Posted 2 weeks ago

Stress management techniques and how to apply them

Although it’s far from optimal, many of us have come to live accepting an inordinately high level of constant stress.

You’ve heard us talk about stress before, and how it is technically neither good nor bad, simply a function of evolution to keep us alive. However, it is evident that most of us have moved from experiencing acute, situation-related stress, to an ongoing rumble in the back of our minds. The current pandemic is also not helping us manage this stress in ways we were perhaps used to, such as by going to the gym, and socialising with family, friends, and work colleagues in person.

As bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts, most of us are also aware of the fact that prolonged stress is not healthy for us or our goals. Chronic stress can impact our sleep, appetite, performance, mood, motivation, willpower, energy and recovery, just to name a few. Even if your interest was just to look better and you didn’t care about any of the factors listed above, stress is still going to impede you from achieving that goal.

So, what can you do about it? Below are two specific techniques you can use to ensure you manage your stress better and do not reach breaking point.

Keeping to a daily routine
Do not underestimate the positive effect of having a daily routine. A daily routine that you can follow will support you in accomplishing all of your daily tasks. We’re all bored of hearing that you can “only control the controllables” but the reason we keep coming back to it is because it remains true and applies to your routine too.

When it comes to decision making, our ability to make informed decisions works somewhat like a finite resource: the more decisions you need to make, the more tired you get of making them, and the worse you become at making those decisions in a thoughtful and rational way. If you keep having to decide how you’re going to run your day on a daily basis, it’s more likely that you give up and end up feeling overwhelmed at your lack of ability to complete all your daily tasks. This would be less likely if you stuck to a same-ish daily routine and thus, removed the thousands of micro-decisions you had to make every day.

A consistent routine also gives us a better sense of what is realistic and manageable in the 24hrs of the day, and avoids us overestimating our capacity for productivity, which can leave us feeling even more stressed.

You do not need to plan every minute of your day but having an idea of what you’ll be doing in 2h blocks from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed is a great place to start. Don’t be scared of trial and error, use personal feedback to see what worked best, and double down on those processes.

Journaling
Journaling has become increasingly popular and there’s a good reason why: giving yourself time and space to think about how you’re feeling inherently provides perspective and forces you to slow down, as opposed to being wrapped up in spiralling stressful thoughts.

There is no right or wrong way to journal, or anything you should or shouldn’t write about -ultimately, if journaling is serving the function of supporting your health by managing stress, you should utilise in whichever way you feel helps most.

When you don’t know what to write about, these techniques can provide you with good starting points:

Gratitude – writing about at least one thing you’re grateful in that moment, that day, or life in general can switch your mindset from one of scarcity (stressful) to one of abundance (calm). You can be grateful for the meal you’re about to have, or the coffee you’re about to make; you can be grateful for your shower, your house, your OH, the way your parents raised you, a teacher in school who taught you that things always work themselves out. You can find gratitude in almost any situation and reflecting on it will help you focus on positive and reassuring thoughts, rather than negative ones.

Rose, thorn, bud – this technique can be used when journaling at the end of the day, as it helps reflect on what has gone well that day and set intentions for what could go better the day after. The rose refers to a positive thing(s) that happened that day; the thorn refers to something unpleasant, unexpected, or stressful; and the bud sets the intention and hope or perspective for the following day. This is a super quick and easy one, even for the busiest of people!

Thought diary – this technique is based on cognitive-behavioural therapy, which is the therapy modality most widely used to support people with anxiety and depression. You might find this technique useful when journaling about a very specific situation, to understand how it made you feel, what thoughts led the event to make you feel that way and support you in achieving a more balanced perspective. You can break it down like this:

  • Situation: where was I, who with, what happened, as much detail as possible and as specific as possible
  • Emotion/mood: label the exact feeling(s) and mood(s) I felt in the moment, and rate the intensity of each one out of 100%
  • Physical sensations: what did I feel, and where did I feel it?
  • Unhelpful thoughts/images: what came into my mind? What was triggered within me? What was the automatic chain of (negative) thoughts I engaged in?
  • Alternative/realistic thought: can I think about this situation with a more balanced perspective? Is this as black or white as I see it? How would somebody else interpret these events? Is this a fact or an opinion? Is this really as important as it seems? Will it matter in 5yrs time?
  • Reflection on what you did, could have done, would prefer to do: assess what happened and what could have been a better response or what you’d consider a more appropriate response. You can also re-rate your mood and emotions here, based on the reflection you’ve just done.

In sum, these two simple techniques can make a huge difference to your ability to manage stress. They can take a bit of time to figure out and find what feels right to you, but every minute invested will be worth the return in lower-levels of stress, and/or a better perceived ability to manage these.

If you’d like to talk about how stress is affecting your physique goals and would like support in helping you overcome those barriers, click the button below!

Clara Swedlund MSc MBPsS