Few things are certain in life, but stress is one such thing. This is because we live complex lives with many commitments, demands, challenges, values, intentions and goals (not always our own). These often compete and are not always met - resulting in stress.
However, it is important to recognise that stress can be helpful (eustress) as well as harmful (distress). As such, knowing the stress levels that we operate most effectively at, and how to regulate our stress levels, is a valuable skill.
Here are some simple tips to get you started.
1) Things that can cause stress are called stressors, but how you interpret the situation or demand is what determines your stress response. So as a start point, identify your stressors and examine why they are stressful for you. For example, you may find public speaking stressful [the stressor] because you are conscious that all eyes are on you and you are being evaluated [the reason it is stressful].
2) Having identified a stressor, then examine the effect stress has on you, it may be helpful or harmful. When we perceive a challenge or demand as being within our control, this can produce eustress. This feels exciting and can be motivational, focusing our attention and efforts in a way that benefits performance. Conversely, when we perceive a challenge or demand as outside of our coping abilities, this can produce distress. It feels unpleasant, causes anxiety and concern and ultimately leads to poor performance. For example, when public speaking, you recognise that you speak more quickly, you fidget, become more self-conscious and flushed, and forget what you want to say. These are not helpful responses and so need to be managed.
3) Consider what you can do to manage unhelpful stress. This involves identifying resources that help bring the challenge or demand within our control. For example, in preparing to speak publicly, you look to gain knowledge [resource 1] on the topic to be discussed, rehearse your talk to practice what you will say within the time limit given [resource 2 – experience], if possible visit the venue you will be speaking in to check the available technologies work [resource 3 – technology], use relaxed breathing and positive self-talk [resource 4 – self-regulation skills] to manage your emotions.
Recognising that stress can be helpful and developing a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ mindset influences psychological, physiological and behavioural outcomes in beneficial ways. Many of our future stressors can be predicted, and so accumulating resources helps us to mitigate anticipated stressors and achieve our future goals. Why react to unhelpful stress if we can lessen or eliminate it in the first place!