Many people who get in touch with Birmingham Counselling Services do so because they are experiencing a lot of stress in their lives – at home, at work, in relationships, or because of an important event which is coming up.
The word “stress” can frighten us as we constantly hear it in a negative context, but in fact, not all stress is bad. We all need some stress in our lives, to stimulate adrenaline, to keep us alert, to keep us alive. In difficult circumstances some stress is a normal and healthy response, not something to be feared. However, sometimes our reaction to a situation can be exaggerated, our bodies become too efficient at switching into “fight or flight”, our minds produce a tumult of thoughts and we begin to panic. If we can learn to recognise this extreme response we can begin to learn how to control it.
1. Remember to breathe. If you can, take a number of deep breaths in and out, slowly counting up to four or more on each breath. Stress can cause us to breathe in a very quick and shallow way, which in turn can lead to hyperventilation and panic attacks. Or it can cause us to hold our breath – depriving ourselves of oxygen works like an anaesthetic, it helps to reduce the intensity of experiences. Of course, there might be times when this numbing of our senses is the best thing for us. Whatever the situation, we can learn to control our breathing.
2. Try to become aware of your feet on the ground, your hands on the arms of a chair, your bottom on a seat – of course this will vary depending on where you are – you can give yourself a feeling of stability, safety and security when there is something solid to support you. Don’t be sceptical – we have a physical body and physical experiences are important. This “grounding” does work.
3. If possible take some small, regular sips of water. Your mouth might have become very dry and if you start to perspire as well you could become dehydrated. Carrying water with you is a good idea whether or not you are feeling stressed.
4. Sometimes we have an extreme reaction to a situation because it reminds us of something in the past. Try to distinguish between the present threat and the memories of an earlier experience. Memories come from the past, they have no power to harm us again in the present unless we let them.
The points above are all about dealing with sudden, immediate stressful occurrences. Many of us suffer from stress which accumulates at home or at work, building up from numerous small events until we feel overwhelmed and trapped. The above suggestions will certainly help, especially if we can repeat them regularly, and there are further activities we can try over a longer period which will support us in dealing with recurring stress.
5. Try to take some exercise regularly. Walking is the easiest and least costly activity, but whatever form of exercise you enjoy will help to reduce the tension in your body and mind.
6. Monitor your sleep pattern and if necessary take steps to improve it. We all know already about relaxing before we go to bed, about establishing a regular routine, about allowing enough time for us to get the amount of sleep we need. How many of us take it all seriously? We all really do need to do these things most of the time, (no-one’s life allows for the sensible early night every night), and the regular pattern becomes even more important when we know we are facing difficult times during our waking hours.
7. Don’t be afraid of facing up to the stressor. Find the courage to look carefully at what appears to be making life difficult for you. Don’t be surprised if it turns out to be smaller than you thought. It is easy to endow an unfamiliar threat with more destructive power than it contains. The unknown is more dangerous than the known. Just think about how tension is built up in a horror film, with atmospheric music, looming shadows, fearful expressions on people’s faces (and we don’t see what they are looking at). Our imagination is all too good at creating the most fearful creatures and situations, whether they exist in reality or not.
8. Once you have identified the real source of your stress, define it as accurately as you can and make a note of it. Writing it down or drawing it can reduce its size and power. You are taking control.
9. Please don’t be afraid of asking for help. It is not a sign of weakness or of failure – you will not lose face. Asking for and accepting appropriate help is about being able to recognise what we cannot do alone and taking charge of dealing with it – taking control.
10. Try looking at the issue through the other end of the telescope – there will be positive elements in the situation if you can allow yourself to find and recognise them. Yes there is disappointment if an important event is rained off. What can I do with the time that is suddenly available?
11. Remember that if a situation has taken time to build up, with small issues accumulating into what seems like a big black cloud, it is unlikely to be sorted out in an instant. Be prepared to take small steps – each one will reduce the distance left to travel. Don’t expect the impossible from yourself or anyone else.
12. Learn to say “No” when you have reached your reasonable limit. It doesn’t need to sound offensive or aggressive, but you have the right to refuse to take on more responsibility than you can realistically handle. Sometimes, in a crisis, we have to go beyond our normal scope. This is fine as long as we remember that it is a temporary solution, not a long-term change.
13. Do not assume responsibility for other people’s problems. They are not your fault and you will not be able to sort them out completely. This doesn’t mean that you cannot offer help and support to a family member, a friend or a colleague. It does mean that you cannot bear their entire burden nor take the blame for their mistakes. Watch yourself, so that you don’t try to do so.
14. Be aware if your consumption of alcohol, nicotine, sugar or any other potentially harmful substance is increasing. It won’t help. Masking a problem does nothing about dealing with it, it merely postpones the time when it must be faced and sometimes creates a secondary problem as well – a bit like avoiding the dentist. The longer you suppress the pain with self-medication, the worse the problem is likely to be when you finally make that appointment and the more extreme and uncomfortable and expensive the necessary treatment.
15. It is unlikely that the stressor, whatever it may be, exists in every area of your life. Remember and be aware that there are situations where it has no place. Do not let it spill over from where it belongs and invade the rest of your life. If the problem is at work you do not have to let it go home with you at the end of the day. If the problem is at home, work could become an oasis. Practise putting a boundary fence around it so that it does not stray and contaminate the more relaxed parts of your life.
16. Allow yourself time to relax – watch a film, read a book, sit and chat with a friend, do some gardening, join an evening class, learn a new skill – whatever you enjoy that will not make too many demands on you. Do not feel guilty. You will deal with the stressful situation much more effectively if you give yourself a break from it and gain some energy.
Note how often the word “control” occurs in the lists above. So often stress relates to feeling out of control, that there is nothing we can do, that we are drowning. There will always be some area of your life where you can take control so allow yourself to recognise it and celebrate it. One of the qualified and experienced counsellors at Birmingham Counselling Services could support you while you work through difficult times and/or their aftermath. Get in touch with us on 0121 314 9903 or by visiting our website: www.BirminghamCounsellingServices.co.uk