Stress is part of our daily lives, and we have all experienced it at one point or another. At low levels, stress can provide motivation and help us to make crucial decisions, but sometimes it can overwhelm us and prevent us from making progress. In 2019, roughly 10.6 million people (aged 16 and above) in the UK reported having high anxiety and a total of 12.8 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Being more aware of how stress affects the brain and what we can do to mitigate these effects has a considerable impact on our personal and professional wellbeing.
Stress and Executive Function
Understanding stress involves unpicking how the brain works and how we process information. There are various domains of the human brain that encompass the different processes we use to think and learn. Executive Function is an umbrella term given to a variety of core functions that we perform during day-to-day tasks, such as:
- Concentration and attention
- Working memory
These are essential skills for our learning and working roles. And when we think about stress, these are precisely the skills we need to effectively handle any demands we face. Yet, research shows that these executive functions are directly interrupted and impaired by stress, causing things like:
- Behavioural changes – becoming short-tempered, having a lack of confidence, being sensitive to constructive criticism, etc.
- Loss of memory – forgetting to do a task or missing an important deadline.
- An inability for making decisions – overthinking plans, second-guessing our abilities or feeling overwhelmed by too many options.
- Attention problems – procrastination, starting new projects before finishing others, becoming distracted and losing track of the conversation in meetings, etc.
Conversely, this means that the more effectively we deal with stress, the less impact it will have on our overall wellbeing.
Cognassist specialises in assessing people’s needs based on Executive Function and other core domains of the brain to deliver support in the form of personalised learning strategies as well as access to funding for certain types of learners. We provide vital coping strategies for learners with identified additional needs and help them to overcome any stress they may experience during their programme. Our learning library, with over 500 strategies, is personalised to different learner’s needs and provides them with the skills to cope with the demands of working life and more.
The ways we cope
How we cope with stress determines what long-term effects we might experience, and this often depends on whether our coping strategies are adaptive or maladaptive – in other words, whether they’re healthy or unhealthy.
It’s easy to find coping strategies that provide short-term relief – such as avoiding the problem, overindulgence or blaming others – but these often have lasting consequences and don’t help to solve the cause of our stress. By being open about these issues, we can help to support those people facing them and remove the stigma around confronting the negative impacts of cognitive strain.
Stress can be caused by both external and internal demands. Sometimes there is a physical problem to be solved, and sometimes our stress is caused by an internal dilemma that effects our emotional state. Often, these demands cross over.
For example, losing a job is an external demand that requires us to adapt and make changes. However, this situation will also have its own internal burden, like feelings of inadequacy or depression. It’s helpful to address both internal and external factors when coping with stress.
Tackling stress in positive ways
But don’t worry! There are simple ways to help you tackle stress effectively, and often the best coping strategies are the ones where you start small and make incremental changes to achieve long-term improvements. Spending just 10 minutes on a strategy every day is more sustainable than upending your daily life and putting all your focus into solving one problem. This is something we do at Cognassist. Each learner using Cognassist receives one strategy at a time, which means they’re not overwhelmed with information, and there’s no undue pressure on their working schedule.
To face both external and internal demands, we can use positive coping strategies that focus on two different areas:
Problem-focused strategies – analysing and improving our circumstances to tackle an issue that has a direct impact on us, e.g. enacting steps to make progress and remove obstacles.
Emotion-focused strategies – dealing with the feelings that arise from our response to a situation, e.g. confronting uncontrolled coping mechanisms that hinder progress.
While emotion-focused strategies don’t tackle an issue head-on and can seem like a distraction, they are vital to maintaining our best performance and ensuring we can handle problems with the full use of our cognitive repertoire of skills – remember Executive Function. However, healthy coping strategies often cover both areas and apply to a wide variety of challenges.
