Stress Management - Pop A Healthy Dose of Realism Into Your Coping Toolkit

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Dr Ottilia Brown

Stress Management - Pop A Healthy Dose of Realism Into Your Coping Toolkit

Posted 08 Sep 2018


Dr. Ottilia Brown

Stress Management - Pop A Healthy Dose of Realism Into Your Coping Toolkit

Most of us know the basics of effective stress management; we read about them, our doctors remind us of them, yet we struggle with making the required changes or maintaining them. I thought I would throw in a quick reminder of what those basics are:

  • Eat healthy, well-balanced regular meals every 3 to 4 hours: Nutrition is an essential source of energy for effective stress management. The mental health benefits of adequate nutrition include aiding the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter commonly associated with depression, as it is estimated that 90% of our serotonin is produced in the gut. There are plenty of great nutritional food services companies to help with this.
  • Eat a healthy, energy sustaining breakfast: Breakfast is often sold as an effective weight management tool... But it is also a useful stress reducer and mental health booster as the right breakfast can increase energy, improve mood, and increase the ability to focus and problem solve.
  • Sleep at least 7 hours every night: Feeling drowsy during the day may be an indication that more sleep is needed as some adults may require up to 10 hours of sleep. Enough sleep has been associated with a lower risk of serious health problems like heart disease, reduced stress, improved mood and improved cognitive functioning. Exercise, yoga and meditation can help improve sleep quality.
  • Exercise 150 minutes per week: In addition to the physical benefits of exercise such as increased energy and better sleep, exercise is a proven antidote for stress and has been shown to be an important component of treating depression, anxiety, ADHD, and trauma. It also improves memory and thinking, contributes to higher self-esteem and promotes resilience.
  • Be still… spend a few minutes with yourself every day: Meditate, pray, have a cuppa and savour each sip, go for a walk and drink in your surroundings. Quiet offers physical and mental health benefits including muscle relaxation, lower anxiety, better sleep and memory, and stress relief.
  • Breathe… deeply, slowly, deliberately: In addition to the known relaxation and psychological benefits of breathing, inhaling deeply increases oxygen intake which facilitates vitamin, mineral and nutrient absorption, the creation of white blood cells and general improvement of tissue and brain functioning. Deep exhales eliminate toxins.

Now think back to my last blog on taking stock of your coping toolkit. I suggested that you start becoming aware of and evaluating your unhelpful self-talk. I then proposed some strategies for changing this unhelpful self-talk… emphasis on ‘changing’. Chances are that when you read the blog, you may have been inspired for a while and decided to try out some of the strategies. And now, a few weeks later, it is increasingly difficult to maintain the motivation and effort level required to keep changing.

Change is HARD! Even when we know that something is not working for us, we choose that which is familiar and predictable... we are creatures of habit. So… why is change so hard? In short, we are not realistic about the change process.

  • Remember the polarised thinking from the last blog? That’s what we do with change… we expect ourselves to get it all right with no room for error or relapse, and when we do slip we tell ourselves that we ‘just can’t do it’… there’s that unhelpful self-talk again.
  • We completely underestimate the complexities of changing human behaviour. Change is not exclusively about willpower. If we believe this, we feel guilt and shame every time we relapse. If we are realistic about the challenge of change upfront and understand that it is as complex as human beings are, we will approach the process with more realistic expectations of the self.
  • We try to do too much all at once. Let’s go back to the basics list at the start of this blog. Someone that has never exercised cannot magically be expected to start exercising for 150 minutes a week right off the bat. Signing up for a silence retreat when it’s difficult to be with the self for short periods of time may not be the best idea.
  • We are devastated when we fail… and then we give up. We give ourselves a thorough tongue lashing… there’s that unhelpful self-talk again… and then we stop trying.
  • We are not consistent. Think about disciplining a child… you have to be consistent with consequences for bad behaviours or else the child will be confused about expectations and will soon decipher that the system is flawed and can be played. Similarly, when we are not consistent with behaviour change, our brains become confused and are more likely to default to what is familiar and often that which is unhelpful. Our brains also learn how to talk us out of making those healthy choices.
  • We are waiting for the perfect time. We tell ourselves that we will start when… the holiday is over… when the New Year hails in… at the start of the week…
  • We rely on willpower exclusively… and forget to set up our environment to support our behaviour change.
  • We operate from a place of negative emotion… fear, guilt, shame are used as key drivers to effect change. These emotions may be an initial catalyst for change however using them on a continual basis to effect and maintain change is not sustainable.

