Coping with Stress

Identifying Stress

First of all, let's check out a few symptoms to see how overtired you are. If you feel under stress - emotionally, mentally or physically - then maybe some of the following symptoms are present. They can of course derive from many other causes, but if several are present together, an overstressed condition is probably a major factor in their origin.

Physical Symptoms

  • Constant tiredness.
  • Your limbs feel heavy.
  • Your facial skin feels taut.
  • Breathlessness without any exertion.
  • Feeling faint at times.
  • Tendency to sweat for no good reason.
  • Light, patchy sleep.
  • Weepiness or frequent desire to weep.
  • General lack of appetite.
  • Frequent indigestion or heartburn.
  • Feeling of wanting to be sick.
  • Constipation or diarrhoea.
  • Headaches/migraine.
  • Disinterest in sex (impotence/frigidity).
  • Craving for food when under pressure.
  • Increased reliance on caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, sugar.
  • Nervous tics, nail biting.
  • Neck cramp.
  • Inability to sit still without fidgeting.

Mental Symptoms

  • Reluctance to laugh/smile or make jokes.
  • Patchy or non-existent concentration.
  • Tendency to flit from task to task.
  • Inability to finish a task properly.
  • A lack of drive/motivation in your work.
  • Feelings of guilt/inadequacy where work is concerned.
  • Lack of interest in life, and in activities that previously gave you pleasure.
  • No desire to contact people (write, phone, etc.).
  • Loss of interest in your friends.
  • Difficulty in making decisions.
  • Constant irritability.
  • A feeling of being a failure.
  • A feeling of helplessness and lack of control.
  • A feeling of being surrounded by busy people.
  • Feelings of inadequacy in relationship to your partner.
  • No real interest in the future.
  • Frustration at not being able to show your true feelings.

Reducing Stress

Stress relates to the degree of internal and external stimulus that we are subjected to. Too little stimulus and we are bored; too much and our coping mechanisms become ineffective and we start to show symptoms of overtiredness. It's tempting, when we are overstressed, to point to a recent problem that could be responsible. However it's often the case that we are actually dealing with several issues that have slowly worn down our resistance to stress over a period of months - maybe longer - leaving us mentally and emotionally exhausted.

Our ability to tolerate stress is linked to our personality, our relationships, energy levels, and emotional maturity: For instance, introverted people are generally more comfortable with less stimulus than their more extroverted colleagues; unhappy relationships tend to be very draining and lower our resistance to stress; when our energy levels are reduced, e.g. recovering from illness or simply tired at the end of the day, our ways of dealing with the world around us are less robust; finally, as we grow older, we generally learn how to deal more confidently with sources of stress, be they work-related or personal.

In everyday life - i.e. non-crisis situations - it's important to make effective use of our limited energy. To do so means getting the right balance between work, rest and play.

Because of the nature of our society, with its emphasis on work, achievement and competition, people's lives consist mostly of work periods and 'convalescent' rest periods when we are recovering from work. In such resting periods, we usually opt for predictable routine activities such as chatting to friends, housework, going out to the pub, watching TV, reading newspapers, etc. We opt for the comfort zone'!

But play is important too ! Without it we don't function very well in the long run. We need play to see work in perspective, diffuse the everyday anxieties and recharge our mental energy. Yet when you look around and ask most people how much play there is in their week, the answers are often very revealing. Each week we have 168 hours which is spent in roughly the following proportions:

Routine activities (sleep, meals, travel, etc)..........100 hrs

Work ............................................................................. 35 hrs

Leisure time (rest and play) ..................................... 33 hrs

And what happens in leisure time ? Well, there's a lot of resting but not much evidence of play. For instance, the average Briton spends about 17 hrs per week watching TV. And although there are plenty of opportunities for play (e.g. for golfers and hill walkers - to mention but two activities in Scotland) the active seem to be outnumbered by the spectators.

What is play ? There's no easy answer. For each person, it's different. However, to be effective, it needs to be absorbing, creative, to exercise different talents to those employed in our work, and to present us with meaningful challenges ... And we need energy to enjoy it: whereas the resting periods, when we are low in energy, are devoted to mostly grey, mechanical activities, play requires a positive investment of effort and enthusiasm. It's not easy to think of work when you are walking in the Cairngorms, playing a vigorous game of squash or trying to capture the spirit of a landscape with a camera or a box of water colours.

When we become anxious about work (e.g. when we are trying to meet a deadline, or revising), play is often dismissed as 'selfish', 'irrelevant' or 'self-indulgent'; however vital it remains to our sense of well-being, it is often the first item to be squeezed out of the week, as we rationalise the need to devote more time and effort to work.

A stressful situation often develops its own momentum, creating a vicious circle, where the lack of relief from the pressures of work results in us inevitably becoming more and more overtired... so that work periods offer ever diminishing returns... often reaching the point where we stare at the page, and nothing seems to 'go in'.

Is there a solution ? Well, try the following:

  • Rest properly. That means relaxing away from all signs of work and new sources of stress (e.g. harrowing television news programmes).
  • Reintroduce play periods. Try to make them at least 3-4 hours in duration.
  • Monitor the changes, and - if they work - make them a permanent feature of your life.

You will derive very little benefit from play periods of less than three hours. But try telling that to someone who is already past deadlines on two essays, a week away from class exams and expecting a letter from the bank manager about an overdraft ! However the only way to effectively dispel the feelings of anxiety and guilt is to step back and make some radical changes. The most contented people are often to be found among those who have regular commitments outside their work; and who are determined, whatever the nature of the work-related pressures, to make sure that these activities are not drummed out of existence.

To recap, the essential element that allows us to work effectively is the presence in our week of about 4-6 hours of play - of spare-time events or activities that we really look forward to. The absence of play is not noticed immediately. But, in retrospect, it is marked by a gradual downswing in our overall effectiveness. Ignore its absence for too long, and our world starts to turn a shade of grey.

What can you do to reduce your overtiredness and inability to cope effectively?

A great deal. The first step is to take stock of the situation. Then make some changes in how you manage your time, and see whether they give you a feeling of being more relaxed and more in control. The ideas that follow may prove useful. Try them out!

  • Work no more than eight hours daily.
  • Always set yourself realistic targets for each work period.
  • Work methodically. Always finish one task before starting another.
  • Don't accept, or set yourself, unrealistic deadlines. Unfulfilled resolutions will only make you feel guilty and inadequate.
  • If you're unhappy in your work, stand back. Take a fresh look at your options and the goals towards which you are striving.
  • Have one and a half days each week completely free from work.
  • Take as much care in planning your leisure as you do in your work.
  • Take weekends away from the University and your work.
  • In your leisure periods make sure that all reminders of work (e.g. textbooks, notes, etc.) are out of sight.
  • Try to walk, talk and move at a slower pace.
  • Deliberately cultivate the habit of listening to relaxing music.
  • Find a relaxing activity - one that's creative rather than competitive (e.g. pottery, photography, drawing, model-making, tapestry, knitting, playing an instrument, etc.). Set time aside for it each day.
  • Take at least 15 minutes daily for physical exercise, preferably outdoors, so that you get the added benefit of fresh air and full-spectrum light.
  • For some people, daily sessions practising yoga/meditation or listening to relaxation tapes, may be very beneficial.
  • Allow at least 30 minutes for each meal.
  • Examine your diet. Make sure that it is balanced and provides you with plenty of energy.
  • Eat slowly and chew well to extract maximum benefit from your food.
  • If emotional and/or sexual relationships are upsetting you, seek advice, now.
  • Practice being less defensive. Express more of your feelings openly.