Those of us with solo ventures have come to accept that stress is a part of everyday life. And we spend a lot of time trying to manage stress by doing what the experts suggest: finding time for ourselves, prioritising, being organised and learning to say no.
And these are all excellent strategies.
The problem is, they don’t eliminate stress, they just manage stress.
Now this will be the point where someone might want to point out the obvious: that you need to reduce the amount of stress in your life. For many soloists, however, this is not an option short term.
What is an option, however, is learning to better manage our response to stress.
Here are nine ways to manage stress by doing just that:
1. Recognise the triggers
First of all, recognise what triggers a stress response in you: is it public speaking, multiple deadlines, over commitment, negative feedback, traffic, public transport, fear of failure? Find out what really trips you off and then teach your brain to respond differently.
Mary, for example, felt her stress response activated when her colleague Martin became inappropriately angry when something went wrong at work. She would immediately become angry herself, assuming he was finding fault with her. Her heart rate would go up, she would feel a bit light headed.The two of them would argue, he would talk over the top of her; she would become defensive and angrier until they were shouting.
Mary had to learn to completely change the way she thought about and responded to this situation. She taught herself to take a deep breath when she felt blamed, and respond calmly, and quietly. In doing so, she not only managed her stress response, she helped Martin manage his as well.
2. Practice acceptance for things you can’t control
When we are stressed, little things often set us off because we already have cortisol and adrenaline coursing through our systems. There are many stressful things that happen in the day over which we have no control: planes being late, traffic hold ups, milk being spilled (literally). There is no point reacting to those things we can’t change. We need to practice saying ‘it is what it is’, deal with ‘it’ and move on.
Let’s pretend you are on your way to an important meeting and there is a traffic accident and you are being held up. Can you change the fact that the lanes are blocked ahead? No. Is having a racing heart and sweaty palms helping you in any way? No.
So call ahead, explain the situation, and then sit back and breathe deeply. It’s a far better way to utilise that 10 minutes rather than shouting and banging your fists on the dashboard.
Another important thing to remember about things you can’t control – you can’t control other people’s reaction but you can control your own.
I’m not talking about full blown cardio exercise here. If your heart rate is up just move to match what is happening in your body. So, for example, just before a presentation, a difficult meeting about which you’re nervous, or any event that is causing you stress and your heart rate to increase – move around, walk up the stairs, stand in the bathroom and pretend to box. This will send the message to your brain that you are heeding its warning, and in turn your brain will stop, or at least reduce, the stress response.
Listen to how you talk to yourself. Are you telling yourself you’re a failure? That ‘this stuff always happens to me’ etc?
Ask yourself ‘what is the worst that can happen’? If you can handle that (unlikely) event then anything less than that is very manageable. Once you’ve asked yourself about the worst, ask the question you really need to ask yourself – what is the BEST thing that could happen?
If you find yourself thinking ‘I am such a failure’, reframe your thoughts. At the very least, turn the negative thoughts around into something less negative.
For example, ‘this is going to be terrible’ may not become ‘this is going to be great’ but it might become ‘this is going to be tough, but I know I can get through it’.
One of the greatest weapons against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.
Next time you are feeling stressed and anxious try taking a deep breath and smiling. Just one deep breath and smile. This sends a message to your brain that you are not freaking out, and your brain will respond accordingly.
6. Recognise fear of failure – and get over it
For our ancestors, failure could mean the difference between life and death, so failure was a threat. Our brains function the same way today. Failure and success are drummed into us from the time we start school, sometimes earlier. We go from a fairly carefree life of writing and drawing how we want and meandering around to having to draw between the lines and walk in lines. We grow up looking first for stamps and stickers, then for other signs of our success, and anyone else’s success diminishes our own.
I recently read ‘Wired for Life’ by Martina Sheehan and Susan Pearse and it is an eye-opening book. In it the authors look at many different fears we have and have this to say about fear of failure:
The shape of the threats that face you in the modern world are very different. Failing at a job can be processed as a threat to status … and the threat response does not wait to see if this materialises, the threat response is activated as soon as your mind starts visualising them.
If you live with fear of failure, your brain is constantly on the lookout for ways in which that might happen and responds accordingly. So fear of failure, in whatever form, activates the stress response. Remind yourself of your many successes, take the risk you need to take, and celebrate a job well done when it’s over.
We all know what mindfulness is so I won’t go into it in any detail here but it works. It really, really works. It teaches our brains to focus on the here and now; and this has the effect of really calming things down mentally.
Pausing is, for me, mini-mindfulness, and is very effective for dealing with day to day stress. As the name suggests, it’s a technique that involves pausing, and taking a breath before moving from one task to another. It allows you to bring your attention to the next task and to leave any stress from your previous task behind.
You can use this technique when you move from one client job to another: hang up the phone or put down your pen, pause, take a deep breath and then move on to the next thing.
If you do this 10 times during the course of the day it will take approximately 1 minute. Which I reckon is a worthwhile investment in order to manage your stress response.
You may have noticed a common theme in all of these tips – and that is breathing.
Of all the physiological things that occur automatically when the stress response is activated (increased heart beat, blood flow, blood pressure, breathing) there is only one that we can control – our breathing.
By slowing down our breathing, we can change the messages the body is sending to the brain and thereby change the way we respond.
So if you slow your breathing down, (by deliberately taking long slow deep (ie through the diaphragm) breaths), your heart rate will slow down and your brain gets the message that the threat is decreasing.
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
The most important aspect of managing our stress response lies in teaching yourself a new way to respond. And the best thing about it is that in doing so, you will also be helping others, (unconsciously, by modelling), to manage their stress response as well.
Do you currently use any of the methods above to manage your stress response?