Kyle MacDonald is an experienced psychotherapist and regular co-host on the NewstalkZB mental health awareness show The Nutters Club.

Kyle MacDonald: How to manage stress better

Stress often forces us into just dealing with the crisis in front of us and ignoring the big picture. Image / NZ Herald
Stress often forces us into just dealing with the crisis in front of us and ignoring the big picture. Image / NZ Herald

"How can I manage my stress better?" Stressed out

It always amazes me how easy it is these days to wear your stress and "busy-ness" like a badge of honour. How frequently "how are you?" is responded to with "really busy!"

One of my all time favourite book titles (and yes I do judge a book by it's cover and, even worse, its title) is about stress. Why Zebras don't get ulcers is a great guide to stress by Robert Sapolsky, and my favourite book on the subject.

It has many useful things to say, but its central idea is that stress, as a problem, is unique to humans because our ability to think and plan is our biggest strength, as well as our worst enemy.

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What a lot of people know as the "fight or flight system" is common to most animals, including zebras and humans, and operates as an alarm and resource allocation system.

Most of the time, our fight or flight mode is off, but when a threat is detected, we switch into readiness mode and physically prepare for action.

This is all perfectly normal, and necessary. The ability to detect and run away from a lion, if you're a zebra, is vital. As is the ability to calm down and focus on eating grass once the lion has gone away.

The problem is, as humans, we can spend too much time in this "fight or flight" mode. When we do so it can create physical and mental harm. Not being able to switch off our survival mode burns us out.

I've never been chased by a lion. In fact, it's rare for my life to be threatened in any way. But our brains, and our ability to plan and think about the future, can make everyday things feel life threatening. Getting that report in on time, getting that promotion or making the big sale can all feel like life and death even though we know rationally it isn't.

The answer to modern day stress then, is get better at "turning off" our fight or flight system and examining more thoughtfully what our beliefs tell us are "life and death" problems. What is really important?

With this in mind, here are some practical things you can do:

• Learn some mindfulness meditation techniques. Staying focussed on what is in front of us stops worry thoughts, and future oriented stress
• Practice taking small, regular "do nothing" breaks. Go for a walk at lunchtime; sit and stare out the window for five minutes; drive home with the window down and the radio off
• Work on keeping work at work. Try to not check emails in your time off, or take work home
• Leave the house without your phone
• Avoid dealing with stress through drinking, eating or drug use
• Take some time to assess your own priorities in life. What are your goals, and are you heading towards them? Stress often forces us into just dealing with the crisis in front of us and ignoring the big picture
• Spend more time with people that matter
• Keep physically active, but don't treat exercise like a chore. Do things outside that you enjoy

Wednesday, November 2 was International Stress Awareness Day. For more see: isma.org.uk/national-stress-awareness-day-2016

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Kyle MacDonald is an experienced psychotherapist and regular co-host on the NewstalkZB mental health awareness show The Nutters Club.

Kyle MacDonald is in private practice at the Robert Street Clinic in Auckland. For more: psychotherapy.org.nz or his Social Anxiety resource site: overcomingsocialanxiety.com.

Read more by Kyle MacDonald

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