It is unlikely that we will go through life without some experience of personal crises causing acute pressure for a while. Many people sail through and rebuild their lives very positively. They are likely to have constructive attitudes and also have lots of emotional and social support of various kinds available to them. When we find ways of managing these pressures and can use the energy to create something positive out of the situation, then we will have learned to survive healthily and this will leave us more stress fit for future crises. It is like being immunised against the dangers of unhealthy stress.
Stress Resistant Personality: Recent studies by Kobasa have shown that people with high levels of stress but low levels of illness share three characteristics, which are referred to as the personality traits of hardiness. It consists of ‘the three Cs’, i.e. commitment, control, and challenge. Hardiness is a set of beliefs about oneself, the world, and how they interact. It takes shape as a sense of personal commitment to what you are doing, a sense of control over your life, and a feeling of challenge. Stress resistant personalities have control which is a sense of purpose and direction in life; commitment to work, family, hobbies and social life; and challenge, that is, they see changes in life as normal and positive rather than as a threat. Everyone does not have these characteristics, many of us have to relearn specific life skills in areas such as rational thinking, and assertiveness to equip ourselves better to cope with the demands of everyday life, etc.
Life Skills: Life skills are abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life. Our ability to cope depends on how well we are prepared to deal with and counterbalance everyday demands, and keep equilibrium in our lives. These life skills can be learned and even improved upon. Assertiveness, time management, rational thinking, improving relationships, self-care, and overcoming unhelpful habits such as perfectionism, procrastination, etc. are some life skills that will help to meet the challenges of life.
Assertiveness: Assertiveness is a behaviour or skill that helps to communicate, clearly and confidently, our feelings, needs, wants, and thoughts. It is the ability to say no to a request, to state an opinion without being self-conscious, or to express emotions such as love, anger, etc. openly. If you are assertive, you feel confident, and have high self-esteem and a solid sense of your own identity.
Time Management: The way you spend your time determines the quality of your life. Learning how to plan time and delegate can help to relieve the pressure. The major way to reduce time stress is to change one’s perception of time. The central principle of time management is to spend your time doing the things that you value, or that help you to achieve your goals. It depends on being realistic about what you know and that you must do it within a certain time period, knowing what you want to do, and organising your life to achieve a balance between the two.
Rational Thinking: Many stress-related problems occur as a result of distorted thinking. The way you think and the way you feel are closely connected. When we are stressed, we have an inbuilt selective bias to attend to negative thoughts and images from the past, which affect our perception of the present and the future. Some of the principles of rational thinking are: challenging your distorted thinking and irrational beliefs, driving out potentially intrusive negative anxiety-provoking thoughts, and making positive statements.
Improving Relationships: The key to a sound lasting relationship is communication. This consists of three essential skills: listening to what the other person is saying, expressing how you feel and what you think, and accepting the other person’s opinions and feelings, even if they are different from your own. It also requires us to avoid misplaced jealousy and sulking behaviour.
Self-care: If we keep ourselves healthy, fit and relaxed, we are better prepared physically and emotionally to tackle the stresses of everyday life. Our breathing patterns reflect our state of mind and emotions. When we are stressed or anxious, we tend towards rapid and shallow breathing from high in the chest, with frequent sighs. The most relaxed breathing is slow, stomach-centred breathing from the diaphragm, i.e. a dome like muscle between the chest and the abdominal cavity. Environmental stresses like noise, pollution, space, light, colour, etc. can all exert an influence on our mood. These have a noticeable effect on our ability to cope with stress, and well-being.
Overcoming Unhelpful Habits: Unhelpful habits such as perfectionism, avoidance, procrastination, etc. are strategies that help to cope in the short-term but which make one more vulnerable to stress. Perfectionists are persons who have to get everything just right. They have difficulty in varying standards according to factors such as time available, consequences of not being able to stop work, and the effort needed. They are more likely to feel tense and find it difficult to relax, are critical of self and others, and may become inclined to avoid challenges. Avoidance is to put the issue under the carpet and refuse to accept or face it. Procrastination means putting off what we know we need to do. We all are guilty of saying “I will do it later”. People who procrastinate are deliberately avoiding confronting their fears of failure or rejection. Various factors have been identified which facilitate the development of positive health. Health is a state of complete physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Positive health comprises the following constructs: “a healthy body; high quality of personal relationships; a sense of purpose in life; self-regard, mastery of life’s tasks; and resilience to stress, trauma, and change”. Specifically, factors that act as stress buffers and facilitate positive health are diet, exercise, positive attitude, positive thinking, and social support.
