Stress is something we can never escape from, be it good (eustress) or bad (distress). From the small, tedious daily hassles to long-term occurrences that weigh on your mind, stress can impact us in different ways, and the experience varies for everyone. Just as how different individuals have differing levels of pain tolerance, the same applies for stress.
Stress comes in many forms, but they can be largely categorised under ‘environmental’ (e.g noise), ‘social’ (e.g family demands, friendship conflicts), ‘physiological’ (e.g sleep disturbance) and ‘cognitive’ stressors (e.g low self-esteem, high expectations of oneself). While a certain level of stress may be necessary to provide motivation and encourage positive growth, excessive and unhealthy levels of stress especially in the long-term may cause undesirable mental and physical health consequences:
Disrupted sleep patterns / insomnia
Undue anxiety or fear
Difficulty concentrating / forgetfulness
High blood pressure
Nervous behaviours such as teeth grinding or nail biting
Increased frustration and irritability
A racing mind / constant worrying
Poor eating / digestive upsets
Poor decision-making processes
Increased heart rate / rapid breathing
Sweating / sweaty palms
Sense of helplessness
Restlessness / fatigue
When stress becomes chronic, physical health consequences can definitely worsen, and an individual may also develop depression or anxiety disorders. As such, while there is no one-size-fits-all, this article aims to provide useful tips and suggestions on how you can better manage your stress levels, and to avoid being overwhelmed and giving in to chronic stress.
To guide us along, there are two main types of stress-coping mechanisms – ‘Problem-focused’ and ‘Emotion-focused’ coping. These are possibly the most basic approaches to healthy stress-coping, and aim to reduce or eliminate the causes of stress, apart from merely alleviating its symptoms.
Problem-focused coping is where action is taken to clarify and resolve the stressor directly, and hence addresses the demands of a given situation. An example of this method of coping is when a student who is worried over an upcoming examination copes by attending more review sessions and reading up on her course materials diligently. This serves to reduce her anxiety and increase her confidence to excel in her examination. A problem-focused mechanism is primarily used when one appraises a stressor to be within his capacity to change, and hence makes the appropriate adjustments and alterations to cope with the impending demands. As such, it is also important to learn how to identify the root cause of the direct stressor before responding to it accordingly.
Emotion-focused coping may be a concept that you find familiar. Unlike problem-focused coping, emotion-focused coping involves making efforts to regulate your emotional response to a stressor. This means identifying your feelings, focusing and working through them. According to Folkman and Lazarus (1980), such a mechanism can be extremely helpful especially when you need to work through your emotions before you can think clearly enough to act rationally. Emotion-focused coping can be done in various forms such as:
Venting or talking to a friend / close oneWhenever you feel stressed or overwhelmed, bottling up may not be the best way around. Talking to others about what’s bothering you could bring great relief, and perhaps they could also provide you with the constructive feedback or encouragement that you need. Physical affection, such as hand-holding and hugs can help combat stress too. Just as how others may come to you whenever they need support, don’t be afraid to lean into your social circle and find comfort in your friends. Of course, do also remember to be mindful of your friends’ emotions and needs while you’re busy venting!
Journaling In this digital age, perhaps Journaling may come across as a rather old-fashioned way of coping with your emotions. Many a time, people would rather distract themselves and destress by playing mobile games or browsing through social media as and when they are feeling stressed. Although those can be a possible methods of destressing, the beauty of journaling shines through when you give yourself some time to reflect and balance yourself by creating your very own safe space. Writing in a journal can help you clear your mind by releasing any pent-up feelings, to let go of negative thoughts, as well as to enhance your self-awareness as you write about your progress.
Meditation Practising mindful meditation is an effective strategy to combat stress, for it can help you eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that are contributing to your heightened stress levels. Studies have shown that training in mindfulness can potentially increase your awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and maladaptive ways of responding to stress, therefore allowing one to cope with stress in a healthier and more effective way (Bishop et al, 2004, in Shapiro et al, 2005). With guided meditations that can easily be found online, all you need to do is to set aside some time for some mental self-care.
