Stress is a fact of modern life: even more so if in high-pressure, fast-paced work environments. Add to this the anxiety brought about by the pandemic and the global reaction, as well as our personal situations, and many of us currently find ourselves in a perfect storm of stress; impacting not just our mood, but also our ability to make good decisions and evaluate risk.
The good news is that ‘chilled’ isn’t a personality trait. Nor do you or your team need to become meditation experts or master yogis to cope far better with stress. In fact, we can all learn to become more relaxed by learning simple practises that can be implemented in just a few minutes each day.
THE BENEFITS OF RELAXATION
Feeling generally more relaxed is probably the simplest and most obvious benefit of relaxation and of course this has benefits. However, practising relaxation in isolation from anxiety or stress triggers, means that it can tend to become compartmentalised. In other words, someone might find it easy to relax in a weekly yoga class, say, but find themselves feeling anxious when encountering a difficult issue at work later the same day. That’s why, in our wellbeing coaching and workshops, whilst we first teach participants to master the basics of relaxation; we then always explore how they can learn to transfer these skills to real life situations that are causing anxiety or stress.
CORTISOL AND STRESS – MAKE THE BEST DECISIONS
Research suggests that the benefits of relaxation aren’t just limited to how we feel. As well as lowering stress levels, relaxation can lower cortisol levels, which in turn impacts the quality of our decision making.
We know that when we are experiencing high stress, we are more likely to worry excessively about negative information, making us more likely to overplay risk and avoid some activities unnecessarily. When our cortisol levels are high, on the other hand, we do the opposite, actively seeking risk in ways that may impact our work performance, and even our safety. However, what the most recent research tells us is that stress and cortisol levels don’t always co-occur. Cortisol doesn’t necessarily mirror our feelings of stress, but instead can rise slowly and stay high, even when we think our level of stress has reduced.
So, whilst we may think we’re making safe, rational decisions, unless we take the time to relax before making big decisions, we may actually be underestimating the risks we’re about to take. In other words, unless people know how to cope with stress quickly and effectively, they may find it challenging to make the best decisions and accurately evaluate risk.
SO HOW CAN YOU REDUCE STRESS?
When working with clients to help them learn to reduce stress and anxiety, the first techniques we teach centre on breathing and physical relaxation. These are highly evidence-based techniques, which, when practised, can be implemented not just generally but in the moment of a stressful situation to dramatically improve both wellbeing and clarity of thought as relaxation and anxiety are mutually exclusive physical and mental states:
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a highly systematic and evidence-based technique, which has been widely adopted – in adapted, shortened form – in many areas of modern psychology. By using our abbreviated version of this technique – an approach we call Tension Release Breathing – clients can learn to almost completely relax their muscles (something most of us don’t realise we struggle to do), bringing about huge gains from a psychological perspective.
- Real emotional self-regulation comes from more targeted relaxation techniques. The first of these is Cue-Controlled Stress Release, in which people who regularly practice becoming more relaxed are, eventually, able to do so ‘on command’ simply by choosing to relax – and often by using a simplified technique or ‘trigger, such as repeating a key word or clenching their hand allowing stress to dissipate in even the most stressful situations.
- Imaginal Exposure, or as it is sometimes called ‘systematic desensitisation’ is one of the oldest European psychological techniques. Relaxation can become compartmentalised so that whilst you find it easy to relax sitting quietly alone at home, as soon as you enter a stressful situation, the techniques you have learned no longer work. Imaginal exposure – a technique in which we learn to imagine stressful situations and then dissipate that stress – is the simple solution to this.
Are you or your staff experiencing increased stress, whether working from home or on return to the office? Through our wellbeing coaching and group workshops, Up Rising can help you and your teams reduce stress, improving wellbeing, decision making and engagement.