Diet: A balanced diet can lift one’s mood, give more energy, feed muscles, improve circulation, prevent illness, strengthen the immune system and make one feel better to cope with stresses of life. The key to healthy living is to eat three main meals a day, and eat a varied well-balanced diet. How much nutrition one needs depends on one’s activity level, genetic make-up, climate, and health history. What people eat, and how much do they weigh involve behavioural processes. Some people are able to maintain a healthy diet and weight while others become obese. When we are stressed, we seek ‘comfort foods’ which are high in fats, salt and sugar.
Exercise: A large number of studies confirm a consistently positive relationship between physical fitness and health. Also, of all the measures an individual can take to improve health, exercise is the lifestyle change with the widest popular approval. Regular exercise plays an important role in managing weight and stress, and is shown to have a positive effect on reducing tension, anxiety and depression. Physical exercises that are essential for good health are stretching exercises such as yogic asanas and aerobic exercises such as jogging, swimming, cycling, etc. Whereas stretching exercises have a calming effect, aerobic exercises increase the arousal level of the body. The health benefits of exercise work as a stress buffer. Studies suggest that fitness permits individuals to maintain general mental and physical wellbeing even in the face of negative life events.
Positive Attitude: Positive health and well-being can be realised by having a positive attitude. Some of the factors leading to a positive attitude are: having a fairly accurate perception of reality; a sense of purpose in life and responsibility; acceptance and tolerance for different viewpoints of others; and taking credit for success and accepting blame for failure. Finally, being open to new ideas and having a sense of humour with the ability to laugh at oneself help us to remain centred, and see things in a proper perspective.
Positive Thinking: The power of positive thinking has been increasingly recognised in reducing and coping with stress. Optimism, which is the inclination to expect favourable life outcomes, has been linked to psychological and physical wellbeing. People differ in the manner in which they cope. For example, optimists tend to assume that adversity can be handled successfully whereas pessimists anticipate disasters. Optimists use more problemfocused coping strategies, and seek advice and help from others. Pessimists ignore the problem or source of stress, and use strategies such as giving up the goal with which stress is interfering or denying that stress exists.
Social Support: Social support is defined as the existence and availability of people on whom we can rely upon, people who let us know that they care about, value, and love us. Someone who believes that s/he belongs to a social network of communication and mutual obligation experiences social support. Perceived support, i.e. the quality of social support is positively related to health and wellbeing, whereas social network, i.e. the quantity of social support is unrelated to well-being, because it is very timeconsuming and demanding to maintain a large social network. Studies have revealed that women exposed to life event stresses, who had a close friend, were less likely to be depressed and had lesser medical complications during pregnancy. Social support can help to provide protection against stress. People with high levels of social support from family and friends may experience less stress when they confront a stressful experience, and they may cope with it more successfully.
Social support may be in the form of tangible support or assistance involving material aid, such as money, goods, services, etc. For example, a child gives notes to her/his friend, since s/he was absent from school due to sickness. Family and friends also provide informational support about stressful events. For example, a student facing a stressful event such as a difficult board examination, if provided information by a friend who has faced a similar one, would not only be able to identify the exact procedures involved, but also it would facilitate in determining what resources and coping strategies could be useful to successfully pass the examination. During times of stress, one may experience sadness, anxiety, and loss of self-esteem. Supportive friends and family provide emotional support by reassuring the individual that she/he is loved, valued, and cared for. Research has demonstrated that social support effectively reduces psychological distress such as depression or anxiety, during times of stress. There is growing evidence that social support is positively related to psychological well-being. Generally, social support leads to mental health benefits for both the giver and the receiver.