Reframing the situation and finding meaning in it When we are stressed, we often only focus on the bad and how much we dread a particular situation. However, it can be helpful to look on the bright side and to find the benefit and meaning in a stressful event. By doing so, we can make these experiences a little more tolerable, as well as to grow and build resilience as we go along.
Other Means of Coping with Stress
Last but not least, pay more attention to your diet and nutrition intake. For some of you, caffeine is a must-have on a daily basis, with some people having four to five cups of coffee per day. However, when you combine stress with the artificial boost in stress hormones from caffeine, this creates a significantly compounded effect. While caffeine can be particularly effective in providing you with the short-term energy boost and increased alertness, it can potentially heighten stress levels in the long-term. As such, it is always good to consume it in moderation and to be mindful of your caffeine intake. In addition, you may want to consume foods rich in vitamin B, which can help to reduce stress responses in your body.
As previously mentioned, everyone experiences life events in their own unique way, and a strategy that works for you may not for others. With that said, we hope this article has helped you to understand the various ways to combat stress better, and that you find the strategy best suited for you. However, if you ever find yourself struggling to cope with stressful life events, do reach out to one of our psychotherapists or counsellors for help.
Zimbardo, P. G., Johnson, R. L., & McCann, V. (2017). Psychology: Core Concepts (8th ed.). Pearson. (Accessed 25/11/2020)
Shapiro, S.L., Astin, J.A., Bishop, S.R., & Cordova, M. (2005). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for health care professionals: results from a randomised trial. International Journal of Stress Management, 12 (2), 164-176. (Accessed 25/11/2020)
Is there a reason why these virtual meetings are so exhausting? How is video calling different from face-to-face meetings in terms of mental load?
There have been many changes placed on us as a result of the government’s attempts to create social distancing between one another in response to the threat of COVID-19 in Singapore. For the employed, perhaps the most significant change involves having to work at home instead of working out of our regular workplaces away from home. Accordingly, the necessary attempts to communicate at work have now to be moved online since face-to-face meetings at work have been prevented. The result of having to conduct our regular conversations and discussions previously in the workplace to the online format means that facing the laptop to attend to vocational as well as social in one location becomes the common practice instead. There are certain characteristics of this practice which leaves users of video-conferencing fatigued:
(a) Previously at a regular meeting often at a conference site, the meetings carry a bigger social bearing. At a virtual meeting, this social bearing is reduced to what is visible only on a screen. Instead of the opportunity to scan the room previously which allows our eyes to adjust and therefore cope with eye strain, virtual meetings mean our gaze is now focused only on what is confined within this screen. We have to stare at this screen and then process everything we hear or see often over a protracted period within a certain frame. As a result, there can be visual overload and mental strain.
(b) Virtual meetings also require more effort than face-to-face meetings. We have to work harder to process non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language. In contrast to face-to-face encounters, virtual meetings require more effort to assess social and personal meaning because of the context. According to Dr Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, there is a dissonance that emerges during virtual meetings because during this interaction between participants in this format, “our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not.” This dissonance or disconnection causes people to have conflicting feelings which add to the fatigue. This makes it difficult for people to relax into the conversation naturally.
(c) Dr Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor of industrial/organizational psychology also describes the fatigue that can come from being watched because the camera is physically and constantly focused on us. In natural social settings, this does not happen. During virtual meetings, people can feel they are on stage and therefore, they feel the social pressure and are expected to perform. The larger the group, the stronger the pressure.
(d) There is also the stress that comes from delays on phone or conferencing systems or when the screen freezes. Glitches in the application of technology put pressure for the participants to ensure that relevant or significant information is not missed out, or to avoid misunderstanding information from what has been communicated. This becomes harder to slow down to clarify when there is a group meeting out of concern that questions could be seen as interference within a tenuous electronic connection.
