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Managing Stress to Be Your Best

You’ve come to get some insight on dealing with and/or managing stress.  But what is stress anyway? And is it any different than anxiety? We need to know what stress is before we can decide how to manage it.

How well do you think someone could manage finances if they didn’t know anything about money?  Not exactly the same thing but you get the picture.  

Before we dive into managing stress let’s start by looking at a definition of stress, a definition of anxiety, and then break things down from there.  

Stress and Anxiety Defined:

  • Stress – a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
  • Anxiety – a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

The two seem very similar.  Clearly they both involve states of mind that we’d prefer to be without.  There’s one difference that jumps out at me though.

While stress is the result of adverse or very demanding circumstances, anxiety doesn’t require the adverse or very demanding circumstances. Those can certainly trigger and exacerbate anxiety, but not necessary for anxiety to be present.

Stress is usually a short-term experience.  Once the adverse or very demanding circumstances subside, the stress goes away as well.  Of course, if the demanding or adverse conditions persist, so will the stress.

Stress also isn’t an inherently bad thing.  While it produces feelings of discomfort, it can spur you into action to get things done.   People who are said to “perform well under pressure” are those that have a positive response to short term stress.

There are certain basketball players who the team always wants to take the last shot if the game is on the line.  It’s not necessarily the best player on the team, but the one who is most likely to make the shot in that stressful situation.

Anxiety on the other hand, tends to linger well after circumstances have changed and can be present regardless of current conditions.  It also creeps up in anticipation of events that haven’t happened yet. Furthermore, these anticipated events often never happen at all.

Unlike some stressful situations, anxiety is rarely (if ever) going to spur you into action.  Anxiety usually results in freezing up and not being able to take action.

In general, stress results from something acting upon you such as a boss yelling at you or a dangerous animal on your path.  Anxiety can occur just by thinking about something.

How to tell what it is

When trying to determine whether it’s stress or anxiety, a good test can be whether anything within your environment or conditions has changed recently.

If something has, then you’re probably experiencing stress.  If not, it could be anxiety.

The focus of this article is managing stress but I thought it necessary to mention anxiety as well.  The two can be closely linked and share similar symptoms but it’s important to know which is present.  

Managing stress is something you can generally tackle on your own once you become aware.  Chronic anxiety is something that should not be taken lightly and should be discussed with a licensed therapist.

If your life is very demanding and stress in common, you should learn to manage it before it becomes anxiety.

With the right knowledge, you can learn to manage stress and in some cases prevent it altogether.  Either way, knowing the symptoms and underlying causes of stress is a good place to start.

What Does Stress Feel Like?

As you may or may not know, stress is often used interchangeably with the term “fight-or-flight”.  Or in other words, the fight-or-flight response system in your body is activated by stressful situations.

This response developed in order to help protect us from external threats many thousands of years ago.  It prepares you to take the necessary action(s) to get yourself safe. This was extremely helpful thousands of years ago when a wild beast could take you out at any moment.

For the most part, our daily environments are much safer than they were back then.  Threats have drastically changed yet our bodies and minds haven’t. Our bodies and minds still react the same way to what we perceive to be threats to our safety and well-being.

Some of the most common emotional symptoms associated with stress are:

  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Crying
  • Fatigue
  • Withdrawn mood

And some of the most common physical symptoms associated with stress are:

  • Muscular tension or tightness
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Stomach Issues (Acid Reflux, Diarrhea, Stomachache, Constipation)
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Dry mouth

Okay, so that’s what it feels like but what causes it in the first place?

What Causes Stress?

There are too many unique situations in this world to draft a list of all things that could trigger a stress response.

For that reason, I’ll provide some general root causes and real life examples of how they might manifest.

I won’t delve into the ultra traumatic situations such as being kidnapped, robbed, living through a natural disaster, going to war, etc.

Those obviously create substantial amounts of stress but this article is more about the stress caused by normal, everyday life.

Sound good? Okay, here we go.

Some of the root causes of stress are:

  • Unmet Expectations
  • Work / Career / Job
  • Major Life Events
  • Unmet Needs
  • Self Inflicted Stress

Unmet Expectations

You probably won’t see this on many lists regarding the causes of stress, but it’s true.  Everyone has expectations, consciously or not, and when they aren’t met it can cause stress.

For example, a basic thing everyone has an expectation about is how others will treat them.  Especially in certain situations and certain places. If you go to a restaurant and your server starts yelling at you, that’s going to cause some amount of stress.

Most likely this will trigger an emotional response of anger.

If you’re working hard at your desk with your headphones in, you might have an expectation that you won’t be bothered.  What happens when someone rolls up on you, taps you on the shoulder, and asks…”you got a second?”

Again, probably a slight feeling of being annoyed…at the least.

If someone asks you to dinner you would have an expectation that they would follow through with the commitment.  What happens if they cancel at the last moment, or even worse, never show up at all?

Of course that would cause stress, not to mention a blow to your self-esteem if you haven’t built confidence.

These are all examples of individual situations but many of us have general expectations regarding our entire lives.

