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Dr Lindsay Joyce is an HCPC registered psychologist specialising in bringing psychological theory to work-place contexts. You can find out more about her work here. In this blog article, she outlines two techniques proven to help you manage stress.
In this blog instalment, I want to think a bit about how best to prepare you for a career or job move. If you don’t like the job you are doing, you can become fixated on leaving it, and this fixated thinking means you are less able to think flexibly about finding a new job and performing well in interviews. Sadly, hating a job can often make it harder to escape it. So, I want to discuss a few techniques to buy yourself some time when you are thinking about making a job move, and to keep your thought processes flexible, creative and efficient.
As humans, we all suffer at the hands of our stress response –– we often call it ‘Fight or Flight’ – and you’ll certainly recognise some of its symptoms: a racing heart, butterflies in the tummy, cold sweats, needing the toilet. The stress response has our best interests at heart; it has developed so we can have the optimum chance of protecting ourselves against physical threats. However, the stress response is less useful in our modern environment, and chronic stress can have a negative impact on our physical and mental health.
Working in a stressful job, or spending day after day doing something that you hate means that your body is often in long-term stress response mode. You may find that you often feel anxious or angry about quite small things, that you struggle to relax, or that you have palpitations or a ‘nervous tummy’. This is all because your body is trying to stay primed to get you out of this stressful situation. However, as I have mentioned, being in long-term stress response can actually make it harder for you to leave a job – you are so focussed on surviving day-to-day that you can’t create the mental space and freedom you need to plan your next move.
So, here are some useful but simple things which can help you to control your stress response:
1. Visualisation techniques – you may feel awkward at first, but it was the only way I managed to control my stress response sufficiently to face class after class of demanding inner-London students. You need to try this somewhere on your own, where no-one is likely to wander in. In a school, my only option was the toilet cubicle!
- First, you need to imagine a place where you always feel relaxed – it could be a favourite beach, the top of a mountain, your family home – and you need to close your eyes and picture this place.
- Try to slow your breathing down, really pulling the breath down into the bottom of your stomach and filling your lungs with air.
- As you imagine your relaxing place, put yourself in the image – you may be swimming, walking or just lying there.
- Whatever you are doing in the image, you need to imagine the sensations you would be feeling if you were really there – the sand crunching between your toes, the cold water flowing over your limbs as you pull your body through the sea, or just the warm sunlight on your face as you lie wrapped in your soft duvet.
- As you hold the vision and slow your breathing, try to become conscious of any tension you are holding – you may be surprised at how high you are holding your shoulders, or that your jaw is locked tightly. Try to relax any tense muscles.
- Try to retain the vision for as long as you need – you will probably be able to hold the image and feelings for longer with more practice.
- When you’re ready, gently open your eyes and give yourself a moment to re-focus before re-entering the workplace.
- You can use this technique as often as you need it – it is also very helpful to relax you just before an important interview or presentation.
2. Mindfulness – this technique can take a while to perfect, and don’t be frustrated if you keep losing focus. When we go about our lives, we are constantly accompanied by thoughts, some of them helpful and some of them not so helpful. When we are stressed, we often become fixated on trying to control the future or berating ourselves for our past decisions. Mindfulness is about keeping our thoughts in the present.
- No matter how bad your day has been, there will have been high points. Can you think of any small pleasures you’ve experienced today?
- When you experience this pleasure, you need to notice and appreciate it. For example, if you have a morning cup of coffee, this is a treat. You need to smell the coffee’s aroma, enjoy the feeling of having something warm in your hand, and really savour the first smoothly bitter sip.
- Mindfulness is about just taking a moment to savour something and really experience it. If you walk to work, do you enjoy crossing a particular bridge or passing a favourite monument? If you’re a cyclist, is there one road with a slight downhill ride which always makes you smile? Can you take five minutes during the day just to stand outside and notice something you’ve never seen before?
- Mindfulness is also a helpful way of trying to stop ourselves from eating, drinking or smoking too much, which we often do when stressed. If you can really savour that glass of red wine rather than gulping it down in two minutes then you are far more likely to feel satiated.
- This technique is not as easy as it sounds, but it becomes more natural with practice.
- Interestingly, mindfulness is often how people become more satisfied with what they do have in life – think of anyone you know who is really content with their lot, even if it may seem boring or unchallenging to you. The chances are, whether they’re aware of it or not, this contented person is good at living in the moment and practising mindfulness.
So, I’ve given you two techniques to practice between now and the next blog post. They are both very simple to master, but far harder to apply regularly. However, if you can use these techniques to reduce your stress response a little bit, then I promise you will find it easier to proactively make some of the big decisions facing you rather than always responding reactively.
Seligman, M (2011). Flourish. London: Nicholas Brealey