Susan Balfour's Stress Control: Stress-Busting Strategies for the 21st Century is the first book I've read to focus exclusively on stress. Usually its a topic I've only read about in the form of a paragraph in a book about general health & wellbeing, or in a health magazine column. It's surprising really that I haven't stock-piled self-help books on stress, given the list of stressful life events at the front of Susan's book and how many of them I could tick off for this year (pregnancy, change in family member's health, change in financial status, change to different type of work, graduation and marriage - wedding planning counts, right?
Susan cites change as a major source of stress in 21st century, along side technology, modern work patterns and modern diets. I particularly like her metaphor, which sees life as a recipe, in that we need to figure out what extra ingredients to add or increase (exercise, more time with family) and what to cut down on (overtime at work, media consumption, technology usage) or leave out altogether (junk food, alcohol).
Susan's book is well-written and nicely structured, it has a chapter dedicated to each of the main sources of stress in the 21st century: life changes, technology, work, busy agendas and the inability to say 'no' to people. She also dedicates chapters to recognising the symptoms of stress, relaxation techniques, nutrition to combat stress-related sluggishness and positive approaches to life - all of which are vital tools for helping us get through our increasingly hectic days!
Throughout the book, there are various exercises to practice, such as visualisations, 'body scans' to check your posture and also physical exercises, for reducing tension in muscles. There's lots of practical advice that you can put into practice straight away to immediately begin feeling less stressed and more in control of your own life. I've been putting much of Susan's advice into practice myself over the last few months, with great results!
Top 10 tips for reducing stress in the 21st Century
1. Being in the here and now
- I put this into good practice on holiday and even last Sunday when I went out for lunch and around of crazy golf with my partner and a friend of ours. I kept my phone in my bag so that I could enjoy the present company and look around at the scenery, various butterflies and dragon flies fluttering around and take in the smell of the plants and flowers all around the golf course. I felt incredibly relaxed and in the moment and enjoyed having taken the time to really take it all in. It'll be difficult but worth it if I can keep this up after the baby is born!
2. Taking control of technology
I've finally set my emails to 'manually fetch' instead of push to my device each time. It means I'm not constantly interrupted throughout the day with various requests and questions that take me off the topic of whatever I'm doing at the time. Instead, I schedule time in the morning and evening to check and respond to emails. Without doing this, my inbox basically made me a slave to someone else's to do list.
3. Practice acceptance
- Being a control freak, it was vital for me to get my head around the ability to accept that there are some things I just can't control. For example, I have absolutely no control over when the loft conversion for my baby's room will start, thanks to the legal planning process, but I can accept this by making the decision to prepare in other ways, such as getting the crib for our room ready, buying the car seat and packing my hospital bag.
4. Walk away if it's simply too much
- Susan speaks of the need to temporarily withdraw from situations when overwhelmed, a good example of this would be taking a social media break. There are times where I go quiet across all networks because real life has gotten incredibly hectic and I'm simply too stressed out to be constantly reachable via social media.
5. Cut down on the consumption of media
- In her book, Susan points out the amount of pressure the media puts on us to subscribe to a certain way of life. Adverts promote idealised lifestyles and place pressure on consumers to acquire things in order to have said lifestyle. Additionally, there's also endless amounts of bad news and gossip in the press which is tiring to keep up with.
Susan recommends setting a time limit for reading newspapers & watching TV, in order to give our minds a rest from constantly taking in information. Recently I've noticed how my own anxiety increases during political elections, as this is the time I engage most with news on the TV and political commentary across papers and the internet. Almost as soon as the election and the few weeks of analysis afterwards has ceased, my anxiety drops back down and my focus shifts back to the micro level around me.
6. Be comfortable in silence
- This is something I think the smartphone generation is awful at. When was the last time you saw someone sit alone without looking at their phone, or having headphones in their ears? I must admit, all through my teens and early twenties I was definitely like this. It wasn't until I visited the Retreat room at Ragdale Hall, where there is strictly no noise, whispering or phones that I realised just how amazing it is to be in silence, alone with my own thoughts, gazing out the window at the rolling hills in the Leicestershire countryside.
