Even though stress and burnout are common, it doesn’t mean they are normative. There is a reason doctors inquire about your stress levels at nearly every office visit. There also seems to be general consensus these days, that the effects of stress have gotten way out of hand and most people are seeking more remedies.
The problem is.. that while there are many lists of simplified coping methods for stress, research into true stress management indicates a number of factors that make it a more complicated matter.
Some variational factors include:
Type and intensity of stress
Level of burnout
Level of resilience
Co-occurring medical issues
Personal reasons for engaging and/or avoiding specific stressors
In most of the research, it is implied that the key factor is finding a combination of skills and methods that work for each person... and none of the methods will work if the person isn't willing to try them.
When seeking self-care strategies for stress, it is helpful to start with basic self-care practices. Attention to the essentials (or a lack of) can make or break the severity of any other symptoms.
By now you know the self-care basics by heart...
Improve daily routines to form better habits.
Focus on getting enough good sleep.
Eat more nutritious food.
Stretch and move your body.
Get outside for Vitamin D and fresh air.
Spend regular time alone doing whatever you need to do.
Engage in things that assist mental/emotional regulation.
Work on boundaries and assertive communication.
Limit exposure to toxic input from news, media, culture, etc.
Call on support, or seek new support from positive sources.
After tending to the basics, your stress reduction plan will require digging deeper into your own personal needs and situation. The good news is there is a wide body of growing research on effective stress reduction techniques.
"The fastest way to reduce stress is by taking a deep breath and using your senses—what you see, hear, taste, and touch—or through a soothing movement. By viewing a favorite photo, smelling a specific scent, listening to a favorite piece of music, tasting a piece of gum, or hugging a pet, for example, you can quickly relax and focus yourself." (5)
Sensory activities can also be grounding and centering, bringing you back into the 'now' moment. Try to also find activities using multiple senses at once, like having a bonfire beside the ocean. You can smell the fire and see the water rippling, see the flames, feel breeze from shore, hear the birds, hear the tide, and smell or taste water in the air.
Try to find activities that really awaken your senses! And if you can't actually get to the ocean... improvize ;)
If there is a particular stressful situation that you can feel taking over your thoughts and emotions, try to think of it in a different way. Stand outside the problem and put aside your own feelings about it and how it is negatively affecting your life. Just for a moment, look at it from a completely different angle.
Does it look any different? Can you find a way to be positive or optimistic? At the very least, is it helping to teach you a lesson?
There are few things in life that are not going to teach you something or provide more than one way to look at it, if you can take a step back and let yourself do that.
Everyone has annoying and frustrating things that happen every day. Maybe you are always kept late at work, or your daughter is always running late for school, or your water heater keeps going out.
None of these are life-altering situations, but over time, they add up and really start to get under your skin. Keep a stress journal about what is bothering you each day, so you can express the smaller irks and discover resolutions to help eliminate some of the stress.
If your stress, burnout or overwhelm is related to your goals and the process to achieve them, then you may want to approach your goals from a new direction. It is great to have dreams, but if you feel they are way too far out of reach, then failing to reach them is only going to become a burden for you.
Many people are familiar with the SMART method of creating goals, which is helpful and effective because it simplifies the whole process, making sure they are:
This can help prepare you for greater success, rather than for stress due to perceived failure!
If you have messy habits it might not seem like a big deal, but this can add stress to your life. If you are constantly looking for your keys, can’t figure out which pile of clothes is clean or dirty, and always have to search for paperwork on your desk, it can definitely add to the amount of stress you have.
It is worth taking a few minutes every day to clean your living and work spaces in order to keep things as neat as possible. You don’t need things to be perfect, but a little more organization can be productive.
Everything is always about time. Making time for your family, making time for work, looking at the clock every few minutes during your workday, trying to get out of the house with enough time to spare.
All of this focus on time, whether it is time you feel you wasted, time to get stuff done, and feeling like your time is running out, causes a lot of unnecessary stress.
There are certain aspects of life where time is relevant, such as getting to an
appointment or meeting on time, but don’t make your entire life revolve around time. It can make life feel constantly overwhelming.
When you have full on burnout 🤕 it can be hard to use standard stress relief methods. By this point, it's hard enough to get the bare minimum done, especially when you add in stress and overwhelm at the same time.
Rather than putting even more pressure on yourself, try to start slow. Practice being mindful for at least one moment every day. During that moment, you can also give yourself extra time to refocus your thoughts and energy from less negative to a more positive polarity.
Maybe you are in your office after a meeting that caused you a lot of stress and tension, so you sit for 5 minutes and are mindful about something positive you feel right now...
This could be gratitude for this job you worked so hard for, relief that your body has carried you through, happiness for your family and friends, or even acknowledging that the stressful situation is over and now you can appreciate how you got through it.
Another way to practice self-care for stress relief, is to find creative activities that you enjoy. If you used to love drawing or painting, why not try it now? Bring a sketchbook with you to work and draw something during your lunch break. Or you can get adult coloring books and some colored pencils and bring them along.
You can also try new types of crafts you'd enjoy doing, like making wreaths for family as holiday gifts or doing some baking. Try to find ways to release your inner creative energy, no matter what that entails.
There is something extremely restorative about working with your hands, no matter what the art or project. You will feel better by doing something you love, plus you get some quality time that doubly helps to relieve stress. This is really hard to beat!
In an intriguing study, Miedziun & Czesław Czabała (2015) sought to determine the most common coping behaviors, and those used under the highest levels of stress...
The majority of participants (70-74%) chose:
Listening to music
Focusing on problem solving
Analyzing and planning of future activities
Calling on friends
Creating a rational explanation of the situation
Seek additional support
Try to avoid the stressor/s
The authors summed it up here: "It can mean that in stressful situations people tend to distance themselves from the situation (and maybe relax emotionally) and then search for a solution by concentration on problem solving and planning activities, seeking simultaneous contact with friends as a mean of gaining support." (3)
Sounds logical and simple enough, right? Here is where it gets more complicated, and more interesting...
Those reporting the highest levels of stress tended to choose more passive measures, including:
Waiting it out
Furthermore it was the lower 50% that chose things like:
Therapeutic behaviors that belong to a category called "Adjusting Tension and Emotion"... These include mindfulness, breathing, visualization, progressive relaxation, mind-body awareness, meditation, affirmations, and autogenic training.
This last category has been proven to have profoundly positive effects on coping and self-care. I personally use them on myself and with clients, all the time. They are vastly helpful for regulating heavy emotions and getting the brain out of fight-or-flight.
However, it is clear that as with nearly everything else in life - each person is unique, and requires their own special blend of coping techniques that constantly evolve with their own personality and life experiences.
That is a very important lesson for each of us to keep in mind as we do the deeply personal work of stress management.
Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to people you know and lean on them when you need to. Many loved ones will quietly wait for us to ask for help, because they don't want to invade our privacy. Yet nobody can accomplish anything completely alone, and sometimes we all need help, reassurance, and support.
Be willing to seek out new sources of support as well, including professionals. Seek out people who you trust to understand, or specialize in what you are going through. Open yourself to the company of those who are going to relieve your stress, instead of add more burden to your life.
In one extreme, some cultures reject independent development in place of turning to the community. In the other extreme, some people are so independent they refuse to ask for help in spite of a desperate need.
Research suggests that it is beneficial to be willing to try out new coping behaviors in addition to any old ones that are most comforting... especially when we have outgrown things that just no longer work anymore. It is definitely worth a try, regardless of culture, when it seems our entire planet is on the verge of collective burnout.
References and Further Reading