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Wellbeing / Stress management

Managing stress: How to take control of stress before it controls you

Harnessing your inner stress-control functions allows you to convert it into a powerful driver of productivity and progress, sharpening your focus and unleashing a more creative, positive, resilient ‘you’.

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Exhausted, forgetful, losing hair, gaining weight, starting and ending the day feeling overwhelmed and irritable. This is what too much stress does to you. While we all experience stress in different forms and to varying degrees, managing stress effectively is a skill many people are yet to develop.

Stress is a serious problem that impacts not only your mental and physical health, but also that of your loved ones and your business. Over time, chronic stress leads to many physical and emotional symptoms. The latest Stress and Wellbeing in Australia survey 2015, conducted by the Australian Psychological Society found that anxiety symptoms were the highest recorded since the survey began five years ago.

Stress may be triggered by an external source, yet it’s the way we interpret these external pressures that determines how stressed we get.

In other words, if you can change your response to stress, you can take control and stop it controlling you.

"If you can change your response to stress, you can take control and stop it controlling you."

The first step is identifying the signs of oncoming stress – the common symptoms are things like:

  • Disturbed sleep
  • A short fuse
  • Feeling overwhelmed and anxious
  • Upset stomach
  • Exhaustion
  • Negative thoughts

When you notice these symptoms you can deploy a range of stress-busting tactics to help you get through the day. Here are five tactics I use to help with managing stress:

1. Harness stress so it spurs, not hinders, productivity

Do you roll over to-do-lists to the next day, and then the next, and so on? Try this instead: write a list of everything that is stressing you. Then ask, ‘If I could achieve just one thing on the list, which one would I choose? What can wait or be re-assigned?’

Focus on resolving one source of stress at a time, rather than being overwhelmed by everything at once. This way, you allow stress to drive – rather than derail – your productivity.

2. Prioritise and eliminate the non-essential

Many people operate under the false notion that being busy and stressed goes hand-in-hand with being important and successful. Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less explains that being trapped in the ‘busyness bubble’ is actually a signal that we lack focus and fill our time with non-essential tasks. When we can’t see what’s most important, everything becomes important.

Decide what is essential – your clear purpose or goal – and suddenly you can eliminate a thousand other options. Tim Ferriss, author and champion of The 4-hour Workweek has another tip: Don’t email first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Checking your email in the morning scrambles your priority list for the day. Dealing with emails at night gives you insomnia. Email is the new snail mail – it can wait.

3. Aim for progress, not perfection

The way we view ourselves, our abilities and achievements can predict how well we navigate pressure and setbacks. Researcher and author Carol Dweck explains that a ‘growth mindset’ (one that aims for progress, not achievement) allows an individual to cope with failure and the obstacles that create stress. By contrast, a ‘fixed mindset’ wants perfection and is achievement-driven, but can easily come unstuck by obstacles and setbacks – which take on greater significance and create greater stress.

Changing your mindset is possible. Adopting a growth mindset changes the way you experience stressful moments. Instead of paralysing you, setbacks and pressure can be viewed as development opportunities to spur you on. This allows you to recognise to celebrate your progress and build resilience rather than placing all your bets on an end result.

4. Get more sleep (invest in a good mattress!)

Stress derails the quality and quantity of our sleep. The worst part about the combination of stress and lack of sleep, is that it’s cyclically deteriorating – the more stressed we are, the more our sleep suffers, then with less sleep, we are more prone to becoming stressed. Things can quickly get out of hand.

The best tip is to break the cycle by creating the best conditions for sleep, and relaxing both body and mind. When your mind starts to race, focusing on your breathing will stop unhelpful thoughts in their tracks. Your mind is a powerful device and plays a big role in deciding which thoughts are allowed to enter your head while you sleep – use it.

5. Laugh

This is one of the best stress-busters of all. When we’re stressed we often launch into serious-problem-solving-survival mode. It may be helpful for short bursts of time. Yet sustaining this seriousness for a long period masks our internal turmoil and keeps the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies for longer. Laughter is like a release-valve for stress. Find something that makes you laugh – a YouTube clip, a funny movie or a child’s antics – and give yourself a dose whenever you can.

Stress inevitably happens to all of us. If you’re ambitious and driven in your business life, stress will find you. But take heart. Harnessing your inner stress-control functions makes stress less debilitating. Taking control of stress allows you to convert it into a powerful driver of productivity and progress, sharpening your focus and unleashing a more creative, positive, resilient ‘you’.

What’s your go-to method for being proactive with managing stress?

Matthew White

is director of Ergoflex Australia, an online retailer of premium quality memory foam mattresses. As well as helping Australians get a better night's sleep, Matthew is a marketer, sleep blogger, father of four and home renovator.

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