General Expectations

We might expect our new job to be something that turns out to be completely different.  Many people have expectations of what the perfect relationship is like.

Some people have expectations of what raising children should be like.  Trust me, this one is a recipe for disaster because children are the most unpredictable creatures on the planet.

To a lesser degree, the same can be said (recipe for disaster) of your marriage, relationships, and career.  You simply can’t control other people or events. Knowing that alone is a big step in being able to manage stress.

When you expect your life to unfold in precisely a certain way you are setting yourself up for more stress.  Cliche as it sounds, always expect the best but plan for the worst. Realize that what you can control is limited but take responsibility to control what you can.

Other people aren’t mind readers yet many of our expectations are dependent on other people.  Become aware of your own expectations and let other people know what they are up front.

This won’t eliminate stress but is essential for managing stress.  By being aware of your expectations and clear about them to others you can realize faster if:

  1. They can’t be met or;
  2. You aren’t willing to change your expectations

If neither of the two can happen then you know to move on from the person or situation.  That may involve making some very difficult decisions, however, it is much better in the long run than constantly being stressed out and disappointed.

Work / Career / Job

According to the American Psychological Association’s annual stress in America survey, 61% of adults identify work as a common cause of stress.

25% say it is the biggest source of stress in their lives. But what makes work so much more stressful than other parts of life?

First of all, we spend so much of our time at work. Many of us are often doing work when we’re not in the office. The fact that technology has allowed us to constantly be available is a critical factor.

We almost feel ashamed of disconnecting and taking time for ourselves. This is exacerbated by being competitive and wanting to keep up with everyone else.

Some of the classic causes of stress at work include:

  • Lack of autonomy / micromanagement
  • Unclear expectations
  • Lack of feedback
  • Lack of opportunities for advancement

And those are now combined with modern causes such as:

  • Constant interruptions (due to technology)
  • Working while taking vacation (due to technology)
  • Frequent changes that come with no communication or the inability to keep up with so many communications

Combine these classic causes with the more contemporary ones and it makes for a tough battle to fight.

These factors make managing stress at work more difficult than it used to be. There is hope for all of us though. Especially those of us who are very intentional about our time and priorities.

Major Life Events

This section will be fairly short because it’s obvious to most people. Major life events can cause significant change and new stressors along with them.

The reason I believe it’s important to point out is because most people usually think of negative events when the word stress is involved.

Major life events such as divorce, the death of a loved one, loss of a job, or bankruptcy are sure to inflict stress on the best of us. Managing stress in these situations can also be the most difficult due to the intense emotions that come with them.

What we think of as the happiest events can cause stress too though. Significant amounts of it.

Getting married, having a new baby, and starting a new job are all examples of happy events. They are also big changes that come along with their own stressors.

These events are no doubt joyful, they just also come with their own set of stress that shouldn’t be ignored. Knowing this ahead of time can be effective when it comes to stress management.

Unmet Needs

Chances are you have probably eaten something today or will within the next few hours. Having food to eat is something most people in a developed society don’t think about too often.

But what if you woke up one morning and couldn’t find anything to eat? You might be slightly annoyed at first but as time passed you would get more and more agitated. Eventually becoming extremely stressed out.

The same could be said if you suddenly didn’t know where you were going to sleep tonight. Or if all of your clothes were taken away with no way of obtaining new ones.

These are basic physiological needs that when unmet cause serious amounts of stress.

This is also true for other needs that aren’t as in your face. Needs that aren’t necessarily required for survival but are common among humans.

Examples of these are:

  • Security and safety needs such as financial security and health & wellness
  • Social needs such as friends, family, romantic partners, and community groups.
  • Esteem needs – mainly in the form of respect, appreciation, and recognition for your efforts.

The most prevalent need surrounding security is money.

Finances, especially the lack of finances or inability to manage money, can be very stressful. Even some people that make a lot of money aren’t the best at managing it. This can be even more stressful than simply being broke.

Human beings have always needed one another. Thousands of years ago we literally couldn’t survive on our own.

Dependence on cooperation with each other enhanced our ability to survive under harsh environmental circumstances.  The survival threats of these circumstances are all but gone, yet people continue to have a need to affiliate with others. 

Indeed, the lack of such connections can lead to many problems, including loneliness.  

Self Inflicted Stress

Wait, what? Stress is supposed to be caused by adverse or very demanding circumstances, right?

Correct. But I never said that you can’t be the reason for your own adverse or demanding circumstances.

We constantly put ourselves under unnecessary stress by procrastinating. When we intentionally and habitually put off things that need to be done, it creates stress.

There’s no ifs, ands, or buts, about it.

It’s true that you can procrastinate effectively, but stress will still be waiting for you eventually. If you continue to put off the task, that is.

We also cause unnecessary stress when we do the easy thing instead of the right thing. I’m not here to tell you what’s right or wrong. I don’t need to though because it’s something we all know internally, in the moment.

Specifically the moment when we choose to act or not act.

