Five ways to deal with stress

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Our psychological wellbeing – our mental health – directly affects our ability to perform well at work. When we feel stressed or experience emotions such as anxiety or depression, it is hardly surprising that our productivity can be compromised.

Attending to our mental wellbeing is not just about helping us to feel better – it is fundamentally important if we want to sustain a high level of performance and achievement over the months and years of our careers. Here are five research-backed tips on dealing with stress.

1. Confide in others

A recent medical study looked at the relationship between various lifestyle factors and depression in a sample of 118,378 adults. The researchers led by Karmel Choi at the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital examined 106 behaviours including how much people slept, exercised and ate.

Out of the 106 behaviours, the one that most powerfully protected people against depression was the frequency with which they confided in others. Individuals who shared their thoughts and feelings more often with trusted people in their lives were significantly less likely to experience depression.

However, confiding in others is not simply about telling anybody what is bothering you. It helps to share information with people that you believe care for you.

Confiding in others – telling others about negative experiences or the thoughts and emotions that may be bothering you – might increase your distress in the short term. However, the study by Choi and her colleagues strongly suggests that it may overall be more protective against depression in the long run than many other behaviours including sleeping or eating well.

2. Focus on how, not why

When you are feeling troubled by a stressful situation, it can be easy to wonder why things are happening a certain way. For example, you might be asking yourself ‘Why can’t I get this right?’ or ‘Why can’t they see how hard I’m trying?’

However, research suggests that focusing on why questions may not always be helpful. Mental health researchers Ed Watkins and Simona Baracaia have found that people who focus on how questions tend to be better off than people who focus on why questions.

When we ask questions such as ‘Why don’t they like me?’ or ‘Why am I not more assertive?’, it is often the case that there are no clear answers. We can never definitively know why others may not like us or why we are the way we are. Instead, help yourself by focusing on how to improve your situation – for example:

  • ‘How can I get this right?’
  • ‘How can I get them to like me more?’
  • ‘How can I become more assertive?’

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3. Distance yourself from your problems

There are also other ways of thinking about problems that may be more helpful than others. In particular, a further set of studies suggest that thinking about our problems from what’s called a distanced perspective may also be more helpful than thinking about our situations from a more immersed point of view.

In one investigation, psychological scientists led by Ethan Kross at Columbia University asked two groups of participants to recall a situation in which they felt angry. The experimental group of participants was asked to do so from a third-person perspective. For example, a participant called Karen might have asked herself questions such as ‘How did Karen feel about this situation?’ or ‘What should Karen have done differently?’

A control group of participants was also asked to recall an anger-inducing situation, but this time from a first-person perspective. So, participants in this group might have asked themselves questions such as ‘How did I feel about this situation?’ or ‘What should I have done differently?’

The researchers found that participants who had been instructed to adopt the less usual third-person perspective were better off. Imagining the event as if it had happened to someone else helped them to be measurably less distressed than those who had used the first-person perspective.

So, use this technique when you are attempting to figure out how best to deal with a stressful situation. Rather than trying to work out how to help yourself, imagine that you are advising someone who just happens to have the same name as you. For me, for instance, I should ask questions such as ‘What should Rob do next?’ and ‘How can Rob get better results?’.

4. Recall past successes

When we are feeling stressed, we may doubt our own ability to cope. However, academics led by the University of Zurich’s Christina Paersch have found that a simple technique taking just a few minutes may boost our self-efficacy – our belief that we can successfully overcome difficult situations.

In a scientific trial led by Paersch, experimental participants were asked to recall vividly a time they felt especially capable and achieved a positive result. For example, this might have included passing a difficult exam, giving a presentation, or taking part in a successful conversation. By performing this mental exercise for just a few minutes, the participants experienced multiple benefits: they were more able to reassess a negative situation and see it from a different, more helpful point of view. They also reported feeling less distressed.

So, the next time you feel overwhelmed by your circumstances, consider using this technique. Take a few minutes to think back to a past situation in which you used your skills to overcome a difficulty or challenge. Remind yourself what you did and about the positive outcome you achieved. Remember: doing this for just a few minutes may give you a boost in tackling whatever fresh challenge you may be facing.

5. Do just 10 minutes of physical exercise

Many studies have shown that physical exercise has multiple benefits for mental health. For example, one of the best studies of its kind led by Samuel Harvey at UNSW Sydney found that adults who did between one to two hours of exercise a week were 44% less likely to develop depression compared with those who did no exercise at all.

You don’t even have to exercise for as long as an hour. Other studies have found that even a single session of moderate exercise (such as cycling or running) lasting just 10 minutes improves what’s known as executive function – ie our mental ability to concentrate and hold multiple concepts in our minds. Other studies have found that 10 minutes of even mild exercise – just walking – also boosts mood and reduces stress.

So, if you are feeling stressed, do whatever form of physical exercise you enjoy. Think of it as a good investment in your mental health. As little as 10 minutes of running, swimming, dancing or even walking should not only reduce stress but boost your mental performance as well.

Author: Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace | @robyeung

This article was first published in Student Accountant in June 2022

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