What is stress? How do you spot when it hits you? More importantly, what helps you overcome it? In this blog post we’ll talk about what we’ve learned about stress and how to beat it from our research, clinical and personal experiences. We’ll cover three triggers for stress, how to spot them and what to do about them. Our key message is to use early signs of stress as cue to take care of your wellbeing.
Stress is your body’s response to pressure or feeling under threat. You may have started your morning feeling pretty good, but then arrived at work or your place of study to a list of tasks and demands, causing pressure and stress to build. This is not necessarily bad; it can give you motivation to get things done. However, you may, without realising, have gone on to react to stress in a way that magnifies it.
The feeling of stress may have brought to mind past difficult memories, made you worry or dwell, given rise to feelings of self-criticism or doubt, or led to guilt and procrastination. It is both our environment and our reactions that cause stress.
Our research with healthcare workers has shown us that it is vitally important to spot triggers for stress and to respond to them in constructive ways.
Finding and practising new ways of coping can make stress more manageable and improve our resilience for future stresses. You can see more on tools for managing stress in our videos. Here are three tools that helped our healthcare workers and which we use ourselves.
Aimee’s strategy – Spot when you’re dwelling and break the habit
Spot your signs for dwelling or ruminating. Dwelling is a repetitive, negative thought pattern that makes your mood low. You might already know that you tend to ruminate if you’re disappointed, if you think something is unfair, or if you feel that you have made a mistake. It is a habit that can be hard to break.
- Are my thoughts focused on unanswerable questions like “Why me? What does this mean? Or Why now?”
- Have I been stuck in my head and focussing on this for more than a few minutes?
- Am I feeling worse than I was when I started thinking about this? (angry, sad, guilty, ashamed)
- Are my thoughts getting me no further towards a plan or action?
If the answer to any of these is “yes,” it’s likely that you’re dwelling. Learn to spot your triggers and try to get out of your head with a more helpful response, such as:
- Getting up, switching positions, doing a brief bit of exercise.
- If you’re noticing self-critical rumination, practise some self-compassion. Send a message to someone you care about. Ask yourself what you would say to a friend in your shoes, or what would they say to you?
- Change your thinking from “Why me? What does this mean?” to “How?” “How can I move forward? How do I get help with this? How have I helped myself feel better in the past?”
Abbie’s strategy – Planning ahead when you are overwhelmed or low
Balancing life, work, and research or studies can feel overwhelming and lead to pangs of guilt and bouts of procrastination. You feel as though you’re stuck, unable to get anything done. Several studies demonstrate that making a plan in the evening before the next day that includes a brief and enjoyable activity improves wellbeing and reduces psychological distress.
To use this strategy, take 5-10 minutes in the evening to plan the next day. Make sure to write this plan down. Schedule all the things you need to get done and make time for breaks and enjoyable activities. We think that this strategy moves routine decision making about routine tasks to the night before, which frees up mental energy to deal with challenging tasks the next day. The enjoyable activity boosts your mood. Make sure you are specific, so instead of saying “I will work on this paper for 1 hour” say “I will spend 1 hour to write up all of the measures I used for my methods section”. Use feeling overwhelmed, guilty, a bit low or the urge to avoid a task as a cue to plan ahead.
Gaby’s strategy – Practical thinking for resilient self-talk
Notice how you talk to yourself. Our studies have shown that how resilient you feel can predict how you respond to stress. In our study of journalists, we found that resilient self-talk was linked to fewer unwanted memories during the pandemic.
To boost how well you see yourself coping , replace self-critical and self-doubting questions such as “Why me? Why now?” with thoughts of how well you could respond. Run through how you have coped with similar situations in the past. What are the practical steps you could take? Focus on how to move forwards. Seek support if you need to, talk to a friend, a colleague, or a tutor. Use your awareness of your self-talk as a cue to respond in a more practical way, which will guide you to more confident feelings. Be sure to extend the kindness you extend to others to yourself.
Use stress as a cue to increase your wellbeing efforts. Experiment with what works for you. It can be tempting to tell yourself that you just don’t have time to make a plan or to exercise to get out of your head, but avoidance never helps and, instead, it keeps anxiety and stress going. Choose to do what is best for you rather than what is easiest. Invest in your wellbeing.
Aimee McKinnon is a clinical research psychologist working on SHAPE Recovery, a programme of early intervention for PTSD and depression in NHS healthcare workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, led by Dr Jennifer Wild.
Abbie Wilkins is a psychological wellbeing practitioner and research assistant working on SHAPE Recovery.
Gabriella Tyson is a DPhil student focussing on mental health in journalists. Her work looks at identifying and preventing trauma reactions in this population and improving resilience.