Learning to deal with Stress

Stress is no stranger to me, in fact it’s a little too close for comfort. Having a demanding job for the past 6 years + being results oriented (in Hokkien we call this Kiasu) is like a recipe for a stressful life.

It’s our body’s biological fight-or-flight response to threats in life. Back in the olden days, it was probably helpful when we are running away from a bear but where does it fit in the modern world? I never heard of anyone dying from missing a deadline. But yet, our lives are more plagued with stress than ever before. Don’t get me wrong, healthy levels of stress is good; it pushes us outside of our comfort zones. Too much stress on the other hand, cripples us. We turn from fight to flight.

Recently, I have been feeling more stressed out than usual due to work demands. I find myself feeling anxious about going to work, thinking about all the tasks that I have to accomplish. With tightness in my shoulders during the day, and often ending days with a huge sigh, not being able to sleep well; I know these stress levels are getting unhealthy.

These signs probed me to take a deeper look at my stress triggers to better understand why I’m feeling this way. I find that I mainly feel stressed out when:

  • I have a long list of outstanding tasks and many overlapping deadlines
  • Things are moving slower or not working out the way I expect/want it to

When I list all these triggers down, viewing it in plain sight, I realise that stress is rooted in fear. Fear manifests itself into triggers, and triggers are just like the straw that broke the camel’s back.

So, technically what I’m really saying is I feel stressed out when:

  • I have a long list of outstanding tasks and many overlapping deadlines because I fear I cannot achieve what is expected of me, because I care about what others think of me and achievements are a part of my identity.
  • Things are moving slower or not working out the way I expect/want it to because I fear I cannot achieve the desired outcome I have in my mind, because I am attached to it / perceives it as the best outcome.

Seeing Stress for what it is has helped me to catch myself on another overly stressful moment. Though honestly, it’s an ongoing battle. I find when stress hits me, it sweeps me off my feet like a tsunami; I’m carried around by it until little reminders in life appear – such as my dog would always pop her head into the room to check on me. And that’s when I know I haven’t left my desk for so long that she’s started to wonder where have I gone.

So, in my attempts to not be completely consumed by stress, I find that stress is best managed through:

1. Stillness

Stillness here refers to stillness of the mind – to take time out to clear our head and quiet our mind. We can achieve this through meditation, talking a walk and doing an exercise. While it may be tempting to immediately distract ourselves with our favourite youtube videos, this actually deprives our mind of rest while letting all that has happened for the day sink in. After all, our best work actually is done subconsciously. Have you ever felt so stressed and fixated at solving a problem, but the moment you let it go and do something else, suddenly something clicks and the answer unveils itself? My preferred activity is is walking my dog, breathing in fresh air, and clearing my mind before I start my day.

2. Action

This is an irony in itself. If something makes us stressed, we should not want to do more of it right? What I realised is when I’m stressed it’s usually because there is just so much to do, or that I’m not confident with what I’m doing (ie. stress is rooted from fear of failure). If there is so much to do, and I put it off because I’m stressed, then it actually creates a vicious cycle. This is best illustrated through this story I’ve heard before: A woman is stressed because she is in debt. So, she pays money to attend a yoga class to de-stress (symptomatic relief). Then she feels stressed out because her expenses are rising and she is still in debt. Had she taken action to tackle the root cause, by maybe working a second job instead of going for yoga, she would be out of debt by now. By then, the stress would have gone away on its own.

As for stress stemming from fear of failure, in a way it comes from lack of confidence. Well, competence leads to confidence. The more we take action, the more we learn about something, the more competent we become, and the more confident we feel. The antidote is Action.

So what I try to do is work on the easier parts of the task (lower hanging fruits) so that I will not overwhelm myself. It also helps to put on some good lo-fi music, a nice scent and armed with some good snacks. My stress levels are often alleviated, just by knowing I’ve made headway.

3. Reflection

After all is said and done, we are still human. Inevitably, we will feel stressed from time to time, one way or another. What I do at the end of each day is to journal in my Notion, not so much as a way to rant or to release my stress (because there is a fine line between brooding and reflecting), but as a way to reflect on why I reacted the way I did and examine the triggers that led to that response. It helps me put some distance between myself and the problem, so that I can observe what has happened and reflect on things in a more neutral way. When I do this, I understand myself better and am able to make changes along the way to do better the next time. I always believe that we have most of the answers to our problems. The issue is sometimes we are not aware of certain things. I find that reflection is the best way to tackle that.

Surely there are many other symptomatic reliefs on the Internet like drinking tea, taking a walk etc, which I feel helps me relax within the moment. But personally for me, the ones listed above helps me nip stress in the bud so as to reduce the intensity or duration of it in future.

My relationship with stress is definitely an evolving one. The more I go through life, the better I will learn to manage it.

Admittedly some days will always be more challenging than others. So I guess the above serves both as a reminder to me and some tips for you.

Stay safe & Stay sane!


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