Here are 7 quick and easy-to-use strategies when coping with stress:
- Break down big tasks
When a problem seems overwhelming, we can often struggle to see how we will reach the other side. Breaking down larger tasks into smaller steps can break the psychological barrier between our current situation and the end-point of solving the problem. This could be done with a written list of tasks to check off or a series of reminders in our calendar to set progress targets. This requires a focus on details as the more we break down tasks, the easier each step will be to complete, and the quicker we will make progress.
- Work on time management
Knowing that our abilities to multi-task and prioritise are impaired when we’re stressed, it can help to plan out how we use our time and create a schedule for what needs to be done. This way, we reduce the risk of running overtime or forgetting to complete tasks. Simply writing down each task can help, but there are also plenty of online organisational tools to help plan and manage our current projects, e.g. project management software or mind mapping tools. No matter how we prefer to plan our schedule, it should be within easy access in an obvious place to ensure we maintain usage to aid our efficiency.
- Keep going
The flexibility of the mind is impressive, and we can forget pain surprisingly quickly. It may take time before we start to feel less stressed because it is our body’s natural response to new challenges, but it’s possible to get there if we work persistently. Stress can be a demotivator and sometimes we have to work that much harder to get through it. However, we mustn’t push ourselves too hard in times of stress as we risk creating a bigger problem for ourselves if we burnout. Any progress is good progress, and it’s completely ok if we’re not able to work at full capacity some days. We can keep going and accept that there will be natural ebbs in our efforts.
- Challenge unhelpful thoughts
When we’re stressed, our minds can race with any number of thoughts and feelings, the majority of which are unlikely to be helpful. Instead of ignoring these thoughts and potentially allowing them to fester, we can confront them and, in doing so, reduce their influence on our mental health. Maybe we’re fixated on the idea of an unpleasant outcome or a sense of personal failure, but our expectations of ourselves can be unnecessarily harsh. If we change our perspective and visualise the situation objectively, we can see whether these thoughts accurately reflect the size of the problem or our abilities to overcome it. We can often make a problem seem worse than it is in reality.
- Use rewards regularly
We may be tempted to hold out and wait until the end goal to celebrate and reward our efforts, but it’s more productive to reward each small accomplishment. The idea is to promote positivity and encourage our efforts, and by celebrating each step along the way we can move onto the next task with a sense of achievement and a fresh perspective. It’s helpful to plan rewards in advance so we can look forward to them, and it doesn’t matter how big or small we make the pay-off so long as it motivates us personally, e.g. taking a day off, buying a nice bottle of wine, booking tickets for a fun event, etc.
- Share problems with others
Telling others what we’re experiencing or struggling with can go a long way to relieving the burden we feel. It can also be a great way to discover new ideas by listening to other people’s input – they may come up with a solution we hadn’t considered. Our loved ones and colleagues will appreciate our honesty, and they can help us to stay motivated and provide helpful feedback. Having a strong support network is a vital part of personal wellbeing, and we can work to encourage more open and collaborative relationships with those around us.
- Encourage exercise and healthy activities
Physical activity is a great way to combat stress as it releases feel-good hormones called endorphins. A vast body of scientific research shows that exercise reduces stress and can improve brain performance. The activity should last longer than 20 minutes and be moderately intensive to experience a more noticeable effect. There are also plenty of other activities aside from exercise that provide health benefits. This could be going for a gentle walk in nature, meditating, eating more fresh vegetables and fruit, taking a long bath, listening to music, gardening, or playing with a pet. Doing one of these activities every day can drastically change our mood and improve our mental health.
For more ideas on handling stress and using helpful coping strategies, we’ve given free access to three of our full learning strategies:
- How to stay focused and motivated when working remotely
- How to become more adaptable and flexible to change
- Helping others cope with change
- How change can impact your work environment
Remember, stress is a normal response, and our wellbeing needn’t rely on removing all the tension in our lives. No one is stress-free, but we can learn to lessen the impact of stress and succeed despite it. This is a healthier approach to the demands of daily life, which, alongside better coping strategies, can make us more productive and resilient to the risk of stress in the future.