Stress can be both helpful and harmful. Some degree of stress can assist us to stay focused and motivated at the task in hand, and a small amount of pressure can be useful to help us to achieve deadlines and prioritise our work.
However, when the pressure begins to feel overwhelming, it can manifest in the psychological and physical symptoms of poor mental wellbeing that we will all recognise.
Some examples of stress symptoms are:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Finding it difficult to concentrate
- Physical symptoms such as chest tightness, headaches or fatigue
We all have our limits in terms of what we can comfortably manage, whether this is at work or at home. One way of thinking about our capacity to manage stress is by thinking of ourselves as a bath that’s being filled with water. When both taps are on full and the plug is firmly in place is when the bath is in danger of overflowing. An overflowing bath is like our overflowing brain and is a good description of when we’re not managing stress well.
In this scenario, we have two choices:
- We can turn the taps off, equivalent to a preventing stress in the first place.
- We can take the plug out and allow some of the stress to drain away, equivalent to taking action to reduce the impact of the stress on our minds and bodies.
In the best-case scenario we can do both, turning the taps off and letting the plug out - both preventing the stress and managing the stress.
There are a number of helpful coaching tools that can be used to reduce and better manage stress levels.
We'll outline two key tools for preventing stress, and four tools for reducing stress.
Coaching Tools to Prevent Stress
1. Practice Saying No
We all want to help people – it’s in our nature to be accommodating and helpful, but sometimes this comes at our own expense. It can also be very difficult to say ‘no’ directly, particularly when others can be used to us always saying ‘yes’ and going out of our way to help.
One strategy is to not say ‘no’ explicitly, but to instead practice a few different phrases that feel comfortable to you, for example:
- ‘I'd love to help you, but I can’t do it this week. I'll get back to you when I have some time. In the meantime, is there anyone else you could ask?’
- ‘That sounds great but unfortunately I just can’t take anything else on at the moment, thanks for asking me and best of luck getting someone to help you.’
- ‘I’d love to help, but I’m very busy at the moment. Is there something you’d like me to stop doing instead?’ (This one is particularly useful in a work context.)
By practising some phrases in advance, you can still be polite and helpful without committing yourself to more activity which leads to feelings of overwhelm.
2. The Urgent/Important Strategy
Another coaching tool is to get a blank piece of paper and draw four boxes, mark them:
- Urgent and Important
- Urgent but Not Important
- Not Urgent but Important
- Not Urgent and Not Important
Immediately, you’ll be able to see at a glance where you should be placing your attention and time. It’s also reassuring to realise that some of the things you’ve been worrying about may fall into the ‘not urgent and not important’ category. These can probably be forgotten about and taken off your list for the time being. Maybe not completely turning the taps off, but at least slowing the flow of water to a more manageable level!
Coaching Tools to Reduce Stress
1. The 10 Second Pause
Learning to relax is a skill in itself, but the good news is that it can be taught.
The '10 second pause' is a technique that can be easily taught and used anywhere multiple times a day to allow you to reset your mind and not become overwhelmed. Here's how to do it:
- Put both feet flat on the floor and sit up straight
- Breathe in slowly and deeply to the count of five, expanding your abdomen as you do so (place one hand on your belly button if this help, you should feel your tummy move and your hand move outwards)
- Breathe out slowly, again to the count of five, taking notice of the stretch in your spine
- Repeat a couple of times
If you do this at the beginning and end of each task, you’ll soon find it helps you to prepare for the next part of the day.
The best part is that you can do this without anyone even noticing or when stuck in traffic or on a zoom call!
Another strategy for learning to relax is called ‘anchoring’. To do this, close your eyes and think of a time and place in your life when you felt very calm, relaxed and at peace.
Try to recall this scenario in a much detail as possible, thinking about what was actually happening – any sounds, smells and other sensations. While you’re recalling this, create a small gesture that you can link to this event – for example, rubbing the back of one hand with the thumb of the other or tapping a couple of fingers together.
Try to link the gesture with the recall of the event as strongly as you can. When you then find yourself in a challenging situation or feeling overwhelmed, repeat the gesture and it should help you to recall the event and will assist you to feel calmer and more in control. This is a helpful strategy but requires time and practice to be most effective.
3. Circle of Influence Tool
Many of the things that cause the most stress in our lives stem from scenarios that are outside of our control. This simple coaching tool allows you to establish and identify things that are:
- Directly within your control and over which you exert influence and can make your own choices about how to proceed
- Those things that are within your sphere of influence and which although not directly within your control you have some influence over
- Those things that sit entirely outside your sphere of influence or control and therefore you need to develop a strategy for dealing with the outcome
This strategy involves three circles.
In the inner circle, write the things you directly control and influence, for example:
- What I choose to focus on
- My actions
- My habits
In the middle circle, write everything you have some influence over but which you don’t directly control, such as:
- My health
- My mood
- My income
In the outer circle, write down everything that’s worrying you but over which you have no control or influence, for example:
- The news
- The economy
- The media
This coaching tool is included in The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit.
Once you write everything down, it soon becomes apparent that wasting time and energy worrying about things you can neither control or influence is pointless. It then becomes much easier to accept this and to move on from worrying about them.
Journaling can be extremely helpful, often we’re too quick to forget about how well we dealt with a situation in the past or which tools and techniques helped us. By recording how we managed a situation, we have things to refer back to that can help us to deal with similar situations in the future.
Try getting into the habit of writing a very short summary of how you managed a situation every day. You'll soon build up into a repository of useful tools and techniques that can support you through challenging times.
For this, check out The Daily Mental Health Journal in our Free Tools library.
- Consider whether your metaphorical bath is overflowing because of too much water pouring in at the top or too little being let out at the bottom. Identifying where the challenge is coming from can help you to work out how best to deal with it.
- Saying ‘no’ is okay. Practice setting some boundaries. It can be incredibly liberating and can yield quick results!
- There are multiple different strategies available for managing stress. Practice a few and work out which ones work for you, then repeat them over and over until they become second nature.
Rebecca is an experienced life and health and wellbeing coach based in the English Lake District. She established Space and Clarity Coaching in 2018 and works with clients to support them to make lasting and impactful changes to their lifestyles and health and wellbeing. She offers both online and face-to-face 1:1 coaching or small group coaching programmes. She originally trained with Barefoot Coaching and also completed a health coaching qualification in 2021. She is a member of the International Coaching Federation and the Personalised Care Institute, which means she is qualified to work as a health coach within the NHS.