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Have you ever had to carry a heavy bag on your shoulders? Well, if you’ve only had to carry the bag for a couple of minutes before setting it down, it may probably cause your shoulders to feel a little tense. Perhaps, you’ve had to run a couple of errands with that heavy bag for over an hour, your shoulders and back start to ache. Perhaps, you’ve had to carry the bag all day, the ache in your shoulders and back gradually intensify.
While the weight of the bag remains, which runs in parallel to our physiological reaction and hormonal release, the difference lies within our perception and experience of the stressor – much like the duration and ways we hold on to that heavy bag. Although small doses of stress can be a great motivator, high doses of stress can cause us to feel overwhelmed and, in some cases, trigger anxiety as well as a host of other mental and physical problems. Ultimately, stress helps us survive – by changing our perception of stress, there is potential to transform your life; this is evident based on research from Harvard*, where participants who were diagnosed with hypertension due to stress and were instructed to reappraise arousal by reframing stress as helpful rather than harmful, showed improvement in emotional outcomes as well as an increase in their cardiac efficiency.
Even though we can’t get rid of stress completely, here are five ways we can manage stress and handle that heavy bag more efficiently:
1. Share the load with someone
No one can do it all and that is perfectly acceptable. Your perception of stress may sometimes cloud your judgement and keep you from seeing solutions clearly. Asking for someone for help or even just talking to a friend, colleague, family, mentor or even a trained professional can help you put your challenges into perspective. Remember, seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but an expansion of your strength.
2. Manage your time
No one can do everything at once to learn to put the bag down every now and then. There are instances when you may feel burdened to complete all your responsibilities within a short time span, don’t. Break down your responsibilities into smaller, manageable tasks spread out over a longer time frame and organize them according to their level of urgency. Note on tasks that can be delegated to others to do and remove them from the list. Remember to create buffer times for unexpected tasks and most importantly, relaxation and self-care.
3. Tend to those sore shoulders and aching back
Self-care is not optional. You can’t always control the circumstances which life throws at you, but you can certainly take control of how well you take care of yourself. This is crucial for building resilience to cope with stressors on an everyday basis. Dr Rajita Sinha, director of the Yale Stress Center, in an interview for a documentary “One Nation Under Stress”, emphasizes on science-backed behavioural training that can help traumatized parts of the brain regrow. So, make time for sleep and power naps, maintain a proper diet (don’t skim on nutritious food and no, convenient and fast meals don’t count), exercise properly (taking those stairs up 5 floors count, too) and pamper yourself! Never feel guilty for taking a break because your body depends on it.
Quick relaxation tip: tense and release each muscle group for about 5 seconds – starting from your feet, move up to your calves, next your thighs, continue with your abdomen, next to your hands, followed by your arms, move on to your shoulders and lastly, your neck.
4. Say ‘No’ to carrying more bags for others
It doesn’t make you less nice as a person. Often, fear of conflict and FOMO become huge barriers to saying ‘no’ but the extra weight added onto our existing load can be too overwhelming to cope with. Think of some pre-prepared phrases to let other people down gently, such as ‘I’m sorry but I can’t commit to this because I have other priorities at the moment’. The people that genuinely care about you would understand.
5. Separate yourself from the bag
Your challenges and responsibilities are external factors in your life, it isn’t who you are. Learn to recognize when you’re being too hard on yourself to get rid of negative self-talk that can be damaging to your self-worth. If you often compare yourself to others, stop it; you do you. If you often mull over your mistakes, stop it; mistakes are part of learning. If you often ruminate over your problems, stop it; remind yourself of your past achievements and then get creative to find solutions.
There are three natural tendencies we react to stress – fight, flight or freeze; however, there comes a time when we need to actively choose to pause, breathe and take care of ourselves before we take on the next challenge head-on.
*Jamieson, J.P., Nock, M.K., & Mendes, W.B. (2012). Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive response to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 141 (3), 417-422. DOI: 10.1037/a0025719417