AVBA essay: Managing stress

It’s been one of those days… a morning filled with surgical cases then an afternoon crammed with consultations and as the day draws to a close there’s that difficult client who has you cornered. Over 20 years working in practice I witnessed many instances of stressed out vets and nurses, physically tired and emotionally overdrawn, leaving work for the day with nothing “left in the tank”.

Sound familiar? A high level of stress within caring professions almost appears to have become the norm. Study after study has shown that stress raises our risk of cancer, heart disease, allergies and susceptibility to colds and flu. New research has revealed that when our systems are constantly bathed in cortisol the body loses its ability to regulate inflammation.

Take charge! Stress management begins with identifying the sources of stress in your life. I agree, it isn’t as easy as it sounds but look closely at your habits and attitudes. Try to identify the regular stressors in your life and the way you deal with them. Take the same approach you would with a patient – detail the symptoms and construct a treatment plan. Consider how you cope with stress in your life. Are your coping strategies healthy or unhealthy? You could be unknowingly sabotaging yourself and compounding the problem.

There are many healthy ways to manage and cope with stress but they all require change – either change the situation or change your reaction. How you think can have a profound effect on your emotional and physical well-being. Each time you think a negative thought about yourself, your body reacts as if it were in the throes of a tension-filled situation. If you see good things about yourself, you are more likely to feel good; the reverse is also true. Eliminate words such as “always,” “never,” and “must.”

Finally don’t get so caught up in the daily grind that you forget to take care of your own needs. Nurturing yourself is a necessity, not a luxury. How often have you said or thought, “I don’t have time for me”? Giving to yourself means everyone around you benefits.

Let’s look at some ways to attack stress.

Learn how to say “no”. Know your limits and stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, refuse to accept added responsibilities when you’re close to reaching your limit.

Avoid people who stress you out. If someone consistently causes stress in your life and you can’t turn the relationship around, limit the amount of time you spend with that person or end the relationship entirely.

Take control of your environment. If the evening news makes you anxious, turn the TV off.

Pare down your to-do list. Analyse your schedule, responsibilities and daily tasks. If you’ve got too much on your plate, distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts”.

Express your feelings instead of bottling them up. If something or someone is bothering you, communicate your concerns in an open and respectful way. If you don’t voice your feelings, resentment will build and the situation will be unlikely to improve.

Be willing to compromise. When you ask someone to change his or her behaviour, be willing to do the same. If both of you are willing to bend at least a little, you’ll have a good chance of finding a happy middle ground.

Be more assertive. Don’t take a backseat in your own life. Deal with problems head on; doing your best to anticipate and prevent them.

Reframe problems. Try to view stressful situations from a more positive perspective. Rather than fuming about a traffic jam, look at it as an opportunity to pause and regroup, listen to your favourite radio station or enjoy some time alone.

Look at the big picture. Put the stressful situation in persepective. Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run. Will it matter in a month? A year? Is it really worth getting upset over? If the answer is “no”, focus your time and energy elsewhere.

Adjust your standards. Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress. Stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection. Set reasonable standards for yourself and others.

Focus on the positive. When stress is getting you down, take a moment to reflect on all the things you appreciate in your life, including your own positive qualities and gifts.

Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control – particularly the behaviour of other people. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems.

Look for the upside. When facing major challenges, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes.

Share your feelings. Talk to a trusted friend or make an appointment with a therapist. Expressing what you’re going through can be very cathartic, even if there’s nothing you can do to alter the stressful situation.

Learn to forgive. Accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes. Let go of anger and resentment. Free yourself from negative energy by forgiving and moving on.

Set aside relaxation time. Include rest and relaxation in your daily schedule. Don’t allow other obligations to encroach. This is your time to take a break from all responsibilities and recharge your batteries.

Connect with others. Spend time with positive people who enhance your life. A strong support system will buffer you from the negative effects of stress.

Do something you enjoy every day. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy – whether it be stargazing, playing the piano, or working on your bike.

Keep your sense of humour. This includes the ability to laugh at yourself. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.

Exercise regularly. Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress. Make time for at least 30 minutes of exercise, three times per week. Nothing beats aerobic exercise for releasing pent-up stress and tension.

Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress, so be mindful of what you eat.

Reduce caffeine and sugar. The temporary “highs” caffeine and sugar provide often end with a crash in mood and energy. By reducing the amount of coffee, soft drinks, chocolate and sugary snacks in your diet, you’ll feel more relaxed and you’ll sleep better.

Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs may provide an easy escape from stress but the relief is only temporary. Don’t avoid or mask the issue at hand; deal with problems head on and with a clear mind.

Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep fuels your mind, as well as your body. Feeling tired will increase your stress as you are less able to cope with change.
SONJA JAMESON

This essay was an entry in the In The Black Essay Competition for 2012.

Sonja Jameson is a Remedial Massage Therapist at Relaxed Mind and Body Massage Clinic in Maryborough, Queensland. Until recently she was Co-owner and Administrator of Maryborough’s Walker Street Veterinary Surgery.

John Heath of Boehringer Ingelheim, Mark Amott of Southern Animal Referral Centre and the AVBA and Susan Halloran of In The Black judged the competition.

Visit www.avba.com.au for information about the In The Black Essay Competition for 2013.