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‘Stress’ is such a common concept that we often don’t think about it until it’s causing such di-stress that we can’t ignore it.

Sadly, many people think that being incapacitated by stress is some sort of weakness or failure. To fall foul of stress certainly isn’t a sign of ‘weakness’, and it’s not a failure in the sense that should attract blame or criticism.

In my experience of working with stressed individuals for many years, the people who succumb to stress are often the toughest ones. Their attitude seems to be “if I just work a bit harder I can fix this”, or something similar.

They soldier on, ignoring the warning signs of mind and body, often completely oblivious to the unreasonable pressure they are putting themselves under.

Common failing

If they have a common failing it is that, as pressure mounts (usually over weeks or months), they don’t allow themselves to slow down or take time out.

Failing to notice and respond to the signs of stress is often made worse by the fact that they will have stopped doing their usual stress-relieving routines like hobbies and exercise. Ironically, the gym is often the first thing to go because they “don’t have the time”.

An antidote

A good first step if you want to increase your resilience and be able to recognise and manage you life-stress stress well, is to develop what I call the Stress Barometer.

This works by helping you learn to recognise and grade your stress levels as you go through each day.

A typical weather barometer has a graduated dial marked from ‘Stormy’, through ‘Rain’, ‘Change’, and ‘Fair’, to ‘Very Dry’.

A stress barometer would obviously use different terms. So, for example, it might go from ‘Chilled’, through to ‘Explosive’. The bits in between are more personal to you, depending on how stress affects you (people notice different things as they move through the stress cycle). As a starting point you could use ‘Chilled’ ‘Cool’, ‘Worried’, Irritated’, ‘Frustrated’ to ‘Angry’.

These are only suggestions. Choose vocabulary that you feel comfortable with.

It’s personal

In developing your own stress barometer it’s vital that you understand your own feelings and thoughts as your stress levels increase. Do this through observation, choose five or six descriptors to make the different points in the cycle.

Beware! Many people become so adept at over-riding their stress signals that this first part of the exercise may take a little practice. And be honest with yourself. Name the emotions involved as specifically as possible (‘stressed’ is too general). If you feel sad, angry, scared, or whatever, own up to it and put it on your imaginary barometer.

Once you’ve done that, with practice, you can become proficient at reading your barometer so that you keep in touch any effects of demand, pressure, and stress. You can then make any adjustments you need to make in order to stay within the ‘safe’ zone.

Danger zone

Some people – and I recommend this – add a red line to the barometer which to indicates their personal danger zone. If the needle starts to approach the red line you KNOW it’s time to take avoiding actions to counter the effects of stress.

Check your stress barometer at least five times a day. Be aware that your mind will probably try to ‘play down’ how stressed you actually are, so always err on the side of caution. If in doubt, take a break.

“Yes, but…”

There are plenty of qualifiers I could add. For example “What if I can’t take a break”, or, “Someone depends on me so I have to put up with stress”, or, “I have to do what I’m asked or I’ll lose my job”.

My response to this is, if you are a grown-up, you’ll probably work it out. Just don’t kid yourself; you’re not a machine. You are a human. so use your stress barometer to keep you that way.

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