Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Managing stress - from superhero to good enough.

The weeks running up to Christmas can often be particularly stressful. Whether it's financial worries or family issues or just how you feel in yourself, Christmas can be difficult. At the same time, you may feel you should be enjoying yourself - another pressure! Pressure piles on top of pressure; and it can be hard to see beyond it. How then can you best manage stress?

Stepping stones across the waterThere is so much pressure 'out there', on TV, in our culture etc. to buy more and to do more than perhaps is realistically possible. If we take this outside pressure on, and then use it on ourselves, we are adding to it, making it worse for ourselves. Our stress levels increase.We can so easily set ourselves impossible targets; and then be down on ourselves for not achieving them. Being realistic in what you can achieve is therefore an important part of managing stress, I feel. You can accept that there are outside pressures without adding to them unnecessarily. Why kick yourself when you're down?

We can all kid ourselves at times that we can do more; while at the same time, deep down we know it's not really possible. On top of our original pressures, we are then also battling with ourselves, trying to somehow make ourselves do the impossible. As a strategy for managing stress, trying to do the impossible doesn't work! This might sound ridiculously obvious to say, but we are all guilty at times of trying to do the impossible, aren't we? We try to be superheros rather than human beings. It can be surprising how liberating and empowering it can be to admit to yourself that you can't do the impossible. It leaves you with what is possible. (Not quite Occam's razor but...)

Certainly there is something illogical about trying to make ourselves do things that we are not capable of doing. But then there's a lot more to human beings than just the logical! While our logic can influence actions, so can our emotions. Not that that makes our emotions 'bad'. We need them to motivate us. Perhaps though, it's a case of where do we apply the brakes, so that our enthusiasm doesn't run out of control and cause us stress? It's a case of balance.

Sometimes a tendency to perfectionism can cause us to have expectations of ourselves that are unhealthily and unrealistically high. Think about what you really can do, as opposed to what you might like to do in an ideal world. Having goals that motivate us is one thing, making them unachievable is another.

Prioritising is also an important part of managing stress, I feel. What needs to be done now and what can be done at a later date? I don't mean just putting things off, so you feel they're all piling up on you. Rather I'm thinking about planning ahead, so that you have a strategy for dealing with things in a timely fashion. That way you are reducing the feeling of being overwhelmed by competing demands, feeling pushed and pulled in all directions. You know you can't do it all at once. What can you reasonably do later, (given that we have already established that you can't do the impossible)?

Again this is logical, common sense, but often we need to give ourselves permission to prioritise. If it feels like a kind of defeat to admit you're not superwoman or superman, think about how being realistic will allow you to gain some control and manage the situation. - to feel more like you're coping. That's good isn't it? Maybe even good enough?

Also helpful in managing stress is developing the ability to recognise and accept when there are things that will be difficult whatever you do. It can sap your energy trying to change what you can't change. Accepting what you can't change gives the opportunity for limited supplies of precious energy to be directed where they will have most effect.

I'm not saying anything new here, but I'm not apologising for this. Despite knowing these things, we all as human beings have a tendency to think this all applies to other people, and that somehow we'll manage to do what we wouldn't expect from others. Tendencies, however, are habits - and habits can be changed.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

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