is the first step in managing your stress levels. Working with clients, I see a host of implications. The most common being gut issues. For example, one in five women these days experience irritable bowel syndrome. This is because the stress response is a non-essential process, and our body diverts energy and resources to the functions that keep us alive (the fight or flight response) and away from our digestive system.
Additionally, I see clients with strong sugar addictions and cravings. When your stress hormone spikes, so do your hunger hormones. Soon enough, we get stuck in a sick cycle of craving the wrong foods and not even being able to digest them properly. And then, we don’t sleep well, and our moods are impacted, we lose motivation, our ability to reflect and see a situation for what it is, we can’t connect with our spiritual side and connect on a deep level with others. As you can see, stress causes a snowball of problems if left unmanaged, so it’s essential to become aware of how stress is affecting your lifestyle, your body, and the way you feel.
2. Analyse your stress or worries to understand the root cause
Reflecting on your stress or worries and their causes is a helpful way to begin managing your stress. Worries can be categorised as historical, hysterical, and helpful. In the book ‘How Not to Worry,’ author Paul Mcgee explains how historical worries are a form of anxiety that mirror your experiences from the past. An example may be where one stresses about their self-worth based on their childhood or a past failed relationship. Hysterical worry is the exact opposite – it is deeply irrational! If you find yourself worried about things that are highly unlikely to happen, it may be helpful to document and reflect on data and the likelihood of events. Finally, helpful worry is the kind of worry caused by reflecting on a real problem, like a deadline or exam. To manage the effects of helpful worries, it is useful to analyse how much control you have over the worries and what you can let go of.
3. Build strategies for managing and reducing stress levels
The best way to set yourself up to do this is to work alongside a nutritionist or health coach to adjust your nutrition to support gut health, blood glucose levels, healthy brain function, blood sugar regulation, and adrenal health. Additionally, exercise is also beneficial for managing stress. However, it’s important to note, while excess energy from stress can be released through short bursts of physical activity, the current trend of powerlifting, HIIT training, and endurance cardio can also lead to an increase in stress for some. Therefore, it is paramount that you assess your stress levels when planning out your exercise regime. I advise clients to develop a morning, night-time, and self-care routine to help them focus on the day ahead. I encourage them to reflect on how they feel and to prioritise the relationship they have with themselves.
With our days mastered, we are more primed to foster positive relationships with our loved ones which form positive connections likely to produce helpful hormones like oxytocin (love and affection) and serotonin (happiness).
4. Stop before you spiral
Through the process of developing self-awareness and recognising the root causes of stress, you become better positioned to master the art of ‘stopping before you spiral.’ This doesn’t come easily or straight away. It progresses in stages. First, you begin to notice how you feel in moments of stress but may have little control of how you act or respond. You soon develop hindsight after a stressful event and can rationally debunk your emotional reactions. The next step comes when you can catch yourself during an emotional reaction and rationalise with yourself to back out and do exactly what you need at that moment. This kind of self-awareness is best supported with a reduced load so that you have the space and capacity to analyse situations rationally and effectively.
Don’t be a modern-day human stuck in a surplus of negative thinking and stress chemicals. It is completely normal to worry from time to time, but it is a problem when stress and anxiety begin to control your life. Instead, apply helpful strategies to return yourself to your natural biological state. Speak to someone, clean up your diet, program time for yourself, reduce your load, and prioritise your ability to rest and digest. Rewire your brain to divert towards new thought patterns to promote positivity over negativity and burnout. Not only will you be likely to live longer, but you will enjoy the time you have left even more.
From the blog
If student academic success and school-wide performance are on a school leader’s agenda, then prioritising staff wellbeing should be a forethought, not an afterthought. There…
Defining and measuring staff wellbeing is a complex task for schools. Our personal interpretation of wellbeing hinges on our unique perspectives, what we value most,…
In order to be effective in the current climate, school leaders must embody a mix of cognitive, psychological, and social skills. Personal attributes such as…
On the back of the past few years impacted by the pandemic, interruptions to student learning, a national shortage of teachers and unmanageable workloads, staff…