International Stress Awareness Day offers a great opportunity for reminding ourselves of the power of emotional health in managing stress.
We all know that the state of our physical health dictates how well we cope with things that place stress on our bodies, like going for a run, playing in a football match, or taking part in a yoga session.
We also know that those with excellent physical health and skills are equipped to deal with challenges that others could not withstand, like winning a boxing match, or swimming the channel.
What is less well known, is that our emotional health works in a very similar way.
Emotional health describes the set of malleable skills and beliefs which dictate how we deal with the things that happen to us. These include, amongst others, our relationship skills, self-beliefs (commonly referred to as self-esteem, self-worth etc.), and self-regulation (the strategies we use to manage our emotions).
These skills can be developed and strengthened, in the same way that we can develop physical skills and strengthen our bodies to allow us to perform them under huge strain.
The state of our emotional health affects everything, from our performance at work to our mental health, but today is a perfect opportunity to highlight the benefits that good emotional health can have on our ability to manage stress:
Practice self-reflection, not rumination
At the heart of all the emotional health competencies is self-reflection.
Self-reflection is an active process by which we constructively think about a situation, with the specific aims of learning, developing and finding a solution.
Rumination, on the other hand, is a passive process, where we become fixated on the problem and the difficult feelings that it provokes.
For example, during a stressful period at work, using self-reflection might help you reflect on why your role has ended up causing more stress than it should, what actions you could take to rectify the situation, and how you might have acted differently to prevent the situation, and therefore prevent similar ones in the future.
In contrast, rumination would focus on the negative feelings caused by this stress, how unfair it might feel, and obsessing over the reasons that have caused it, without addressing how the problem can be solved and prevented from happening again.
The importance of training ourselves to self-reflect can hardly be emphasized enough: research done in 2013 puts rumination as the number one cause of stress, and suggests that stress has very little to do with the events that happen to us, but rather with how we process and think about them.
Self-agency – take back control
Self-agency is all about the level of control, or autonomy, we think we have over our lives, and the extent to which we see ourselves as having control over our actions. Studies from the workplace show that lack of this personal autonomy is a key cause of high occupational stress.
Now it might seem like the level of control you have over your life is not something that you can control!
However, self-agency is not about how much control we literally have, but how in control of our lives we feel.
The boss of the world’s biggest company may feel like they spend their life being dragged from meeting to meeting, being forced into decisions, and unable to create time for their personal life. Despite apparently having high levels of autonomy, she would have low levels of self-agency.
Key strategies for boosting self-agency are all centered around focusing on what we can control, rather than ruminating on what we cannot.
By spending some time thinking about the choices that we do make every day, and taking full control of those choices, we can boost self-agency, and help reduce the stress that stems from the feeling of helplessness that comes along with lack of self-agency.
These choices range from the big things, like the hobbies and interests we devote our free time to, to the very little things, like the length of our hair, the first thing we do when we get up in the morning, or the amount of time we spend on social media!
Here’s another practical idea from Psychology Today:
“Think about an area of your life in which you feel very successful and an area of your life in which you would like to be successful but are not. How can you apply the techniques that helped you to achieve success to the areas where you are not successful?”
Self-regulation – developing positive coping strategies
Self-regulation describes our ability to manage our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and is therefore crucial for times when we are faced with stressful situations.
Whether we know it or not, we all have way of coping with stress, but not all responses are beneficial to us. Some, such as drinking, over-eating, using drugs, or indeed blaming ourselves and ruminating, will only end up increasing levels of stress.
A key part of self-regulation is noticing our negative responses to stress, reflecting on them, and in their place attempting to develop positive strategies that allow us to cope.
Being stressed makes us feel like there’s not a spare moment to do anything, but setting aside some time to think about developing these positive strategies for stress management is absolutely crucial in stopping the cycle of stress levels spiraling out of control.
Conclusion: nurture, not nature
Approaching stress from the perspective of emotional health demonstrates that coping well with stress is not something we are born with.
We do not simply have to resign ourselves to being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at coping with stress.
Rather, by working on and developing the skills and beliefs central to emotional health, we can put ourselves is a significantly better position for coping with the stresses and strains that daily life throws at us.