I felt far more creative after that spa day and ever since I refer to sitting still quietly thinking something over as `silent contemplation´... which has become a bit of a running joke with my partner when I'm planning a DIY project, as I'll sit quietly staring at the task at hand before sketching out a solution. This approach would also explain why I have my most creative thoughts in the shower or in bed at night, as there are no gadgets or other noise to distract my thoughts.
I now have two affirmations, one of which I've borrowed directly from Susan's book: "I only have to live my life", for when I'm wasting time worrying about the opinions of others, which I worry about far too much while wedding planning!
The second affirmation, which I keep hearing people say, but is also discussed in Susan's book is: "'No' is a complete sentence". Think of all the times you've said yes to something you didn't want to do, for example, when you're asked to take on yet more overtime at work! You can simply say 'no' in a polite 'yes' tone. No explanation is needed, no excuses or reasons for why you're busy need to be made. If you say it in a confident 'yes' tone, it's far less likely to be questioned than if you say it hesitantly. Try it, it works every time!
8. Use the word 'want' instead of 'should'
Doing the things you feel you 'should' be doing is miserable and stressful, but doing things because you want to is much nicer because we feel we have made the choice to do them. You can simply change the way you phrase things. So instead of "I should do the dishes", think: "I want a tidy kitchen so I'm going to do the dishes".
A more significant example of the difference this change of phrase makes is one of making a career change. When I completed my masters degree last summer, I agonised for ages that I 'should' stay in social work, after all, I'd spent 2 years training for it, I was good at my job and occasionally it was really rewarding. But deep inside, I knew I was going to get burnt out by it quickly, it was stressful, emotionally draining and bled into my personal life far too often. It was also particularly unstable at the time with all the government cuts affecting charity funding and local councils - making sure that I would never be able to keep the same social work position for longer than a year at most.
I couldn't take that instability, coupled with the constant emotional drain of the job itself, so instead, I applied for a job at my university for some security. I started it two days after finishing my course and it was while working there with a fantastic team of people that I realised I don't need to do what I feel I 'should' do, as what I wanted was to work in a happier environment, which I had found! I have no doubt that the university environment is when I will return after my extended maternity leave, it's where I feel happiest and secure, and it's great to be able to say "I want to go to work there".
9. Establish a safe space
Everyone needs a little slice of sanctuary in their home and even at work. In Susan's book, she gives the example of a man moving in with his girlfriend and not feeling really settled until he had his desk all set up as a section of personal space. I can definitely related to this, I love sharing our home office with my partner (who has sacrificed his man cave to make room for the nursery), but even we have separate desks, organised in completely different ways to each other - his is full of his gaming things from the man cave, while mine is more minimalist to enable me to concentrate on my work. This way we both have a personal space to call our own.
Susan also advises that at work we decorate our workspaces to feel more homely, whether this is plants, souvenirs from holidays and photos of family. Unfortunately, a lot of offices I've worked in have a hot desking system, which I personally hate for the sake of mess, germs, lack of space to organise my files and stationary and memo letters going astray on other desks. If you're hot desking, I would recommend having a nice desktop layout on your user account, with shortcuts to your favourite programs and most used files, so that you can get to them quickly and a background image of your family, friends or a pretty place you've visited.
10. Minimize interruptions at work
Focus on one task at a time and tell people you will call them back or speak to them later, you could even put a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the back of your seat or office door, or if you want to be more subtle, simply wear headphones while you work on your deadline - people are less likely to bother you with meaningless conversation if they can see you're listening to music. You can always have lunch with co-workers to catch up on the day's gossip if you want to and you'll feel less stressed and much happier having completed your deadline!
Susan Balfour's Stress Control: Stress-Busting Strategies for the 21st Century (2013, Anshan) is available to buy from Amazon.co.uk in paperback (£10.99) and Kindle (£4.99) editions.