(e) Visual overload and fatigue that comes from constant online viewing occur not only if meetings are long or frequent with its inherent stresses. The restriction to home has also placed reliance on engaging other activities online, eg. taking classes, ordering food, maintaining social connections outside the immediate family. If there is a practice of over-reliance on the computer screen to attend to other interests, the physical effort to position ourselves at a prolonged period in front of this screen can also create fatigue.
(f) The strain that comes from virtual meetings can be accumulative when meetings are arranged close to one another. Since the worker is already confined at home, virtual meetings can easily be scheduled one after another. The meetings can appear to be executed efficiently. But there may not be any mental breaks in between.
(g) Dr Petriglieri also noted that meeting online creates stress from being reminded that the familiar context has been disrupted by the pandemic. We are all coping within a crisis that has taken the lives of the elderly and the vulnerable in society and endangers our well-being. It is also stressful in the fact that we are used to separating different relationships such as family, friends or colleagues. But now they are all happening within the same space. The self-complexity theory posits that individuals have multiple aspects about themselves –context-dependent social roles, relationships, activities and goals–and we find this healthy. When we find this variety reduced, we become disoriented and become more vulnerable to negative feelings. Over a prolonged period of the self-quarantine, he notes the effect: “We are confined in our own space, in the context of a very anxiety-provoking crisis, and our only space for interaction is a computer window.”
How do you alleviate the exhaustion that comes with virtual meetings? Are you able to share a few tips or suggestions?
In light of the stresses and strains of increased virtual meetings as outlined, I would suggest the following:
(a) limit the video calls to only what is necessary; this implies that it is important to take breaks from electronic devices, in general, to avoid over-reliance on them and the subsequent emotional effects from excessive use,
(b) allow for the option to turn off cameras on yourself to be involved and/or face the screen off to one side so that you can concentrate without feeling the pressure to be on camera,
(c) plan breaks in between virtual meetings so that the body and mind have a chance for a break, eg. getting the body to move and stretch increases blood flow and reduce mental fatigue,
(d) if virtual meetings are unavoidable and long, learn to practice the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, takes 20 seconds to look at something 20 feet away. Remember that the electronic devices are our tools and not our master.
What can bosses or organizers of these meetings do to facilitate these meetings so people don’t leave the meetings feeling exhausted? (While taking into consideration, the time spent on these meetings, or the feelings of the attendees)
It may help to start the meeting by quickly checking in to each other’s well-being. Being ready to acknowledge that the virtual meetings are unusual and that working at home means having to accommodate other family members inconvenienced by the pandemic invites everyone to be mindful about coping collectively with the current disruption. Secondly, consider if virtual meetings are the best way to work. To prevent information overload, would sharing files be more effective? Or the use of the phone to communicate may be a better device in many cases if there is only simple information to share. Thirdly, it may help if the meeting agenda is clearly defined and the end of the meeting is outlined at the start to reduce mental fatigue. Can the meetings be brief knowing that other meetings may be required? If meetings are prolonged, plan for breaks.
What can attendees/employees do to reduce the number of hours spent on video calls? (for example, what they can say to their bosses, or to keep track of the time so everyone is on track)
There needs to be increased education all around related to this topic of fatigue that comes from increased video-conferencing. It is a condition exacerbated by changes at work because of the pandemic. Employees should know their limits. If they recognize when fatigue sets in from excessive computer use, they should limit themselves from relying on their electronic gadgets throughout the day. Research has already shown that excessive computer use is correlated with depression. With more apps available online, there is an increased potential to become more dependent on electronic devices already. During this pandemic, the pressure to depend on the computer through increased virtual meetings is intensified. It is times like this when the wise among us would learn to separate the benefits of computer use from its downsides.
