How to Deal with Stress

We all need to know how to deal with stress. Wouldn't it be great to be able to just knock it out, wrap it up in a thick blanket and stuff it in a cupboard so it doesn’t bother us any more?

Well okay, we can look at that, and we will in due course, I promise. I have suggested elsewhere some ways to get quick stress relief in a fix. Here we are looking at bigger concepts of how to deal with stress.


(Just before we get on to that,
I’d like to plant a suggestion in your mind.

The suggestion is this: by focussing on simply how to deal with stress, to merely manage it, you are selling yourself short. Once you have dealt with stress for a while you might want to move on instead to fundamentally changing how you function so that things simply don't stress you out in the same way any more.

A bold assertion? Well perhaps – I am not claiming that it is necessarily easy, but I am claiming that it is possible to significantly reduce much of the negative stress in your life, on a more or less permanent basis by working on your own personal growth and development, and I'll deal with that in future articles.

But for now that is a bit of a diversion,
so let's get back to the point
.)


There are many approaches, many many books and websites telling you how to deal with stress. What they all boil down to is a combination of two things:

  • Change your world
  • Change yourself

But how (on earth) do we do these things?

How to deal with stress by changing your world


We'd all love to change various things about our world, wouldn't we? We'd love a different boss, perhaps a different career or an entirely new way of earning a living. We'd like the weather we want when we want it, we'd like our loved ones to be healthy and to be nice to us all the time, and we'd like to have enough money to be able to do the things we want to do, and so that we don't need to think about it so much. Many of us have desires beyond ourselves that extend to the wider world and want to see changes for the good of all as well as ourselves.




Some of those things we can change, and some we cannot. As Rheinhold Neibuhr put his version of what has become known as the Serenity Prayer:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

them one from the other.


Neibuhr's prayer is wise indeed, for struggling and raging like King Lear against the things that we can't change is a sure-fire recipe for stress and, ill health and mental and psychological distress.

However these things are not necessarily fixed – as the prayer hints at.

Another wise man I rather admire, Steven Covey, points out that we have both a sphere or circle of influence, and a sphere or circle of concern.



Know your Circle of Concern


The blue outer circle describes your “circle of concern”. This encompasses everything that is of interest or concern to you – everything that you care about or have a view about, including those things that you have absolutely no control over, and things that you might not think about at all right now but which may impinge on your consciousness at some time in the future. For example, things in our broader social world such as politics and economics and so on.

The scope of our circle of concern is to some extents personal, in that it is possible to only be concerned about things in your immediate world or environment - your job, your family and friends, yourself.

It becomes less personal and more social (in the sense that many people around you are subject to similar pressures) when wider concerns and forces impinge on you as specific things catch your attention - the cost of living rising for example, which impacts on those closer-to-home things for most of us. Or for the really unlucky, getting caught up in war or conflict or natural disaster and so on.

At other times in our lives we may have a far wider circle of concern, taking in our neighbourhoods, communities; our nations, even the whole of humanity. Or perhaps even the whole of creation, which for some would include the concept of some trans-personal intelligence connecting all of existence - whether you choose to call that god or spirit or something else.

Know your Circle of Influence


The inner circle, the circle of influence, represents the sub-set of “everything” over which we have at least some degree of influence. This includes:

  • Our bodies
  • Our relationships
  • Our internal processes
  • Our jobs
  • Our immediate environment i.e. our homes and workplaces

...and so on.

Now, if you have looked at that list and thought “actaully I don't have much control over those areas and it's stressing me out”, you have homed straight in on the fuzzy area, as in the version below:



The fuzzy green area in the centre is where we have some degree of choice. It's where, if we have a disempowered mind set (which can be a temporary state, or seem like it's a more dug-in, permanent state) we can feel pressurised and powerless in the face of all those things in "the world out there" that impinge on our lives but over which it seems we have no influence or control.

Then it starts to look this this:



You know this one, right? This is where your boss is piling the pressure on you, your partner is fed up that you're always working, you can't afford to fill your car up and run away from it all because of the price of petrol, and every time you turn on the news you want to bury your head under the duvet. Oh, and your mother's on the phone wanting to know if you are coming over on Sunday.

But the mistake you may well be making, if you are operating from a disempowered mindset, is to think you have less influence over things than you actually or potentially have. You can affect your job, your relationships, your environment. You may not believe that you can right now, but beliefs can be changed and when they are, possibilities change. This is a key element in how to deal with stress and there are many methods and tools out there (including looking at your internal models) to help you deal with this.

So how does this relate to how to deal with stress, you're wondering. Well, the alternative, growth-promoting and stress-reducing way to look at the fuzzy area is that it represents those areas of your life where you are able - through conscious effort and learning, and through personal growth and development choices, for example mindfulness meditation, to exte-e-e-end your circle of influence a little further.



Isn't that an altogether happier picture to contemplate?

This is absolutely key to how to deal with stress long-term. The reason being that by bringing your sphere of influence and your sphere of control into closer alignment, you are enabling yourself to function with greater congruence, and hence empowerment.

When you are empowered to function in alignment with your needs, values and purpose, there is less conflict inside you and hence less stress. To know the truth of this, you only need ask yourself how closely your spheres of concern and influence are aligned in various areas of your life, and compare that with how stressed you feel in those areas.

So what does this tell us about how to deal with stress? Well, it tells us that the wider the space between the two circles, the greater the stress. To empower yourself to deal with stress - and to achieve much more besides, by the way - you need to...

Bring the two circles into closer alignment


Let me give you a personal example.

Recently I was getting very frustrated trying to get a project off the ground that was being stymied by a couple of senior people who were at loggerheads with each other, just refusing to even get in a room with each other, let alone speak or - heaven forbid - cooperate or collaborate. The project in question was close to my heart and values, relating as it did to supporting vulnerable people to have a better quality of life.

So, I chose in this instance to work on expanding my circle of influence outwards into my circle of concern. I found ways to influence key people - without the authority to do so, just the will - and over a period of a couple of months managed to create a situation where finally all the necessary people were sitting round a table together agreeing steps to make something good happen.

One caveat I would add to this that this process took a couple of months all told, and at some points was in fact pretty stressful. In looking at how to deal with stress overall, it's a long-view approach, but ultimately more successful.

Going through this, in a deliberate and thoughtful way, has overall reduced my stress at this job, because I now have greater confidence that even though I don't have the authority to make certain people listen to me, that I do have the skills and ability to persuade them to do so when I need or want to. This is actually a pretty freeing realisation, i.e. that I don't need power over other people if I have instead the power to influence.

This scenario may not fit yours exactly, but the principle of finding ways to increase your sphere of influence most certainly does. When you're looking for how to deal with stress in a situation where your authority, control or ability to influence is limited, the one you can work on is your ability to influence.

Of course, I know you are sharp-eyed enough to notice that in this story I did not just change my environment*, but that I also changed myself.... which is the other thing you need to be open to doing to know how to deal with stress. More of that in future articles.

(“My environment” by the way includes the people in it, i.e. various senior people in my organisation). I did not "change them" through force, or through authority, but by influencing and persuading various people, in various stages.

Disclaimer: my office looks nothing like this and I have never met these people. I suspect they may be faking.

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