How are you coping with stress?

If personal development is a process of self-improvement, then I would argue that when it comes to personal development, the most important thing you can do is to find ways to look after your own well-being. And well-being – both physical and mental – is certainly something that we are all becoming more aware of, with a plethora of articles, blogs, webinars and the like provided by any number of individuals and businesses – my own included. But when talking to different people on this subject, I’m often struck that things I take for granted because of the field I work in, are not at all obvious to others. So for this article, I’m going back to basics to consider exactly what well-being is, why it’s important to you, and what you can do to improve it.

In terms of what it is, defining “well-being” can be problematic as (in academic research) there is no agreed definition of what the term well-being means other than the assumption that it is “a good thing”. The reality is that most people think of “subjective well-being”, which focuses on themselves as an individual, and draws on their personal perception of what is important in terms of both physical and mental health. In fact, some argue that when it comes to analysing well-being, happiness represents the truest measure. Equating happiness to well-being is a key point, because it allows us to be in control of our own well-being, and boils down to the fact that you can increase your well-being by doing things that make you feel good.  It really is that simple.

The flip side to well-being are all the stresses in life that seek to wear us down. Even more important than the stresses themselves are how you cope with them.  When working with people on mental health awareness, we think of how people cope in terms of a stress container (see figure 1). 

Figure 1 Image courtesy of Mental Health First Aid England.

Stresses (whether from work, home life, relationships etc) flow into the top of the container. In order to stop the container overflowing, you need to look after your own well-being. Opening the “tap” on the stress container – which acts as a safety release valve – relieves the pressure and stops you getting to a crisis point. And opening the tap is achieved by doing the things that make you feel good. It’s worth mentioning at this point that you should be aware of unhelpful coping strategies – using alcohol or drugs, or by staying up late to go online rather than get some sleep might make you feel good in the short-term, but have a detrimental effect over time. The aim is to build positive habits that make you feel good in the long run.

Whilst that all seems simple and straightforward, the problem in reality is that when things get tough and life starts to overwhelm us, we tend to focus on doing the things that we feel we “have” to do (like working late to meet a deadline). In doing so, the things that we “like” to do and make us feel happy are the things that we tend to give up first. Although prioritising tasks and concentrating on the most important jobs at hand is important, ignoring the tap on your stress container will ultimately lead to a problem. And it’s a big problem – not only for the individual but for businesses and the wider society.

The figures are stark:

  • In 2018/19, there were 602,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in Great Britain. 
  • These 602,000 cases were responsible for 44% of all cases of work-related ill health. 
  • They also accounted for 12.8 million working days lost. 
  • That equates to 54% of all working days lost due to health issues.

These figures are obviously bad for business, but with the current pandemic and the risk of a no-deal Brexit putting an even greater strain on both financial and mental well-being, it’s clear that something has to be done. So what can individuals and businesses do to help increase well-being?

  1. Have a “happiness hour”.  Students are set homework on the two-day Mental Health First Aid course – at the end of day one, they are instructed to set an hour aside that evening just for themselves.  Whilst life can sometimes get in the way, the vast majority manage to complete the homework, and are often struck by how much they appreciate being “given permission” to do something just for them.
  2. Find the helpful coping strategy that suits you.  I’m always keen to hear the different ways that people look after their well-being – spending time with family or friends; playing or listening to music; taking part in exercise; being out in nature; just taking time to relax without feeling guilty for doing so – the happiness hour opportunities are as varied as the people on the Mental Health First Aid courses.  Choose something that gives you joy and can fit into your schedule.
  3. For businesses – encourage the above!  The happier an individual is, the more productive they are, and the less likely they are to take time off of work.  Mental Health First Aid England have a number of free online resources designed to Address Your Stress.  Download the resources and encourage everyone to make use of them.

By taking these simple steps, it should be easy to invest in your well-being and support your personal development. But if things ever start to get too much, don’t forget that “it’s OK not to be OK”. Don’t feel that you have to struggle on your own – reaching out for help is therapeutic in itself, and there are lots of resources out there that can help. If you don’t feel that you can talk to friends, family or colleagues, your GP is often a good starting point – or Samaritans will always be there to provide some support, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

I wish you good mental health!

Dr. AJ Yates
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Dr. AJ Yates

Dr A.J. Yates is the founder and lead trainer for AJMH Limited. He brings experience from a range of healthcare backgrounds. He also is supported by thousands of hours of practice providing first aid (and Mental Health First Aid) care to a wide variety of people of all ages. Coupled with his extensive doctoral research at the University of Westminster (investigating women’s experience of distress) makes him an authority on the impact of everyday distress (as well as diagnosable mental illnesses) on the wellbeing of those affected.