A great example that I think every adult can relate to is lying. Being afraid to tell the truth and lying instead. I’d say congratulations if you’re an adult whose never lied, but I’d also say you’re full of shit. We’ve all lied.

It’s funny because we often lie at times because we are under stress. What we eventually realize (hopefully) is that lying only creates additional stress later on.

Armed with this knowledge, we still slip up sometimes because we want to avoid conflict or discomfort in the moment.

Procrastinating and dishonesty are only two ways we self inflict stress. There are many others as well. Some just as obvious and some that are more subtle.

They all revolve around the concept of avoiding discomfort instead of leaning into it. This strategy only works in the short term and the enemy of true stress management.

Effects of Stress

I’m not going to go into the effects of stress in this article because this is about managing stress.

It’s something that deserves proper attention and detail, and I’d prefer to not just glaze over it. That being said, some of you might be curious about it.

If that’s you, check out this article that’s a pretty easy read and provides some good information.

Managing Stress

So we know what stress is, we know what it feels like, and we know what causes it. You ambitious folks know what the effects are since you read the article I linked to in the previous section.

That leaves us with the big question, how do we manage stress?

As a reminder, none of the things I mention are ways to manage stress caused by traumatic events. Those situations call for very specific methods. Methods that often require the services of a licensed professional.

Managing stress caused by unmet expectations, work, major life events, and unmet needs are different. These can be managed with a few techniques that have a positive impact on all.

Manage stress by taking control

Taking control is all about doing whatever you can within your circle of influence to get the results you desire.  It’s taking the initiative to identify the things you can change and then taking action to change them.

At some point, you have to realize that you are responsible for your own life. It’s the principle of acting instead of being acted upon.

Life is far more stressful for people that are constantly in a reactive state. The demands of life seem to come at them from all directions. Consistently and forcefully.

Take control by anticipating what’s to come and make a plan for it. Plan your day the night before and plan the week ahead on Sunday.

Make sure you have established a mission and vision for your life. Stress caused by having no direction for your life will show up almost daily.

This is because difficulties are a common occurrence in the modern world. If you throw in the condition of not knowing why you’re doing something, it makes for even more stress.

Be proactive by figuring out what you expect and need in your life. Then inform others who need to know.

In a nutshell, taking control helps to manage stress because it prevents a lot a stress before it even shows up. You’ll still have to deal with stressful situations as they arise, but it’s certainly wise to minimize those situations if you can.

Manage stress by managing yourself

Learning how to manage yourself is largely about self discipline. It’s about running your life instead of your life running you.

Life becomes less stressful overall once you learn how to manage yourself. This includes your work and major life events as well.

When you learn to control yourself, procrastinating happens far less often. And the more you practice discipline the more it becomes a habit. Eventually it won’t even feel like “managing” yourself. It will just be the way you are.

Managing yourself is not the same thing as taking control. Taking control is just the first step. The step where you figure out what you can change and take action.

It takes self control, self discipline, and self management to be able to be consistent over a period of time.

You can learn more about self discipline and the importance of managing yourself here.

Manage stress by building self confidence

Without self confidence you aren’t as likely to let people know what your expectations are. Consequently, they will often be unmet and cause some stress.

Lacking self confidence will be detrimental to your career regardless of what you choose to do.

You often won’t speak up for yourself or your ideas. Over time this will result in self loathing and animosity towards your peers and leaders.

It creates an environment where you feel unimportant and powerless to change your situation. This is a very stressful place that no one wants to be.

And don’t even think about starting your own business without self confidence. You won’t be able to withstand and fight through the numerous mistakes and failures.

Similar to expectations, it’s hard to have your needs met when you lack self confidence. Mainly due to the fear of rejection. You don’t want to risk upsetting someone else so you remain quiet.

In a sense you unconsciously always put the needs of others ahead of your own. This builds over time and creates incredible amounts of stress and unhappiness.

Self confidence is critical to managing stress. It is a force that doesn’t let you get beat up by stress. Self confidence is strong. It fights back and picks you up if you get knocked down.

You should definitely check out these two articles that dig deeper into the topic of self confidence:

How courage builds self confidence
Why you don’t need external validation to build self confidence

Wrap Up

The idea that I want to get across in this article is that we are very much involved in the way stress shows up in our lives.

Since we are involved with how it shows up, we can be just as involved in managing or minimizing it.

Sometimes we see stress as something that comes out of nowhere and smacks us in the face. It definitely can be, but for the most part that isn’t the case.

Do you have expectations? Of course. They are your expectations so you need to own them and not let them live in your head only.

About to get married, have a baby, or start a new job? Those things didn’t happen overnight. You need to be prepared for the stressors and responsibilities that come with them.

Do you often wait until the last minute to do things? How about bending the truth because it’s easier in the moment? Do you rarely, if ever, undergo any planning?

These are things that cause stress and things that you can change.

In the big picture perspective, we can all manage stress better if we are more mindful. When we’re mindful, we know when stress is happening, are able to manage it when it does happen, and know how to prevent future stress from happening.

I’ll be talking about that a lot more in my next post. Until then, stay happy and healthy folks.

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