Pressure drop: How to understand and overcome stress

pressure you got this(Image: Prateek Katyal)

In this time of great change and uncertainty, stress is a given. Unchecked, that stress will bring on a range of symptoms, both mental and physical, that will keep you – and anyone you depend on – from performing your best.

“We stand in the midst of history-making,” says certified life coach Tracey Knight. “There are so many amazing, beautiful opportunities in the world right now – like the opportunity to see ourselves as individuals, and how we show up.”

However, you can’t take advantage of the opportunities if you’re suffering from the personal effects of stress. The most common symptoms include anxiety, sleeplessness, difficulty with concentration and memory, aches and pains, and a weakened immune system.

Fortunately, they can all be headed off with some common-sense practices rooted in emotional intelligence (EQ).

“EQ is developed through repetition – practice – in your daily interactions,” said Knight. “Life is a game, and work is a playground: a chance to practice with other players.”

To that point, Knight detailed a range of stress-mitigating practices in a recent online course for Work for Good’s parent company, the Georgia Center for Nonprofits. Here are a few of the takeaways, ready for putting into practice and sharing with colleagues.

Five competencies, and practices to build them

Knight outlined five EQ competencies that form a complete approach to stress management – ascertaining, adapting, intentional avoidance, appreciation, and acceleration – along with a range of tools for thinking of them in practical terms, and specific practices to try out immediately.

Some of her top-line points for developing each competency:

  • Ascertaining: Understand what causes stress in your life. Stop making excuses – which often take the form of rationalizing, normalizing, and blaming – and be honest with yourself instead. “Integrity is power,” said Knight. “That’s how you develop a trusting relationship with yourself.
  • Adapting: How agile are you under stress? Drop your expectations and need for control: They don’t just trigger stress, but the denial, resistance, and rigidity that keep you from adapting and moving forward. “Anything you are fighting is going to fatigue you,” said Knight.
  • Intentional avoidance: Eliminate unnecessary stressors by being intentional about what works for you at this moment. “Avoidance isn’t always denial,” said Knight. For example, paring down your to-do list makes a great start. “Keep in mind that ‘No’ is a complete sentence.”
  • Appreciation: Welcome all experiences in the moment, and learn to trust the process of life. “There must be up and down, joy and sadness, in life,” said Knight. “Look at the big picture, stay positive, and challenge yourself to be great.”
  • Acceleration: Learning to acknowledge your feelings, heal your triggers, and manage your emotional responses is a cumulative process, building momentum for improvement in multiple arenas. “Prioritizing self-development isn’t about one activity, it’s about drawing connections through your whole life,” said Knight.

Knight also asked participants to name the first tool they plan to put into practice. Among the responses:

Self-care. Make room for the things that are going to reduce your stress, like exercise, proper nutrition, hobbies or passion projects, journaling, and pampering yourself. “At the top of the list should be getting enough sleep,” said Knight, citing a range of ill-effects that lack of sleep can contribute to.

Changing perspective from expectations to possibilities. This ties ascertaining to adapting: Focusing on what we're responsible for, rather than on things we can’t control, in order to short-circuit disappointment and see what's really achievable. “It’s so easy to be distracted or thrown off course when your perspective isn’t in the right place,” said Knight.

Creating standards and sticking to them. This ties in with letting go of expectations, combined with being realistic about what we can accomplish. “A great gauge for anyone developing standards: What is my best at this point?” said Knight. Unrealistic standards are the building blocks of perfectionism, “a form of self-hate” that only adds to stress. “We have to take life in incremental steps.”

The toolkit approach. That is, keeping more than one tool in mind. For example, “Journaling might not work today, so maybe I need to take a walk instead.” To that point, Knight encouraged everyone to “Stay in the present moment. What do you need today?”

For more opportunities to learn from Tracey Knight, keep your eye on this calendar for Nonprofit University – fall class schedule coming soon!

Marc Schultz is communications editor at Work for Good.

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