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Mastering Stress in the New Normal: are you chasing after your life or sitting in the driver’s seat?
Helen Pamely, a Partner at Rosling King LLP and psychotherapist gives her insights.
Big changes to our lives and daily routines can take a considerable toll on our stress levels, whether we realise it or not. They impact both our mental and physical health. and as each of us grapples with living in the new and everchanging ‘normal’ our brains and nervous systems are having to monitor and adjust. The resultant neurological and physiological effects cause our baseline stress levels to heighten. I believe it is helpful to understand:
By doing this, you are choosing to put yourself firmly back in the driver’s seat of your life.
Stress is not all bad: it is our natural and normal reaction to a physical or emotional challenge. It can even be motivating. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, the relationship between stress and performance can be measured on a bell curve. It is only when stress goes beyond the peak of the bell curve that we suffer from stress-hormone-overload and performance suffers. If this overload is sustained for a long period, it creates imbalances in our nervous and immune systems, leaving us more vulnerable to illness.
Many of us thrive in a fast-paced, challenging, dynamic working environment. We embrace sustained energising levels of stress to reach our potential and excel in our careers. But we need a mechanism to ensure our stress levels do not lower our performance; or worse, damage our mental and physical wellbeing. It can be hard to gauge when things are getting out of hand, particularly if we have a tendency towards feeling anxious or depressed in our normal life. This is why it is important to get to know our own personal stress indicators: our ‘Stress Signature’.
Knowing your ‘Stress Signature’
Our individual needs and strengths are balanced differently. There is no ‘one size fits all’. Common indicators of stress include (but are not limited to):
• sleep disruption: struggling to drift off, waking up throughout the night;
• feeling easily irritated;
• having difficulty staying focused;
• pulling away from colleagues, friends and family;
• putting off things that need to be done, or conversely feeling as though everything must be done now;
• developing unhealthy eating habits;
• avoiding doing things which we know are good for us (e.g. running, yoga, meditation etc);
• increasing our use of alcohol;
• turning towards addictive relaxants, e.g. cigarettes; benzodiazepines.
The question to ask yourself, therefore, is this:
What physiological and emotional responses do high levels of stress generate in me personally?
The key is to learn to tune into our own mind and body. A great tool for this is mindfulness, which is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us. Mindfulness also provides us with an increased awareness of how we are feeling, which we might otherwise not have spotted.
In the context of stress, if we can recognise our own personal ‘normal’, then we can learn to identify when we feel unbalanced and overly stressed before we spiral out of control. Equally, if we do feel overwhelmed, being mindful of our own ‘normal’ can help us take a step back and understand why. Mindfulness allows us the opportunity to do whatever is needed to help us feel well; whether by going for a walk, playing with our dog, practising yoga, taking a hot bath or giving ourselves some time simply to rest.
Ways to Practice Mindfulness
Practising mindfulness can take many forms, including meditation, deep breathing, and guided imagery. The key is to realise that although the methodology behind mindfulness is simple, our active minds will seek many ways to resist and reject change. To overcome these obstacles, it helps when we grant ourselves the kind of patience and openness we show to a good friend. Practising mindfulness little and often, even five minutes a day is enough to reap the benefits.
For better or for worse, it seems the new normal of constant change and the radical back and forth in our way of life is here to stay, and so it is more important than ever that we focus our attention on how we can better understand and support our physical as well as our mental health. By understanding our Stress Signature and tuning into our mind and body using mindfulness, we can learn to take care of our wellbeing in a preventative manner and, ultimately, thrive in the face of whatever life throws in our path.
Why not try the below exercise? This acts as a great de-stressor as well as providing the groundwork for learning to tune into ourselves and identify our own Stress Signature.
1. Take a deep breath through your nose to the count of four, allowing your stomach to expand. Pause for two seconds. Exhale slowly through your mouth to the count of eight. Repeat eight times.
2. If you notice tension in your body, try non-judgmentally to notice this but not get caught up in it. Gently return your concentration to the breathing exercise.
3. Then ask yourself the following question: • what thoughts, feelings, emotions and bodily sensations are in your present-moment experience right now?
4. Allow a couple of minutes simply to sit with this question.
5. Allow whatever arises in response. Don’t try to push it away or grasp onto it; just let it be.
6. When you feel ready, open your eyes.
7. You may wish to note down any particular insight you gained into the thoughts, feelings, emotions and/or bodily-sensations noticed.
Helen Pamely is a Partner at Rosling King LLP, Wellbeing Consultant, a Coach and a Psychotherapist. She is in the process of completing a MA in Mindfulness-based Psychotherapy