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Picture this: You’re on a tight schedule to get to an important meeting when the train you’re on grinds to a halt…and you’ve no mobile signal. How do you feel? Racing heartbeat? Sweaty palms? Churning stomach?
Welcome to stress.
Most of us have experienced stress and, in today’s frenetic world – full of deadlines, competition and phones that are always on – it’s totally normal to feel anxious. But how much stress is too much? And what can we do to lower our anxiety levels and still get things done?
Dr Judith Johnson, a Clinical Psychologist and Lecturer at Leeds, has been exploring emotional resilience and how it affects our ability to cope with stress.
First off, don’t be stressing out that you’re the only one who gets stressed. “You can’t avoid stress,” says Judith. “It’s a bit like death and taxes! But there is a difference between stressful events and experiencing stress to a problematic level.”
“If you’re answering yes to these questions then it’s probably a sign that you should get some help,” says Judith. “The key is to be self-aware, so you know when it’s time to take action.”
A little bit of stress is good – it’s motivational. But too much long-term stress can potentially result in mental health problems (anxiety and depression) and poor health like a compromised immune system, high blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease.
When you’re stressed the brain reacts by telling the body to produce a surge of energizing hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, to help you deal with a perceived threat with a "fight or flight" response.
Some people deal with stress better than others. “Research suggests that having higher levels of perfectionism as a personality trait is one of the strongest factors which can reduce our resilience and make us vulnerable to the negative effects of stress,” says Judith.
"Having high standards is fine, but perfectionists get stressed by sticking rigidly to them. This makes them less resilient to stress – not because they have these standards (it’s good to aim high!) but because they lack flexibility."
If you see yourself in this list, you’re likely a perfectionist.
Establishing a balanced perspective is key to building resilience against stress. Essentially it’s about moving away from “I failed my maths test because I’m an idiot and now I’ll never achieve anything” to “I failed my maths test because it was a tough exam and I didn’t revise enough, but I’ll do better next time”.
People who are more resilient to stress are more likely to take external factors into account, like situational factors, and also more likely to restrict it ("it was just maths"), explains Judith. “They’re also more likely to explain it in terms of things they can change.”
One thing that puts us all under pressure – particularly perfectionists – is the fear of failure. “We have a really negative view of failure in our society,” says Judith. “We don’t view it as a learning experience or part of the story.”
If we want to curb our anxiety over failing, we need to start seeing it differently. “Frame failure in a different way,” urges Judith. “If you can see it as the middle of your story and part of the adventure, rather than a final negative outcome, you’ll go on and do better.
“You should never try to avoid failure, the only way to do that is to stop trying. In doing that, you also reduce any chance of success.”
To a certain extent, it may not be stress that is dangerous to health, but how you think about stress. In her research, Judith found that people who can recount events in a positive light are more likely to be resilient to stress.
But it’s also healthy to have a negative reaction to a negative event. Glossing over negative emotions – telling yourself everything is fine when it’s not – will only cause more problems in the long run.
Psychologists at Leeds found that in two-thirds of studies, self-esteem was significant in mediating the link between failure and success.
The good news is that, even if you’re not born this way, you can change yourself. “All these traits are ones we seek to develop in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and we know that CBT is effective,” says Judith.
One CBT method that Judith encourages is writing new flexible rules for yourself to reframe your thinking.
A CBT method of raising self-esteem is to write a list of positive qualities and examples of when you have shown them. Remember: You don’t need to be perfect.
Good enough is good enough.
Think you’ve no time to do anything fun because you’re so stressed out with work?
Wrong. You’re stressed out because you’re not taking time out to have fun. Do something that gives you a lift for an instant stress buster.
But, “avoidance is the cornerstone of mental health problems,” says Judith. “You have to face a problem to try and solve it.” Sometimes this means having to admit that you’ve taken on too much and just need to let go of something.
Distraction can be a useful tool in reducing stress. Research suggests that negative emotions narrow the focus of your attention – the more you think about your problems, the more you lose sight of the positives.
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"You need to get out and do something you enjoy,” says Judith.
Exercise, meditation, going to cinema, seeing friends, reading a book, going for a walk, something that gives you a little boost and takes your mind off what’s worrying you is really the best thing to do.”
More about Dr Judith Johnson
Dr Johnson spoke to Leeds graduate Chrissie Russell
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