In light of this knowledge, employees can be more proactive to define the perimeters in which they would like to have virtual meetings conducted. If they recognize when fatigue will set in because of prolonged virtual meetings, they can ask to clarify (or specify) to their managers how long the meetings will take to monitor their mental and physical strain. In cases when prolonged virtual meetings are unavoidable, they can clarify if permission can be given to practice adjustments such as moving around as a way of coping with eye strain or from limited mobility experienced during the meetings, avoid the direct exposure to the camera, mute the calls to focus on listening or take breaks after every hour. At times, a person may have to prepare for any interference from young children who find it hard to ignore the presence of the parent at home.
How do we instil positivity in our working lives, when the line between work and home is so blurred right now?
The pandemic and the subsequent quarantine is experienced as a period of adversity to some people. The emotional distress that comes from being quarantined has been recognized as common during this period. Common symptoms of this distress include fear, sadness, numbness, insomnia, confusion, anger, stress, irritability, post-traumatic stress symptoms, depressive symptoms, low mood, emotional exhaustion and emotional disturbance (eg. paranoia, anxiety). More specifically, people are faced with the disruption to the routines they have set up to cope with their stressors before the imposition of the quarantine. Distress is experienced because of the effect of the disruption on their autonomy, their sense of competence (being in charge of their lives to cope with their lives), their connectedness and their sense of security. It is a test on our resilience and ability to cope.
At the same time, the very challenge of this situation also provides us with the opportunity to develop our resilience. The first step is to understand and remember that these circumstances are temporary and not permanent. Pandemics happen but they are not frequent in history. Secondly, realize that there is a way to cope with the circumstances. As such, coping with this current situation is priority. I would suggest the following:
(a) Establish a routine for yourself (and that of your children). By creating a structure to attend to work and recreation, you start to organize and occupy yourself with addressing your daily needs as well as that of your family.
(b) Be as active as possible to maintain a fitness level physically, mentally and relationally for yourself and with your family. This also helps to battle against boredom. There are exercise videos online which you and your children can participate together to exercise as well as bond together. Also, for a personal project, you can ask yourself, “What will it take for me to become physically and mentally and relationally stronger as a result of this crisis?” Be curious about how to grow your resilience and to nurture the best version of yourself. Or as a parent, create a project to help your child develop resilience in their own lives and ask, “How can I help my children become physically, mentally or relationally stronger as a result of this crisis?”
(c) Deal with boredom by creating projects that self-nurture, eg. start a hobby or clean out your closet. Competing personal tasks provide a sense of purpose and maintain a sense of competency despite the external circumstances. Creating plans daily offer a focus on accomplishing what is important to your well-being.
(d) Communicate more to avoid isolation as well as cope with boredom. This can be an opportunity to nurture relationships if you are in quarantine with family and to strengthen social bonds with them, or with your support group. Remember that kids may be stressed too from this experience. More time together can provide opportunities for increased play to increase bonding. Games are useful means to bring fun into your relationships and to develop socially besides your entertainment. It can also become a reminder that the family is safe and coping together.
(e) Be informed without being overwhelmed to cope with the anxiety that comes from the unknown. The Straits Times newspaper provide a useful daily update so that you can monitor the threat of the virus rather than obtaining information from cable news. There is much information on the virus today locally and globally so be careful not to become obsessed with the topic.
(f) If you find that your distress is becoming more intense, consider support for your mental health. Your mental health is very important for your daily and long-term functioning. Different places may offer telehealth support where you can consult a therapist or mental health professional. Some services are available online and they can be reached through email, phone calls, texts or video calls.
At its most elemental level, people avoid the risk of failure for one simple reason – it hurts. Every single person has experienced failure. If you were to interpret failure by its definition in the dictionary, “the neglect or omission of expected or required action”, wouldn’t you, as a child, have stumbled along the way to achieving those long strident steps you take when strutting along the sidewalk? Yet, nobody feels ashamed of failing to learn to walk as a toddler. Why’s that? You could say that no-one in the right mind would expect that of a human child – we aren’t deer, or gazelles that need to shake off the afterbirth and walk – or risk predation. Our success as a species which put us at the top of the food chain negates that need. Fear is a function of the amygdala, yet failure isn’t. There’s a distinction here that we need to be mindful of. If you’re a parent or have access to YouTube, you’ve probably noticed that there’s an innocence in children that can be quite uplifting to watch, as they try multiple times to succeed at a simple task. They don’t puff their cheeks out and sigh in despair, or bury their heads in their hands. At most, they demonstrate frustration.
