Simple tools to help you manage stress
Updated: Jan 28
In this article, I share some tools I use to deal with stress and refocus my mind.
From the moment our alarms go off in the morning, we all encounter a combination of daily stressors that cause reactions, both big and small. Letting mini-crises compound can overwhelm and affect our health – both mental and physical – in the long-term. Pent up stress is like a campfire — the more wood added over time, the bigger the flame gets and the more likely a forest fire might eventuate.
Daily stress is a reality that won’t go away, but you can learn to manage it during the moment and recover quickly. All it takes are a few simple tools.
Understand your stress
Before we can contend with stress, it’s important to know what it is and why we experience it. We might say we feel stressed, but the biochemical reaction triggered in your body is a state, not a feeling. When your body ignites a stress reaction, it’s tapping into a primitive part of your brain that’s coded to perceive a threat and set off a chain reaction – your fight-or-flight response – to keep you away from perceived danger. That’s why we actually need some stress: it keeps us safe and helps us perform and grow when we are pushing outside our comfort zone.
On an average day, things that cause your heart to race or your blood pressure to rise could include everything from the shrill of your alarm to the rush of getting kids ready for school. Think of the physical response you have when your inbox is overflowing, or when there are so many meetings in your calendar that you don’t know where to begin, or when you have a difficult conversation with a colleague – these can all be contributors to acute stress. And when we don’t deal with them at the time, they can build up to become chronic stress – which is less manageable.
Talk yourself through it
When stress and anxiety compound, we often turn inwards and blame ourselves for not coping or handling situations more skillfully. When faced with a stressful trigger or its physical symptoms – like butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, or a racing heart – having a tool to neutralise your negative self-talk is key, as is remembering you’re able to override a negative response.
Train yourself to give yourself praise – and lots of it! I like to think of it like this: the voice in your head needs to deliver seven positive messages to balance out every negative one. This will take practice, so try to work at it throughout the day. Start small, with power words or motivating phrases to give you confidence: I am loved, I am strong, I am capable, I am kind, I am skilled, I am ready. These simple affirmations carry a lot of strength.
Writing down encouraging statements or keywords to read when you wake up can also help kick start your day with an action-oriented mindset. Try, “Breathe, one step at a time, you’ve got this!” Think of the kind and supportive messages you’d share with a friend and say them to yourself. I’m a work in progress. I learn every day and find silver linings. I am a problem solver. I am loved, I am unique and have something worthwhile to bring to the table. Bad times are temporary, and I can get through them.
Your response time is just as important. The quicker you can stop the influence of talking yourself down, the less damage it can do. And the sooner you shift to flooding your mind with positive self-talk, the more capable you will be at dealing with the situation at hand.
Exercise helps me deal with stress by improving my mental and physical health, but it’s hard to make regular time for it. This is where my second tool comes in.
Visualisation is a concept you’re probably familiar with already. It’s the mental process of setting a goal or objective and then picturing doing it. Visualisation exercises are used with great success in fields like medicine, the military, sports, and the arts. I use visualisation in two different ways. First, to practise something in advance such as making a change or embedding a new skill like breathing under pressure. The second way I use visualisation is to enhance my capacity to commit to something important – like my goal of exercising three times a week to offset stress proactively. This kind of visualisation has two parts, and it’s so easy to do.
Here’s how it works: part one is called ‘process visualisation’. It involves visualising all the steps that will lead you to your goal. In my case, this means picturing myself putting my runners and gym gear next to my bed, setting my alarm to get up early, and reminding my husband he’s on-point with the kids in the morning. I picture my alarm going off and me getting up, thinking This is my time to exercise, and putting on my gym gear. I get my phone from the recharge box in the study, put on my playlist, plug in my earphones and walk out the door. All the steps leading to the action are plotted out in my head in realistic and achievable increments.
Part two is ‘outcome visualisation’, and it focuses on achieving the goal. For me, that means closing my eyes and tapping into the senses of achieving my goal. I see and feel myself running and watch what’s going on around me. What can I hear? What can I smell? I feel fit, more energised, and proud of myself for executing my goal. I see myself returning home and ticking the star off my goal chart in front of my kids. An essential part of outcome visualisation is celebrating the achievement of your goal. So, make sure you praise yourself and use that positive self-talk throughout your visualisation. Tell yourself you’re amazing and capable – that you made this happen.
Set aside time each day to practise visualisation – in bed works for me – and it will become a powerful tool to better manage stress and its symptoms, as well as achieve goals that are important to you.
Ask for help
One of the most under-used tools for handling stress sounds simple on paper but can be the hardest to do: asking for help. The support structures we have around us – our friends, colleagues, family, and communities – are there to offer expertise, be a sounding board, give us a cuddle, celebrate our wins, and share the load of daily life. But we often don’t ask because we have the misperception that we’d be a burden or need to manage everything ourselves.
The fact is that most people love to offer their support and be helpful. Ask for what you need with clarity and confidence. This will enable your support structures to step up, provide the right resources and use the best approach to help you to bounce forward when challenged.
Reframe and refocus
The final tool I use to manage stress helps me change the way I think – specifically, the lens through which I appraise things. When everything starts to build up – the stress, the doubts, the negativity – you can become more susceptible to a ‘glass half-empty’ mindset. For example, a low point might only be temporary or actually applicable to one part of your life, such as your work life, but it can start to overflow and negatively impact on other parts as well. This compounding effect can see adversity build up and leave you feeling overwhelmed, out of control or stuck in a rut. Knowing how to get out of this position, or avoiding ending up there, requires a shift in the way you frame things.
When your perspective is narrow and your emotions are high, try to respond logically. Ask yourself, is my response proportional to the size of this situation? Is it useful to grade or judge myself this way? Is this setback worth abandoning my longer-term goals? Will this issue actually matter in five days or five months?
By stepping back and proactively asking yourself questions, you can begin problem-solving. What alternative approaches can I try? Who could I ask for guidance? Do I have a plan b? Once you’ve examined the situation, you can prepare to take action, which will help you feel more in control.
Stress will always be a part of daily life. It’s the way we choose to manage it that matters most. Every day will be different, but the challenges that we face in our lifetimes help us to grow invaluable ways. Be proactive about building your skills and investing in techniques to keep your stress at an appropriate level. The goal isn’t just to survive – it’s to thrive.
Alisa Camplin is an Olympic Gold Medalist, in-demand Keynote Speaker, Corporate Ambassador, and Human Performance Consultant who delivers results-driven Resilience and Human Performance Training and Development Programs. Connect with Alisa.