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Four Key Principles For Effective Stress Management

Success in any project depends on having a good clear project plan that targets the right goals and not the wrong ones. Learning to manage stress is a project too, and you need to be clear on exactly what it is you're trying to do.

Here are four keys to effective stress relief:

1. Address Underlying Causes Not Symptoms

My working definition of stress is the feeling of being challenged out of your comfort zone, and your ability to cope is in some doubt. That feeling is usually anxiety and agitation, but it could be irritability and anger, or in the longer term depression.

Most people want to get rid of anxiety - but anxiety is the symptom not the cause. Or they avoid the triggers for anxiety, which is addressing the cause in a way, but it's not an effective strategy.

Stress and anxiety can't really be avoided or suppressed. Better to ask what turns anxiety from an everyday human emotion into a problem.

Medications are probably the most commonly used method for getting rid of anxiety. But it's targeting the symptom, not the cause. Of course there are circumstances when psychiatric medication is the right option, and if you are on medications yourself, please don't take this as advice to stop. If you do want to stop, consult your doctor before you do anything as withdrawing can be dangerous.

2. It's not enough to analyse the problem - you need the right resources

Counselling is another common "solution" to anxiety. It's good that it's not about suppressing or avoiding stress and anxiety, but talking about your feelings, and even understanding your emotions, may not be enough for relief. Again, counselling has it's place - it can be an important part of the process of resolution - e.g. if you've had a bereavement. But I don't think it is the complete answer to every emotional problem by any means.

Project planning involves looking at what skills and resources are needed to complete a project. It's the same for stress reduction. You need skills like:

  • self-awareness and especially body awareness
  • mind-body regulation - the ability to influence the physiology of stress and anxiety
  • acceptance and letting go
  • ability to access positive emotion
  • focus - sustainable but flexible.

3. The major work is learning, developing and training skills and resources

First you need a certain amount of knowledge: what stress is, what emotions are, how stress and emotions develop and evolve, what does and doesn't work in terms of influencing them, how stress and emotions relate to thinking patterns.

Then you need training - spending time practising and building skills such as those I listed above - these and more besides, make up the skill-set of stress resilience. There's a key insight right there: stress resilience is a skill that is trainable.

4. Use the right tools to support development and training of the stress management skill-set

My favourite tools are biofeedback and mindfulness. These are training tools. They aren't "treatments" or "therapies", they are tools you can use to develop your skills. For example, my stress resilience skills programme focuses on training optimal breathing using biofeedback and mindfulness. Optimal breathing skills are key to moving out of the physiology of stress and anxiety and into the physiology of calm, clear focus and positivity.

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