Now that we have established the unrealistic beliefs and expectations we have of the change process and of ourselves, I suggest that you endow your coping toolkit with a healthy dose of realism. In short, realism is about accepting something as it is and dealing with it accordingly. So…

  • At the risk of repeating myself… watch the unhelpful self-talk which can sabotage behaviour change.
  • Understand that the change process is a complex one well worth investing in… emphasis on ‘process’… it is not a discrete or single event and viewing it as such will be counterproductive. Understanding the process nature of change will help us to regulate our expectations of the process and ourselves.
  • Set small achievable realistic goals that will build motivation and confidence and decrease the chances of failure. For example, start with 10 minutes of quiet time 3 times a week and gradually increase this as comfort with the self increases.
  • Accept that failure is a given, it’s a part of the change process, in fact it is a necessary step. It gives us clues as to what is not going well… maybe we bit off more than we could chew in one go, maybe we need more knowledge and/or skills before we proceed, maybe we need social support… whatever it may be, failure can help us succeed if we take time to analyse it and use the information to our advantage.
  • Be consistent… repeat… repeat… repeat new behaviours until the brain feels comfortable with it and it does not require as much energy to sustain it.
  • Start now…this minute! Do something small… take the steps instead of the elevator… take less sugar in your coffee… go to bed 30 minutes earlier tonight… take slow deep breathes while you wait for the kettle to boil and in the queue at the supermarket…
  • Set up the environment so that it supports change. We can design our environments to help us with making difficult changes. For example, healthier food choices can be made easier by using a smaller plate to control portion sizes, having healthy snacks within easy reach and minimising temptation by removing unhealthy foods from our cupboards.
  • Watch the shame, guilt, and fear. Every time we feel these emotions in relation to behaviour change we are less likely to engage in the actions needed for change. These negative emotions are usually generated by unhelpful self-talk… ‘I can’t believe how weak you are… you couldn’t say no to that slice of cake’ (shame). Remember, human beings want to relieve discomfort as soon as possible, and sometimes stopping what is good for us is the fastest way to stop feeling these negative emotions.

Improving our coping ability requires the adoption of various healthy behaviours. This can be challenging, but most certainly will be worth the effort. The long term gains are invaluable. Remember to always add a healthy dose of self-compassion to any change journey! Wishing you all well as we continue to strive to be the best we can be.


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3 people have commented this blog.

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Claire says:

7 months 2 weeks ago
I agree with @Curious. I often trail the content on this site which is both informative and encouraging, and I particularly like your articles. Thank you, Claire
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

7 months 1 week ago
Dear Claire. Thank you so much. Your feedback is appreciated. I am glad you are enjoying our content. Take care, Ottilia

@Curious says:

7 months 4 weeks ago
Dear Dr., I always read your blogs here and find all of the information helpful and provided in a way to help the visitors and not try and sell any of your services, so I commend you for that. Marbruk!
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

7 months 4 weeks ago
Thank you so much for your wonderful feedback and positive wishes. I am happy to read that you are benefiting from the information. Take good care, Ottilia

VishalNando_585 says:

8 months 1 week ago
Thanks for the tips, which serve as a great reminder of how to be 'in balance'. What do you suggest for those like myself who suffer from insomnia, which has a negative impact on trying to achieve all of the other areas such as being rested enough to have the energy to exercise regularly, which has a domino effect on the frequency and types of food we eat also? Appreciate your advice. Vishal
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

8 months 1 week ago
Dear Vishal. Thank you for your positive feedback. Regarding your question, it is important to start by identifying the cause of the insomnia as it is often secondary to other causes. Common causes include psychological issues such as worry, trauma, anxiety, depression, significant transitions and so forth. Insomnia can also be caused by physical complaints such as restless legs syndrome, respiratory conditions, pain, and endocrine disorders such as diabetes and hyperthyroidism. Similarly, some medications, caffeine, and alcohol may result in sleep disturbance. It is advisable to have a thorough health check in order to rule out biological, medical and substance reasons for the insomnia. Psychological causes may be addressed by consulting with a trained mental health practitioner. Sleep hygiene is an essential part of managing insomnia. The acronym ASLEEP can be a useful guide for sleep hygiene. A - Alcohol, caffeine and nicotine should be avoided S - Sleep and intimacy should be the only uses for the bedroom L - Leave laptops, TV and paperwork out of the bedroom E - Exercise regularly but not within 2 to 3 hours of bedtime E - Early rising - even on weekends. Sleep routine is key. Avoid taking naps during the day. P - Plan for bedtime - a bedtime routine such as having a warm bath or doing meditation before bed can help. Insomnia, as you have pointed out affects energy levels which then affect regularity of and motivation for exercise. The opposite is of course true; exercise helps with sleep, hence it is important to persist with an exercise routine regardless of how low the energy levels are. A mild intensity routine could be very helpful. Similarly, with food, avoid high sugar foods and refined carbohydrates as these give quick energy spikes that do not last and result in overeating. Choosing energy and nutrient rich foods will get you through the day and limit cravings. Regular, smaller meals may be helpful for managing energy lows. In addition to the above tips, a trained mental health practitioner may also assist with managing unhelpful thoughts about sleep and if the problem persists, pharmacological intervention may be needed. The latter would require a visit to your GP or psychiatrist, depending on the severity of the problem. I hope you have some restorative sleep soon. Best wishes, Ottilia

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