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We all cope with change in different ways but the good news is we can always learn to better manage the impact of stress.
Modern life, with its demands, is a constant juggling act of competing priorities and a challenge for how well we manage the different things we face.
Unexpected change, as a result of illness or injury, change in relationships, income or employment status, can cause distress and test our capacity to deal with life demands. For some people, the cumulative effects of change and stress can impair decision-making, affect mood and behaviour potentially impact on our health.
Maryla Juchnowski, Principal Consultant for Converge International – a global provider of workplace assistance, health and wellbeing programs – says our individual life experience and our tolerance for change can impact our ability to deal with stress.
“There is productive and non-productive stress,” Maryla says. “At low levels, stress can be helpful. This is the point where stress increases and we feel excited and challenged. Productive stress motivates and energises us to achieve our goals.”
“When the stress feels too great, we feel distressed or uncomfortable. High levels of stress over a prolonged period of time can damage your health. This type of stress is negative and harmful and is called distress – you may feel tense, feel trapped or threatened, feel anxious or panic, withdrawal or aggressive behaviour.”
As individuals we all cope with change in different ways, and much of it comes down to our ‘emotional fitness’ or resilience, but the good news is there are ways we can improve how we handle stress, strengthen our resilience and, Maryla says, “learn to better manage the stressors that impact our lives so we stay performing optimally”.
Converge International provides this advice on how to become more effective in how to manage change.
Step 1: Know the signs of stress
The human body cannot always tell the difference between positive and negative stress. Some of the warning signs of stress include:
- Lack of motivation
- Difficulties with decision-making
- Irritability and tiredness
- Reduced work output and/or quality
- Impaired memory and concentration
- Increased self-criticism
- Sleep problems
- Significant and frequent changes in mood
- Feeling you are not in control of your thinking and actions
It is important to regularly reflect on how you think, feel and act during periods of distress as this will assist you to become more aware and be able to identify your own signs of stress.
Below are some exercises you can complete daily to help improve your self-awareness of your emotions and signs of stress:
- At least once a day, ask yourself, “What emotions am I currently feeling?” This will assist you to routinely to identify your feelings.
- Incorporate descriptions of your emotions more often in your sentences, eg “when X happened, I felt happy/ sad/ embarrassed about that.”
- Consider keeping a journal to help develop a regular routine of reflecting on how you are feeling and to provide an alternative way of expressing your thoughts and feelings.
- Make a list of your early warning signs that you are feeling some degree of strain such as common thoughts, behaviours or indicators, eg muscular tension or headaches.
- Acknowledge the full spectrum of your emotions and actively identify both your positive and negative feelings.
Step 2: Manage your stress
Once you are aware of your signs of stress, consider what steps you take to relieve and alleviate it.
Do you have constructive and positive methods of stress release? Review some of the suggestions below across three key areas.
Diet Stress-relief/relaxation activities
- Maintain a balanced diet
- Ensure you have a lunch break
- Decrease stimulants (eg, caffeine)
- Increase minerals and vitamins by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables
- Become self-aware of your eating patterns (eg, when stressed, do you overeat or lose your appetite?)
- Try to get a minimum of 20 minutes exercise a day and aim to work up a light to moderate sweat to increase your heart rate.
- Yoga, pilates or stretching
- Deep breathing
- Catching up with family and friends
Step 3: Achieving and maintaining a healthy balance
Reflection on where you spend your time and energy can also reveal how you are balancing various aspects of your life – and the results can be surprising.
Here’s a simple exercise you can do:
- Think of the activities that make up your life.
- Then place them in a “time pie”. Draw one up, allocating the approximate time or percentage of the ‘pie’ you spend on each activity.
- When completed, review and ask yourself: “Is this the division that I want?”
- Rarely are our needs met by just one role. Invest time and energy in all aspects of your life.
- So, are your segments in the right proportion? Do you have the balance you want?
- If not – consider what steps you can take to make a change that will improve the balance in your life.
Step 4: Embrace change
We all have individual reactions to change. Some enjoy it and take energy from it – others get fatigued by it and like things to stick to the way they are.
Whatever your response, be aware of your reactions and work positively towards managing what you can and can’t control.
Acknowledge it can take time to adjust your response and if need be, ask others to respect your views as you take time to process or accept an unexpected change.
The good news is you can develop your resilience to be better able to cope with change and not let it negatively impact your life.
What if you have a partner, friend or colleague who might be struggling with change?
“Make time for these important relationships,” Maryla says.
She advises anyone supporting a person who is showing signs they are struggling with change to “be present and show interest in them” and maintain positive communication that is clear, open and respectful.
“Avoid telling them what to do,” she says. “Instead encourage them to consider options and encourage them to access available supports.”