Today in the Psychologist Calgary blog, I’m going to discuss ways of managing stress when you live in a culture that values being busy all the time.
Everyone uses the word stress to describe something a little different. Stress could be someone’s emotional experience in response to increased responsibilities at work. It could also describe the anticipation one feels for an upcoming event (e.g. planning a wedding, going on a first date). Another person might describe how stress has impacted his or her body when they talk about having a “stress headache”. Yet another person might tell a friend that they find themselves forgetting important commitments due to having too many things to remember or feeling distracted.
When we’re feeling that demands placed on us – emotionally, physically, or cognitively – are very high or if we are concerned about our ability to manage these demands, we tend to feel stressed. The experience of stress itself is universal but how we experience it might be different than how other people experience it.
People tend to have a general sense of how to manage stress (though the particulars can be difficult) based on past experiences but how this plays out in real life can be a different story altogether. Even if we feel, for example, that we need some relaxation time, we might feel guilty sitting down and reading a book while we are aware that laundry needs to be done or there are emails/phone calls that need to be returned. In my practice, I have heard many people express concern about taking time to do something for themselves because it feels like they are being unproductive or lazy.
So how do we manage stress in a world that encourages us to constantly focus on what we should be doing with our time to be “productive”? An important step is to change how we think about stress management. First, it can be helpful to remind ourselves about the value of recharging our batteries through stress-management activities. If we want to continue to be able to function at a high level, we need to have the energy to do so. It is normal and natural to be worn down when demands on us increase, and thus it is responsible and reasonable to respond in a way that assists us in rebuilding this energy. Instead of telling yourself that you are being “lazy” or “irresponsible” when you are going for a pedicure, walking along the river, or watching YouTube for an hour after a long day, remind yourself that you are making it possible to maintain a high level of functioning and not burn out.
Secondly, focus on intentionally doing something that helps you to regenerate some energy in order to be better able to manage the demands you are experiencing. Sometimes, we just need some quiet time and distraction (e.g. watching something enjoyable on television). Other times we might need some social connection (e.g. having coffee with an empathetic friend). Perhaps there are times when we need something else that fulfills us. I recently read an article about a woman who refocused her time to “active recovery” from stress. In the article, she spoke about finding an activity that is unstructured but fun to intentionally recover from a difficult week. What struck me about this article was the focus on an activity that is actually effective in rebuilding energy rather than something we just do out of habit (e.g. lay on the couch). Keep in mind that spending time on the couch may be something that is useful every once and while but perhaps there are other activities that are effective in rebuilding energy to explore as well!