Stressed at work

Ah, sweet April – here you are. The clocks have jumped forward, spring flowers are blooming and little lambs can be seen bouncing across the meadows. Yet, here we are – hibernating in our little homes like winter is upon us.

Ironically, April is also Stress Awareness month, and if there is something that we are all very aware of right now – it is our rising levels of stress.

COVID-19 is unfortunately going to affect our businesses, our economy and our finances – but it is also going to affect our mental health. Therefore, the important thing that we need to focus upon is how to support and maintain our mental fitness during these periods of high uncertainty and stress.

The impact on our economy, and to a degree our finances, is to a large extent out of our control; but how we choose to approach this situation and how we choose to move forward, is thankfully up to us.

Stress is common-place at the best of times, so understandably our stress levels are going to increase during this time of uncertainty. But, as always, what we cannot see – we cannot fix. Therefore, in order to take control of your mental health and manage your stress response – you have to first be aware of the factors causing you stress, and secondly focus upon what helpful coping strategies you have in place to support you.

I am a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and one of my favourite parts of the course is when we introduce the Stress Container. So, as it is Stress Awareness month… and as we are all in isolation and feeling rather stressed at the moment; I am going to give you a sneak peek into this exercise and talk you through the stress container, so you can apply this exercise to your life, right now, from the comfort of your own home.

What is a stress container?

A stress container is as simple as it sounds – a container that holds your stress. The belief here is everyone has their own individual stress container, and everyone’s stress container is a different size and is filled with different stresses.

The model created by MHFA England suggests that the level of vulnerability a person carries is represented by the size of the container. For example, my container may be smaller than yours because of my life experiences or current circumstances. The smaller the container, the less stress that a person can handle before the container starts to overflow, resulting in emotional snapping.

As you will see in the image below, the stress container is filled with everyday stresses that are present within a person’s life. As the stresses build, they start to fill up the container. Regardless of the size of the container, overtime, if not managed correctly, everyone’s stress container will start to overflow, causing damage to the person’s emotional and physical health. This is represented by the arrows flowing out from the container.

In order to prevent this overflow, a person must become very good at managing stress. A skill that is most definitely not taught to us at school. Managing stress is a very individual process and it is something that you learn overtime, as you experience what does and does not work for you.

To understand this in practice; think of a time where you felt seriously stressed and then someone said one little thing to you – and that was it – you snapped. Then, once things had calmed down, you found yourself thinking; ‘Jeez, why did I react like that?’… Well, now you know… your container was already too full. That one tiny little drop caused your container to overflow, and the rest was history.

Stress Container MHFA

So, how can I prevent emotional snapping?

At the side of this container, you will see a tap; if turned on, you would see that the stress levels within the container would start to reduce. However, if the tap was off or the flow blocked – the container would continue to fill.

That is where you come in – your personal responsibility is to recognise how full your container is and then understand what helps you to turn the tap on, preventing any overflow.

Either side of the container you will see a list of helpful and unhelpful coping strategies.

Unhelpful coping strategies not only turn off the tap, but they can add to the stresses floating around within your container. For example, if one of your stresses is your weight, then eating loads of sugar and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol will not only block your tap, but it will add to your stress.

Helpful coping strategies, however, are those practices and behaviours that help you to manage the situations that are causing you stress. Finding the right strategies involves a bit of trial and error, as you figure out what helps you to reduce your stress levels. Please keep in mind, the coping strategies provided in the image are just some illustrative examples – each of us have different ways of coping and it is up to you to find the right strategies that work for you.

What does your stress container look like?

Now it’s your turn! Grab a pen and paper – it’s time to draw your stress container. It can be triangle, it can be a big fat ol’ bucket or it can even be a wine bottle – whatever works for you, it’s your container.

Next, I want you to take a moment to think through what stresses are currently present within your life… I imagine at this time you’ve probably already whispered to yourself: “my papers not big enough for that”. Take some time to do this and note down the stresses that are floating around in your container at the moment.

Once you have done this, I want you to have a good think about what behaviours, practices or habits you have in your life and on which side of the container you would place them: ‘helpful coping strategies’ or ‘unhelpful coping strategies’. Remember, with some behaviours or habits – it can be a fine tipping point. For example, a glass of wine on Friday evening to unwind is very different to 2 bottles of wine to forget. Be honest with yourself while you do this – it is important to be able to pinpoint those behaviours that either help you to or prevent you from reducing your stress levels.

And lastly, once you have decorated your sheet with all your coping strategies, have a think about how you could make more time for those helpful ones that nourish your wellbeing, and where you could reduce those that are unhelpful. You could call this your – Stress Management Plan.

Remember – you do not have to conquer all your unhelpful coping strategies at once. In fact, I highly recommend you don’t try to remove them all straight away. Coping strategies, whether helpful or unhelpful are there to help you cope. If you are attempting to remove an unhelpful strategy, it is advisable you have a tried and tested helpful strategy already in place.

Baby Steps for Success

Lastly, please remember to be compassionate with yourself as you move through this process. Changing habits and behaviours can take some time, and you are far more likely to experience successful change if you take small but meaningful steps. Think: what one thing can I do today that will help me to move towards those helpful habits.

Being proactive in taking care of your mental wellbeing is not only beneficial for your mental health, but it also supports your physical health. And, do you know what the beauty of positive change is – it also has a ripple effect within the lives around you. Positive change = more positive change, and what is more motivational than that?

Call to Action

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Stress Container image: adapted for illustrative purposes from MHFA England

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