Mick Gillingham, Clinical Director of VitalityHealth partner CBT Services, offers suggestions for a less stressful life.
In my job as a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, I see a range of people from all walks of life who are clearly suffering from different levels of stress. These clients are usually with me
for a number of hour-long sessions, and my aim is to give them new life-skills that will help them to deal with their current anxieties – and prepare them for when the same worries crop up again in the future.
When it comes to us men, we tend to feel a need to be in control: at work and at home, and – very importantly for us – in control of our emotions. If we’re put under pressure, because of a busy period at work or money being tight, we tend to just try a bit harder to meet these new demands. It’s when we can’t cope with these burdens that strain turns into stress, – and with it, a sense of failure.
At this point, a woman is more likely to try and talk through her problems with her partner or friends. Unfortunately, as men, we’re more likely to do the polar opposite and retreat into ourselves – shutting off the outside world and hoping the problem goes away on its own. Our response to stress seems instinctive in its fight or flight nature – acting aggressively and throwing things around to deflect attention from the real problem, or perhaps going quiet when the issue is brought up; not so we can work out what’s wrong in our heads, but to help us avoid facing the situation.
When it comes to coping with stress, there are two paths that we go down. The first is in a positive way, where we release tension through leisure activities such as listening to music or through exercise and sport – these help to clear our minds and look at things from a different perspective. The other path, however, is by coping with stress in a ‘dysfunctional’ way with impulsive behaviours involving alcohol, drugs or gambling. Not only are these bad because they often make you feel worse in the morning, they can also develop into additional stresses in themselves (this is especially true if you’re worried about financial issues).
“You’re only human and there’s only so much you can do”
everyday life. This would involve making sure that you are getting enough sleep, eating three meals a day and not looking for refuge in unhealthy coping methods, such as a few beers in the evening or too many late-night fast food excursions. It’s strange but in my experience very true: get your life on an even, healthy keel and a lot of the worries, the ruminating and the other side-effects you’re experiencing can actually dissolve anyway – because you’ve had time to process whatever it is that’s making you stressed when your body is in a much calmer state.
And this is the crucial mistake people make when they think about therapy. They get concerned that by seeing a therapist and analysing their problems for an hour, they’ll leave feeling worse, more stressed. Instead, as a therapist, I’d try and identify what the crux of the problem is – be it your boss getting on your nerves at work, financial problems or that the kids are really winding you up at home – and look at ways that you can fix the problem in a constructive way. This wouldn’t be as simple as “why not talk to your boss?” or “talk to your partner”, because we both know that if you could, you would have already done so. It’s more about looking into that fear of failure, and how you aren’t a letdown for asking for help – you’re only human and there’s only so much you can do.
When it comes to learning how to deal with your stress, it could be something as simple as keeping a diary and making a note anytime you feel under pressure, so that you have a log of how you feel and can see how you’ve dealt with problems in the past. Alternatively, if you find you’re stressed and also skipping the odd meal or having one more beer than usual, you know it’s time to think about stabilising yourself and reassessing your stress. Therapy is not just about sorting out a problem but equipping you with the skills to deal with it when it comes up again in the future. You’ll then have a well-practised routine in place for the next time your boss is getting on your back, the bills seem to be mounting or the kids start winding you up!
3 steps to a new stress-free you
When you’re stressed, you know something’s not right but it’s hard to put your finger on it – and that in turn can make you worry even more. Relax. Stress is a normal emotion and you’re not alone. Whatever it is you’re worried about – work, money, home – may well have been blown out of proportion by a constant to-ing and fro-ing in your mind.
Once you’ve realised you’re stressed, take a look to see if anything in your lifestyle is making your problems worse – I find with my male clients there’s a tendency to drink a few more beers in the evening than usual, or an indulgence in too many late-night fast food snacks and meals. If you find yourself living an unhealthier life than usual, cut back – and consciously focus on getting a good sleeping pattern and three healthy meals a day. Not only will this leave you with more energy, it could also stop some of the sources of your worries.
What I mean by this term is: ‘make yourself immune’ from the source of your stress so that you not only overcome it in a therapy session, but are also able to deal with it again and again without over-analysing it out of all proportions. Different techniques work for different people: keeping a diary to log stressful moments, and ways to deal with them, or just learning to live in the here and now, not in the worst case scenario playing in your head. Ultimately, stress is a natural thing that happens to all of us – so don’t worry so much about being worried!