Shame is learned behaviour that children integrate into their developing moralities, either from being taught or through observation. Studies done on athletes have shown that perceived parental pressure (or pressure from authority figures) have deleterious effects on how sportspeople experience and interpret failure. Simply put, the fear of failure is a construct of how societies function. For some people, the avoidance of shame that failure brings weighs too heavily on them, and that is the crippling fear of failure. Dr Guy Finch puts this rather more succinctly: “fear of failure is essentially a fear of shame”. How then, do we begin to become more self-aware in the face of these deeply ingrained avoidance mechanisms to start building our best selves?
After all, overcoming fear of failure is all about reversing negative thought patterns, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is designed to help you identify the underlying belief that causes a negative automatic thought (which in turn guides the feelings that come with it).
With the help of a qualified mental health professional, which can be anyone from a trained psychologist, psychotherapist or even psychiatrist, you can be empowered to break the circuit of the pervasive vicious cycle of negativity that prevents the unfettering of fear of failure’s heavy chains.
For instance, think of each deeply held criticism that you can’t let go of as a block in a Jenga game with your friends and the tower represents your thought life as a whole. Even though you’ve suffered through failure after failure, you can’t seem to jettison them from your psyche. Can you imagine a game of Jenga that doesn’t end in peals of laughter? It seems that some re-evaluation is needed to turn the way you handle each soul-sucking gut-punching failure from the darkness of your room. The grip of negativity steadying your trembling hand, an extension of your mind, putting each block up on autopilot because you believe you are not good enough. Instead, we suggest turning the lights on, invite someone you trust into your sanctum of despair, to play the game of Jenga with you. As you ease into their presence, you’ll begin to notice that the tower doesn’t look so intimidating anymore. It’s no longer just a congealed mess of all your shortcomings and toxic thinking, but a simpler thing that can be deconstructed. If each block represents a negative conviction you have about yourself that is too painful to touch, reach for the piece that looks more well-shorn and polished (which represents a perceived positive character trait or accomplishment that you hold dear). Put it back on top of your tower. It is yours, isn’t it? Or perhaps let your confidant handle that splintery block.
Of course, we all know that Jenga isn’t all laughter and grand gestures. There’s physical tension and the cogitation of making the right choice so the tower doesn’t crumble prematurely. Maybe you aren’t too good at Jenga. That’s fine. But if you start thinking of this special game of Jenga as a collaborative effort instead of a competitive one, you’ll start getting the picture. Who would you like to invite to collaboratively play a game of Jenga?
Sagar, S and Stoeber, J. Perfectionism, Fear of Failure, and Affective Responses to Success and Failure: The Central Role of Fear of Experiencing Shame and Embarrassment. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2009, 31, pp 602-627.
Stress. What is stress? This word is used so casually nowadays that it has lost its impact as something that can be detrimental to health, especially during this unsettling period of the Covid-19 pandemic. We might have adapted to the restrictions put in place, like wearing a mask and practicing social distancing wherever we are, but have we truly come to terms with these regulations, or are we trying to distract ourselves from the pressing concerns of our future? Adhering to the past few months of circuit breaker regulations definitely have not been easy on everyone, be it young or old. The stress and inconveniences experienced due to a sudden change in routine habits have been unnerving for many and as we progress on to the next few phases, what does this mean for us?
