How to feel less stressed

James was a busy primary school teacher, married with three young children. In the middle of term time, he got particularly stressed, occasionally shouting at his class, and at his children at home. He soon caught himself but could get self-critical afterwards, even doubting whether he was in the right job. His sleep was frequently disrupted and after a tough week, he often resorted to drinking more alcohol than he would like, meaning he was overly tired and got stressed with his family. James had tried mindfulness training, but he couldn’t find enough time to keep it up. His wife prompted him to see a counsellor or psychologist, but James’s stress would come and go, and so he never looked into the possibility.

Stress is a part of everyday life, at work and at home. Everyone experiences the symptoms of stress in different ways, to different degrees. James’s story is just one example out of countless others – and we’ll return to him later. Stress for you might mean waking up early and not being able to get back to sleep, or becoming a little snappy and irritable with others. Or perhaps you are more easily overwhelmed, and when you’re stressed, your head feels full, you worry most of the time, and you’re constantly on edge or in a low mood. When stress is extreme, it can involve swings in mood, feelings of depression, flashbacks of upsetting events, and being excessively self-critical. Wherever you sit on this spectrum of stress symptoms, we hope this Guide will help you.

Stress is usually seen as a bad thing for understandable reasons. But the ‘soft’ signs of stress, such as worries popping into your mind, are an indication that your brain is trying to help you sort out a problem. For example, if you are immersed in work and a memory that you’ve got to give a presentation next week suddenly pops into your mind, this might act as a prompt to remember to start doing some prep for the talk! But if you don’t attend to your worries (you push the presentation out of your mind and make no plans to prepare for it), your brain can eventually fall back on more primitive ways of coping – such as the tensing of muscles, breathing faster and jumpiness. These are all part of the ‘fight-or-flight’ system that your brain uses to deal with an immediate danger (and which evolved in our mammalian ancestors to escape or attack a predator). They can be triggered on the (hopefully) rare occasions that you are suddenly physically threatened, but they can also come online because of danger that you imagine or anticipate, for instance, if you started to imagine your presentation being a complete disaster.

In our roles providing emotional support to a range of people and organisations (Louise), and researching mental health support models (Warren), we’ve found that although there are many ‘stress management’ programmes available, none of them fit with what we’ve discovered is the most helpful for people, nor with what people told us they were looking for.

People told us they wanted helpful information and a range of strategies so they could choose how to deal with their own stress. Fortunately, we were already using a clinical approach that takes this perspective, based on what’s known as perceptual control theory (PCT).

According to PCT, life requires control, and feeling well and coping with stress is about being in control of what matters. Ultimately, what matters to a person can only be determined by the person themselves, not by others and their assumptions of what ‘should’ work. From the perspective of PCT, stress comes about when trying to control one aspect of your life conflicts with trying to control another aspect. For example, it is not stressful to work extra hours if you have the time and energy to do so, but it is stressful if you need to get home in time to care for your family. Put simply, all problems are conflicts.

James’s situation that we introduced at the start involves many different conflicts. He shouts at the class to try to help them calm down to learn better, but he doesn’t want to be the kind of person who shouts at children. He drinks to relax, but drinking can make him more stressed the next day. He wants to be more ‘mindful’ and improve his wellbeing, but doesn’t want to use up the time that he could be doing other more important or interesting activities.

Fortunately, your brain has a way of resolving conflicts – known as ‘reorganisation’ in PCT – but for this to work effectively, it needs to be focused on the source of the conflict for long enough to come up with a solution. This is why talking or writing about a problem can be helpful if it is self-motivated and done in the spirit of discovery.

Based on the insights from our work and drawing on PCT, we developed the ‘4Ds for dealing with distress’ – a unique collection of activities, tools and techniques, some of which might be familiar to you, and others that will be novel.

The 4Ds approach to dealing with stress is based on these basic principles:

  1. Our brains are pre-wired to resolve our problems. Have you ever been stuck in two minds about a big decision, and then found that the solution eventually just pops into your head? Just like your body manages your heart rate and body temperature, your brain automatically solves problems – but only if you give it the right raw materials, which means actually spending time thinking about and working through what is bothering you.
  2. Problems can be dealt with in the short term or the long term. A short-term way of dealing with a slow puncture in a car tyre is to keep pumping it up, but ultimately you will need to find the hole and get it repaired. Stress is similar – you need to have both short- and long-term ways of dealing with it.
  3. Most of us already have many strategies for dealing with distress, and some of them work some of the time. So what is needed is a way to select the right approach at the right time for a particular problem. And if that doesn’t work, try something else until it does.
  4. Everyone is different, and everyone’s causes of stress are different. So what people need is a way to learn and practise how to deal with their own stress in a way that works for them.