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Managing stress

Often we refer to pressure as stress. Stress in itself is not all bad, it can even be helpful, e.g. it can make us run fast to get out of trouble. Stress can also be unhelpful, as it can hinder our performance by taking up mental capacity and taking away from our enjoyment of activities.

Managing stress

Mental capacity

Mental capacity could also be called “brain space”, because we all have a certain amount of space in our brains to deal with whatever is happening right now.

The more difficult something is or if we don’t have a lot of experience with it, the more brain space we need.  If we have learnt something so well that it’s automatic, it doesn’t take up brain space (e.g. walking) but if we are doing something new it takes up lots of brain space

If we are stressed about doing something that burns into the amount of brain space we have. That stress can be due to the possibility of being assessed or judged in some way or if something important is at stake.

And when we are stressed we have less capacity to perform well and we might experience things like:

  • Mind blanks
  • Poor coordination
  • Errors or mistakes

4 components of stress

So that you can learn to manage stress and minimise its affect of your brain space, it’s good to learn a bit about how stress works.

Stress is made up of four components:

People often think that the stressful situation is what is causing stress but actually, it’s often their thoughts.

Thoughts can be fleeting things that we don’t pay much attention to, but they have a strong influence on the other aspects of the stress cycle.

You will find that some of your thoughts are quite negative and some will be more positive. This depends on whether you perceive the demand or task as a challenge or a threat.

Some examples of challenge thoughts are:

     “This will be tricky but I’ve had loads of practice”

     “I love a challenge”

Some examples of threat thoughts are:

     “What if I look like an idiot?”

     “It would be horrible if I failed”

Thoughts then influence feelings. These can be harder to describe as they are a bit less concrete, but typical feelings associated with threat thoughts are anxiety, fear, a sense of impending doom, or discomfort.

Feelings that are associated with challenge might be excitement or anticipation. 

Thoughts and feelings also contribute to physical sensations. If you are having threat thoughts this might feel like the jitters, adrenaline, shaking, sweating etc. If you are having challenge thoughts the physical sensations might actually be the same – it’s just that you are interpreting them differently, e.g. trembling with excitement, buzzing or bouncing off the walls.

Stress and pressure can make us ‘do stuff differently’. This might be things like getting angry with people, avoiding the problem and escaping or alternatively, it might mean working even harder, or seeking support.

Some behaviour will be helpful to us and some won’t. If we choose behaviour that is not helpful, it makes the thoughts and feelings even worse and adds to the cycle of stress. Changing what we do in response to stress can change how we experience it. Ask yourself what small thing could I do differently that might make a difference.

What can I do about it?

Everyone has situations where they typically feel more pressure. Identifying these situations and applying the tactical breathing skills (explained in detail below) will assist in making you more relaxed. Tactical breathing skills need to be practiced regularly for them to have the most effect - simply knowing about them is not enough, you have to actually use them.

It might be helpful to list all of the situations that have a tendency to make you feel physically nervous and commit to applying your tactical breathing and thought changing skills to them when they next occur.

Below is a sample list of situations that commonly provoke the experience of nervousness, butterflies, racing heart or other physical symptoms of stress.

  • Public speaking
  • Sports performances
  • Exams or tests
  • Interviews
  • Weapons training
  • Fitness tests

If you feel stressed when doing a task or assessment it’s good to be able to call on a couple of quick strategies to manage this and keep your performance on track.

Helpful thinking

The first strategy is to change your thoughts, or helpful thinking. If you are having threat thoughts like “I’m going to fail” or “this is terrible” ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this thought helping me be resilient?
  • What other ways can I look at this situation?
  • Will this thought be an issue in one week? Or, in 3 months?

Helpful thinking works by breaking the cycle of defaulting to your usual negative thoughts of a particular situation by getting yourself to look at it a different way.

Tactical breathing

The second strategy to break the cycle is to manage the physical sensations by relaxing.

One way of relaxing quickly is to do some tactical breathing. Tactical breathing has the uncanny ability to stop the physical stress reaction in its tracks. It swiftly slows down the heart rate and allows the body to relax. When we are stressed we tend to breathe quickly and shallowly, through our chest and often, through our mouths…that’s great if we need to run away quickly but not so great with everyday demands. Breathing quickly and shallowly can mess up the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide in the body, which increases feelings of anxiety.

Breathing tactically is a skill that must be practiced regularly to become a habit. Practice it at regular times when you are not stressed and you will soon be able to use it when you need it. Try it when you are waiting in a queue, at the traffic lights or in ad breaks.

The technique is simple:

  1. Inhale (deeply) for 4 seconds
  2. Hold for 4 seconds
  3. Exhale over 4 seconds
  4. Hold for 4 seconds

Repeat these steps four times. It is important to inhale through your nose with your abdomen (stomach) expanding while you inhale – your chest should not move.

With practice you may be able to achieve the level of calm without repeating the steps all four times.

You can use tactical breathing any time you want to induce a relaxation response but it is particularly effective when nerves are interfering with your physical performance such as during sports or a musical performance. Tactical breathing in this case can slow the heart rate, clear your thinking, make your hands steadier and improve your performance.

When to use these techniques

Next time you are in one of these situations try tactical breathing first and then tackle the thoughts.

For example, get a pen and paper and list the thoughts that you have about one of these situations.

Now, challenge those thoughts by asking yourself:

  • Is this thought helping me to be resilient?
  • What other ways can I look at this situation?
  • Will this thought be an issue in one week or one month?

By applying helpful thinking and tactical breathing you can free up valuable brain space and deal with stressful situations with more clarity.

Other self-help techniques to improve your resilience

You can find more information about building resilience in the other pages in this section, or by downloading the complete toolkit below. 

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Everyday Resilience - NZDF Resilience Toolkit
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