I feel tired, numb and tense. My head hurts and everything seems too much. By now I recognise these symptoms: I have stress! But what exactly is stress, how does it differ from healthy excitement and how can you make yourself resilient to stress? In this blog, I explain what I think stress is. I also give tools, tips and exercises from positive psychology to deal with stress and ultimately reduce it.
What is stress?
There are many different definitions of stress, some very philosophical, others biological. But in practice I think it is mostly about the balance between what is asked of you (by others and yourself) and what you can handle (that is: what you think you can handle). Your “tasks” (duties, responsibilities) versus your “capacity”. If you have to do more than you think you can, you experience stress. And that is the difference with healthy excitement.
TASKS > CAPACITY => STRESS
TASKS = CAPACITY => HEALTHY EXCITEMENT
TASKS < CAPACITY => RELAXATION
According to many psychologists, the tasks are formed by factors and demands from your environment that cause stress. The load capacity is then determined by your ability to prevent and deal with stress. But it is more nuanced than that. Especially people with autism, AD(H)D and/or a psychological vulnerability know that the tension can also come from within. Through fear of the unknown, for example.
Fortunately, the opposite is also true: the stress can also come from within yourself, for example because you have developed compensatory strategies and dare to ask your friends for help. From the model above you can actually deduce what you can do to reduce your stress: increase your load capacity and reduce your tasks. But how do these two things work in practice?
Difference Between Stress and Anxiety
In the literature, stress is typically defined as caused by an external trigger, whereas anxiety is defined by internal ones (such as worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor).
But in my view, this difference is not that black and white. I can feel very stressed by thinking about possible external triggers as well, which strictly speaking would be an internal trigger.
Moreover, especially in people with autism, stress is a common trigger for anxiety. The way I see it, is that stress can cause many different manifestations – anxiety being only one of them (aggression is another one, for example).
Described as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension, stress – be it acute, episodic or chronic – is the state of mind, the feeling inside. Nobody notices my stress except myself.
The outcomes of a stressed mind, however, are noticeable and can thus interfere with important parts of your life in all areas (most notably relationships, but also responsibilities in housekeeping, school, work etc.).
Increasing Your Capacity (Spoons)
I always measure my load capacity in “spoons” full of energy. Usually I have an average of about eight spoons a day. An evening’s exercise costs two spoons, cooking a meal also. But an unexpected conflict with a loved one can cost me as much as 10 spoons! Nevertheless, I can also collect spoons, sometimes because I find them by chance (for example, when I am allowed to pet a nice dog or cat in the street), but mostly because of my own attitude.
Life is full of setbacks, ranging from disappointments to tragedies, against which you can do little or nothing. The only thing you can influence (to some extent) is your own attitude. Give yourself that good life. I practise optimism, humour, self-efficacy, kindness and flexibility. Every evening I consciously think about what I am doing ‘right’ – for example ‘I have stress – good that I feel it! Then I try to distance myself from the situation that is causing me so much stress. This usually works for me in three steps: observe, accept and let go.
Reducing your tasks can be interpreted in a very concrete way, for example: “instead of two days a week, I will now go one day a week to my voluntary work”. But, as with increasing your capacity, reducing your “burden” can also be found in a different, more gentle attitude towards yourself. For example, I try to be less of a perfectionist. Of course it is important for me to do my best, but if I am constantly worried and restless because I demand that everything I do is top performance… then I give myself a heavy burden, which only stresses me out. What I try to do then is focus on what I call “the greater goal”. I often give concerts and of course I try to do well on stage. Why? Not to make as few mistakes as possible, but to let people enjoy themselves. And do people really enjoy it that much less if I play two wrong notes during a two-hour concert? Nope.
Tips, tricks & tools
* Make a list of your “tasks”. What are the things that stress you out? And what can you do about it?
* Make time for nice things. In the corona crisis, enjoying life can be a daunting task. But especially now it is so important to feel good about yourself. Write down what gives you energy, such as reading a good book, meeting a friend, or cooking a nice meal. Then make time for that regularly.
* Put things in perspective. If this birthday cake fails completely, will the world end?
* Consider alternative strategies. If the cake fails, what do I do? And also: what is the worst that can happen and if that happens, what do I do?
* Set limits. Say “no” if you don’t want something. Or say “I’ll get back to you” to give yourself some time before you react, so you can think about your timing, the way you say something and your body posture.
* Get moving. Find a nice sport, do fitness with YouTube and move more often in your daily life. For example, take the bike into town, take the stairs instead of the lift and get off the bus a stop earlier.
* Make a good plan. Divide large tasks into small, manageable sub-tasks. And don’t plan your days full, but keep time free for unexpected events and “switching time”. Do also plan in time for relaxation.
* Relax. It is very important that you take enough time to recover from stressful situations. So make sure you relax and rest. Stand back and relax. For some, meditation or yoga will work, for others, Netflix and chocolate will do the trick. Maybe you find relaxation in music or listening to a podcast. Find your own way in this. Also make sure you get enough sleep.
* Find someone calm. When you are near a calm person or animal, you often become more relaxed automatically. This is because nervous systems are attuned to each other. Allow yourself that calming effect.
Martine Mussies is a PhD candidate at Utrecht University, writing about the Cyborg Mermaid. Besides her research, Martine is a professional musician. Her other interests include autism, (neuro)psychology, martial arts, languages, King Alfred and science fiction. To see more visit www.martinemussies.nl