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Feeling stressed?

It might be better to ask who isn’t?

Stress is everywhere and people are complaining. But there’s a massive difference between the stress we experience on a daily basis and the type of severe chronic stress that puts people at risk of burnout.

“I’m so stressed” has become such a universal catch cry it’s become a new normal. The problem here is that if everyone is so stressed how do we reasonably distinguish between normal healthy stress and burnout?

Otherwise the high school student feeling stressed about their forthcoming exams or the corporate intern stressed out about the idea of having to present in front of their peers and big bosses might be assumed to be experiencing the same mind numbing sense of overwhelm of severe chronic stress that leaves the affected person exhausted, feeling hopeless, cynical, ineffective and burnt out, which they are not.

We’re talking about two different things.

The distinction is important and should never be trivialised because burnout is real (WHO recently recategorized it as an occupational syndrome) and is associated with considerable psychological distress and potential mental illness.

What we need to get better at is managing our regular stress more effectively, that can otherwise cause difficulties, loss of confidence and performance.

Healthy stress elevates performance.

Whether you are starting a new job, going for an interview, or studying hard for a degree there will be challenge, stress and even some anxiety around how it will all pan out, and that’s a good thing because this is what helps you to step up and forward to meet the challenge.

Avoid the tipping point.

Life can be difficult and messy so there will be times when all does feel too hard, we don’t get the results we expected, and we experience disappointment and frustration.

How stress impacts us at any given moment will depend on a number of variables. How tired, hungry, hot or cold you are, your mood, your mindset, personality and how much value you ascribe to the stress all play a role.

It’s the tipping point when healthy stress morphs into distress that the alarm bells need to start ringing.

What can help is to nurture those lifestyle choices and mental skillsets that can help keep us safe.

These include what keeps us well – looking after our nutrition, sleep and exercise and developing the emotional and social intelligence skills to understand how our thinking patterns, habits and mindset can work to help or hinder our success.

It’s the combination that builds stress resilience; keeping you feeling happy, more in control and focused on what matters.

If you’re in an environment that’s dragging you down, all the yoga classes and nutritious lunches in the world aren’t going to protect you against the perils of overwork, toxic individuals and lack of support.

Smartening up on stress

  1. Understand stress is a normal response, preparing us to manage a change in our environment. A little extra stress can be hugely beneficial to boost your performance.
  2. Engage in proper self-care. You know what I’m talking about. Taking responsibility to ensure we’re dealing with the fundamentals of how we eat, move and sleep to maintain a higher level of brain fitness and be ready to think well.
  3. Build self-awareness of how your mind operates to nurture a growth- oriented mindset, create a positive affect and be more mindful to how your interactions with others influences your energy and outcomes. Challenge your thoughts and language to flip from catastrophising and negative self-talk to consider what would help best in this current situation? Draw from your accumulated wisdom and support of those who know and understand us the best.
  4. Reduce your mental load. Your brain receives over 11 million bits of information every second, a slightly overwhelming amount of information not all of which is relevant to you, your survival or thrival. Because your brain can only process 40 bits reducing your cognitive pressure comes from using your brain correctly i.e. choosing to monotask.
  5. Take regular brain breaks across your day. A couple of 15-20 minute sessions to take a break and dissociate from the heavy lifting thinking you’ve been engaged in gives the brain the time it needs to reboot and re-energise. And don’t forget to take a lunch break too. The distraction from focused thought has been shown to be crucial for consolidating memory, reflecting on the past and planning the future as well as diminishing the risk of decision fatigue.
  6. Reflect on your life and work by taking time out to sit and think, to give thanks for what you have, to check you’re on track for what you hope to achieve and aligned to your core purpose. Your mental and brain health can be helped significantly by allocating a small amount of time, 20-30 minutes each day just for you.
  7. Focus on the small things each day that nourish your soul, spending time in the great outdoors, listening to music or taking time out to rest and recover on a daily basis. Running away for a long weekend will provide a much-needed breather but won’t change anything on your return.

Life is busy, challenging and full. How good is that! This is what keeps us engaged, focused and learning. So, let’s quit complaining about normal stress and focus on staying well, performing at our best and minimising our risk of burnout or mental mood disorders.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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