Stress Management – Part 1

Stress Management – Part 1

Stress is something we all experience. It is a feeling of emotional strain and pressure. Stress is our psychological and physiological reaction to an event or condition that we perceive as being a threat or challenge. The body’s stress response is designed to help the body meet this challenging situation, and stress has the potential to build our capacity to perform and succeed. However, long-term, or chronic stress that doesn’t go away is bad for our health. Secondly, an inappropriate response to stress is what could be harmful to us, and not the stressor itself.

Evidence suggests that our stress response begins in our brains so the best way to respond to stress is to help your brain cope with it. The problem with our brains being the first place where we respond to stress is that we are often biased and view stress a certain way. This is called bias. There are two types of bias we often view the world with:

  1. Affect bias – the way you feel determines what you do. This means that when you are stressed you are highly likely to underestimate the benefits and overstate the risks. What is likely to happen then is that you do something that you would not have done in another situation. 
  2. Confirmation bias – your previous knowledge of an event, person or situation can lead to a preconceived solution in the hope of responding quickly in a negative situation. You will look for and focus on knowledge supporting this old solution ignoring evidence for any other solutions. 

These biases often win because when problems arise, we feel overwhelmed thus triggering our fight, flight or freeze response. When you are stressed, your brain thinks you are fighting for your life and that is why these biases end up winning. It is rare to trust new information in a crisis.

Here are a few ways to support your brain so that you don’t fall into the trap of the above biases as you figure out how to respond to a stressful situation or problem, 

  1. Reframing is a tool developed by psychologists to help individuals look at situations in a way that allows them to change their responses. All you have to do is use skills you already have, namely, your critical thinking and hope. Then mentally look at the situation, person, or event that is stressing you and examine it. Look at it from different angles. Build a perspective based on information from many sources and not just how you feel. 
  2. Take your emotional response as valid but not necessarily true or helpful for this particular situation. Use the emotional information (how you are feeling) to guide your understanding of what has triggered your stress information. Use actual observed information to examine what is happening. Combine the two sources of information to decide what you want to do in response.
  3. Break down all the things that are stressing you into small steps. When you look at it as a big thing or when you look at all the things happening in your life you will feel overwhelmed. Break it down into small pieces and ask yourself if you can do something about it. if you can’t then focus on something else. If you can do something about it, take time to list your options then do what you can. 
  4. Use practical tools like the CIA diagram (Control Influence Affect) – think about the things you have control over, direct your energy to what you have influence over, and let go of feelings about things you have you have no control or influence over. For example, I control when I do my work, I influence how I do my work and I am letting go of my anger with my colleague because I cannot control them.
  5. Use the Worst Case Scenario. Imagine that Plan A fails and fails spectacularly. What are the possible reasons that it failed? Use those reasons to decide if it is the plan you want to use to solve the problem in a better way.

Remember, stress becomes harmful when you view the stress response as bigger than the actual stressor your body is responding to. Some people may find benefits in practicing techniques to first turn down the volume and intensity of your stress response, like deep breathing techniques, and then facing the challenge at hand. More on this in Part 2

Zenah Nantumbwe

BA Industrial and Organisational Psychology (Mak); MSc Clinical Psychology (Mak)
Wellness Psychological Services

Yvonne Zabu

BA Psychology (Nelson Mandela University); HonSocSci Psychology (UCT); MSc Clinical Psychology (Mak)
Wellness Psychological Services

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