Stress is a normal part of adult life. The trick lies in learning to live with it.
In today’s busy world when it’s nearly impossible to switch off, it’s no wonder that feeling stressed can seem like our default mode.
Stress is a significant issue in Australian workplaces. According to a Beyond Blue report, one in five Australians has taken time off work inthe past 12 months because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy.
But, in reality, stress is a normal part of everyday life. The professional and caregiving responsibilities that come with adulthood mean there are always going to be demands placed on us. There’s no avoiding stress – instead, we need to learn to live with it.
What is stress?
According to a guide to stress published by The Black Dog Institute, “stress is our body’s response to a demand placed on it.” Its triggers can be both internal and external, such as conflict at work, illness, relationship difficulties,financial pressure, and major life changes such as redundancy or moving house.
Stress gets a lot of bad press, but a small amount of stress can be good for us, says Marcela Slepica, director of clinical services at Access EAP. When we’re under a healthy amount of stress, we feel alert and productive. As any university student quickly learns, nothing focuses the mind like a looming deadline. “Our adrenaline increases and our parasympathetic system escalates,” she says. “We feel like we’re moving forward.”
Stress becomes unhealthy when the demands placed on us outweigh our ability to deal with them. It can affect us physically and mentally, manifesting in negative self-talk and mood swings. Day-to-day, stress can cause fatigue, poor concentration, and impaired performance. Long-term, it can affect our immune responses and contribute to inflammation in the body, which is associated with conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Prolonged stress can also contribute to mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, and lead to burnout, a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that leads to exhaustion, cynicism and reduced professional efficacy.
“Stress gets a lot of bad press, but a small amount of stress can be good for us”
How to manage stress
It’s impossible to sidestep stress altogether. Instead, a more constructive approach is to try to manage the unavoidable stress in our lives.
First, we have to learn how to recognise stress. The Black Dog Institute recommends making a habit of reflecting on a stressful event that occurred in the previous week to analyse how it made you think and feel. Once you learn more about the specific stressors in your life, you can then develop targeted strategies to address these triggers as they appear.
When we’re time-poor, there is no point investing energy into pursuits that aren’t of value. Identify what’s important to you, both at home and in your professional life, and base your choices on these core values, advises Slepica, observing that “relationships with family are more important than a clean house.”
At work, she says, analyse your workload and identify what’s urgent, what can wait, and where you need support. “Practice saying no,”she says.
And then there is the complicated topic of self-care. It’s essential to look after yourself, especially when you’re under pressure. “Often when we’re very stressed, we neglect our own wellbeing,” Slepica says. “We stop going to the gym or doing exercise as regularly as we like, we eat unhealthy food and don’t get enough sleep, which all contribute to us not coping well with stress.”
Committing to self-care doesn’t have to mean trying to squeeze a six AM yoga class into your already overstuffed schedule. Tools like meditation and mindfulness work for some people, says Slepica.
It’s also critical to accept that you can’t do it all. Unrealistic self-expectations can set us up for unnecessary failure. “A big contribution to our stress levels is our internal thoughts, beliefs and attitudes,” says Slepica. Sometimes, she says, “good enough” is the best we can do.