You’re right. Hard work never killed anyone. And financial strain or relationship tension won’t damage you for life. But the way you handle stress can indeed determine your health and happiness.
There are destructive ways of dealing with stress that we know to avoid, like trying to escape our struggles by using drugs, running away or failing to take responsibility. But what about more acceptable, even encouraged, approaches to stress?
The following three typical ways of dealing with stress jeopardise your health and wellbeing.
Reaching for your phone for a quick game or a bit of browsing isn’t harmful. Nor is unwinding with some television. But how often are you using this easy diversion to soothe yourself? Are you mindlessly staring at a screen, when talking with someone about your bad day would be a better choice?
Distraction is an easy but troublesome habit. It leaves stress unresolved, problems avoided and emotions suppressed.
Being busy and tired is almost a competitive sport these days. Working long hours, sadly, is often respected. Yet running on adrenaline with too little sleep is not sustainable.
Your physical capacity, working memory and time are finite. Trying to outpace stress will take its toll.
3. Analytical thinking.
Especially when we’re stressed, you want to engage your mind to search for the right answer. As a therapist I am no stranger to the allure of analysing issues and hunting for insight—and these pursuits can certainly bring relief and foster positive change. But you can’t think your way out of high stress levels.
Stress isn’t about answers, and worse still, it distorts your perspective and cognitive functioning. You want to feel like you’re in control and being productive, so you think things through (again and again). But overthinking is harmful— it fails to address the real problems in your world (outside your head) and the emotional challenges hiding beneath your thoughts.
Unchecked stress, as you know, harms your health, whether it results in compromised immunity, high blood pressure or a myriad other negative outcomes.
Your mental health will suffer. I have often seen people who use the distraction approach, over time, develop alcohol and other addictions, or suffer panic attacks. The determination tactic leads to burnout, and the over-thinkers are prone to rumination, depression and anxiety.
Stop, Look and Listen.
Stress throws us into fight, flight or freeze mode, which is necessary if you’re facing mortal danger. But if it’s everyday pressures plaguing you (relating to work, finances, relationships, illness), you need ways to deal with stress that foster recovery and resilience.
Stop. Resist the temptation to ignore or avoid your current pressures. Don’t get busy, rush or begin intellectualising your way out if it. Stay where you are and pay mindful attention to the stress—notice the tightness in your chest, the ache at your temples or the nausea creeping in.
Look hard at the reality of your situation. Get input from a friend. What constructive steps can you take to improve things? Sit down with your boss or your family, or in the very least, go for a walk. It won’t solve a conflict or meet a deadline but it will help clear your head—it will help your brain chemistry and physiology to recover in order for you to better meet the challenges of the day.
Listen to your body, your feelings, a wise friend. What do you need? Rest, a hug, some angry words or tears, help, advice, more skills, more time? Take steps, no matter how small, to get what you need.
How are you managing the stress in your life right now? And is it really helping? Keep asking these questions and don’t be lured into harmful ways of dealing with stress.