There’s lots of great advice out there about how to avoid or minimize stress but is there a good side to stress and how can we use it to our advantage?
Sometimes, when you try to avoid something, it can make that thought even more intrusive. For example, for the next 20 seconds, try not to think of a pink elephant... You can think about absolutely anything else, except for that...
I bet you haven’t thought about colourful circus animals for a while, but by deliberately trying to avoid that thought, it often makes it more likely to pop up!
For that reason, one helpful approach to stress can be to recognise it, acknowledge it, and use it to your advantage.
What are the benefits of stress?
‘Stress’ is the name we give to our reaction to situations which are perceived to be threatening, or outside our control, often associated with feeling overwhelmed.
The stress response helped our ancestors to outlive the sabre-toothed tiger, and other predators, by preparing us to fight or flee. We release hormones such as adrenaline, which makes the heart beat faster, and narrow our attention on the danger. We also produce cortisol, which helps us to fuel our muscles in preparation for action, and shuts down less critical bodily functions such as digestion.
If you are facing a physical challenge, like a park run or a marathon, a bit of stress can help give you the energy you need to keep going.
Small amounts of stress can also be helpful to focus your attention towards a task. The picture below shows the relationship between our performance and the level of stress, or arousal, follows a curve. Small amounts of stress can actually help improve your performance, especially for simple tasks. Stress can reduce distractions, help you feel motivated and energised to get the job done.
However, too much stress, for too long, can make us feel excessively anxious and interfere with our ability to perform, as well as interfering with sleep.
Are there any benefits of stress for sleep?
High levels of stress can be bad news for sleep. Too much cortisol interferes with our ability to get into a deep sleep, since the brain wants to stay alert, on the lookout for threats.
When we feel stressed, it can be harder to fall asleep, and we’re more likely to wake up multiple times during the night.
However, the absence of any stress at all can also be unhelpful! If you’ve had the experience of a long furlough, you might have found yourself getting bored, or lacking motivation to get out of bed. If we lose any sense of urgency in the mornings, our routines can quickly become haphazard.
For optimal sleep, our bodies thrive on regular wake and bed times, 7 days a week. Lengthy lie-ins confuse the body clock, and mean you have less time to build up sleep pressure by nightfall, which can interfere with the quality of sleep the following night.
Techniques for managing stress, and optimising sleep
1.Reframing stress: the positive mindset
Our stress response is the result of the way we see our situation. The ideal is to feel that demands are manageable and that we’re in control. This means that sometimes, simply changing the way we think about something can make a difference. For example, if you’ve experienced a breakup, are there any positives you can take from it? Is there a silver lining, such as more time to spend with family or your hobbies? What have you learned that you can do differently next time? Rather than ruminating on the negatives, try and focus on the positives.
2.Renegotiating stressful demands, or increasing resources
It’s not always possible to simply re-frame - we might genuinely be in a situation we cannot control. In the case of work, if you recognise you’re under unhelpful levels of stress, this is a great first step - but the next one is to do something proactive about it. Can you speak to your manager to make changes? Can you push back a deadline, or take on fewer projects? If the work is set, can you increase your levels of support? This might be by expanding your team, or simply meeting up more frequently to discuss and agree priorities, so that it feels like a team effort, and there is less pressure on your shoulders.
3.Compassion for others
There is a lot of research to say that it’s easier to cope with stress when we have a strong social support network. Speaking to friends and family has many benefits; they may provide practical or emotional support, and they may help you put your stress into perspective. When you share your experience, always ask how others are getting on. Being compassionate towards others can make our own worries seem less important. Helping other people to find solutions to their stress often teaches us ways that we can respond to our own.
4.Distraction from negative thoughts: finding Flow
If you feel as though you’re stuck in a rut of thinking negative thoughts, it’s probably time to mix things up! Think about activities you enjoy, which you find absorbing. ‘Flow’ is a term used to describe activities which we get immersed in, which often have lasting effects on our wellbeing. For some people this is sport, for others it’s crafts, or practicing a musical instrument. There might even be work activities which result in flow for you (some people genuinely love spreadsheets!) - if so, prioritise time for these every week to improve your motivation and engagement.
5.Putting the day to rest: what are your top 3 priorities for tomorrow?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s not unusual for thoughts about your to do list to go whizzing round your head at night. To reduce the odds that this will happen, make an effort to download thoughts at the end of the working day. Put aside 10 minutes or so before you finish work to think about the priorities for the following day. Write a list of no more than 3 things you plan to do the following day, and when you will do them. Focus only on the most important. If these thoughts intrude later on, remind yourself that you’ve written down your priorities - you know what you’ll do, and when, so you can let those thoughts go.