By now, Singaporeans would have been working from home or have been home-based learning (HBL), adapting to these changes of environments whilst managing their hectic schedules. However, as the world economies bulldoze to get things back up and running, we cannot ignore that there might be no place for permanency again i.e. making our homes temporary workspaces then returning back to original practices or shuttling between the two.
Undoubtedly, there are pros and cons to each family being at home together, where relationships are constantly tested and stretched. Some might argue that it’s been a good time for family bonding: to better understand one another as the rat race may have left some in a time capsule ignorant of changes; while others unable to compartmentalise their thoughts, feel that it’s a disruption to their workspace and schedules, having to juggle work and personal life in the same physical space.
Moving forward, our government aims to have routines restored back to normal, this means returning back to the high demands of work and student lives, but what is normal? We wonder if it will be difficult to get back into the grind after the somewhat sedentary lifestyles some of us have been living in the past few months, giving up on flexible self-dictated work hours and or dragging our muscles to leave home and travel to work. Also, companies and schools will have to work around challenging social distancing measures, which can pose a problem considering our highly interactive nature. Whilst schools are drawing out plans for rotational return of students, trying to stagger and minimise cross contact within large groups, companies on the other hand, have to reorganise their “back-to-back” cubicle style like workspace that was easier for communication, into something less compact. These new arrangements will potentially be disruptive to students’ learning, having to conduct lessons both online and face-to-face (f2f), along with teachers who will have to adjust their teaching methods accordingly and capture the essence of each lesson, whilst engaging students. Offices will have to convert into something less compact or cut down on the number of employees on site, which may not only slow down productivity but also potentially decrease employee satisfaction and well-being. Nevertheless, this creates a lot of physical, emotional and mental stress.
At the initial stages, non-chronic stress may be beneficial to give people an adrenaline boost to encourage them to press on. However, if we are not capable of managing stress, it may become chronic. This can cause our brains, nervous systems and behaviour to affect the expression of genes in sperms or alter brain development of our offspring.
A more immediate manifestation shows that the brain activates neuropeptide-secretion systems in response to stress, leading to a cascading effect involving adrenal corticosteroid hormones. This can result in stress-related brain diseases, like depression and anxiety disorders as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Moreover, chronic stress can stunt memory growth and even kill brain cells, which result in learning impairments. Not forgetting, the physical aspects of stress such as headaches, muscle fatigue, changes in appetite or insomnia, all of which can be overlooked as just temporary “disturbances”, rather than a contributing factor of stress that is beginning to pose a hindrance on daily activities. This might be threatening if it’s not diagnosed and dealt with in its early stages. Prolonged periods of stress can also cause some to turn to less favourable options like alcohol, smoking or even drugs, which should be avoided at all costs.
Here are some suggested precautionary measures we could take to prevent the rise of chronic stress:
One of the possible solutions to relieve stress is exercise, although some might be deprived of going to their usual gym studios, we can opt for a nature setting outdoors to get some vitamin D too! Instead of being cooped up at home, fresh air is always welcomed.
Another way to destress is picking up new hobbies like baking or cooking. Unknowingly, you can invest loads of time into learning new recipes to convert into practical use that may come in handy in the future!
Next, meditation. Even though it might take a while to enter a full meditative state, this is definitely worth the try to keep calm and relaxed amidst this chaos, to be at peace with yourself. It also clears your head to think about self-goals and plans ahead.
Last but not least, laugh! As the saying goes, laughter is the best medicine. This is easily attainable to get your tummy hurting watching humorous videos or sharing silly jokes and the best time to share happy moments with your family!
Food For Thought: If Covid-19 is here to stay, how do we embrace it without crippling our way of life?
Senior Clinical Psychologist and child psychologist S C Anbarasu was featured on Yellow Pages Singapore’s ‘Ask A Doctor series’, which decided to engage him to answer some questions about children’s mental health issues because of increasing awareness about the effects of Singapore’s education system on their mental well-being.
He answers questions on how to recognise stress in children, Singapore’s education system, child suicide rates here, recommendations on this pressing issue, and more.