A guide to active stress management
March 08, 2018
Working with at-risk youth can be both very rewarding and very challenging; we experience the joy of seeing our young people achieve long sought-after goals and the disappointment of witnessing major setbacks in their lives. Some days can be just plain tough and challenge us (almost) beyond our limits. It is during these times that we run the risk of burnout if we do not learn to properly manage our stress. The implication of this is that our work, as well as the young and vulnerable people we serve, can suffer as we struggle to provide the best possible care. With this in mind, stress management is not only an important component in our lives (both personally and professionally), it is an ethical imperative in the work we do.
Often during work rotations, I found myself coming back to work with low energy levels (despite having several days off). When this occurred, I reflected on what I did during my time off, which usually involved playing video games or binge-watching the latest series on Netflix. While these activities weren’t necessarily bad, I came to realize that when those activities were all I did, I didn’t feel rejuvenated when I returned to work. After a while of doing this, I began implementing active stress-management routines on my days off and, as a result, I found my energy levels were much higher and that I felt far better about returning to work.
What is active stress management?
Personally, I define active self-management as a dedicated activity performed for the purpose of ‘recalibrating’ or ‘recharging’ oneself.
So what does it actually look like?
The type of activities I do in the name of active stress management fall into three categories - my needs, my shoulds and my wants. I start by creating a list of things that I need to do, things I’ve been neglecting and things I want to do, and prioritize my activities in that order.
At the top of my active stress-management list is always my basic, physical needs. By taking a moment to check in with myself, I often realize that I’ve forgotten to eat a meal or that I’ve only had one glass of water that day. Despite the clear evidence, I sometimes neglect to eat, sleep and hydrate properly. The value of these simple, yet necessary steps can be easily overlooked. When it comes to physical well-being, hunger and dehydration have been clearly linked to mental fatigue, cognition and mood.
When it comes to the things I neglect to do or should do, I tend prioritize organization and cleanliness, especially when I target items that contribute to my mental fatigue. For example, if I’m not being mindful, my laundry basket is usually a mountain and I’m out of socks. When I’m utilizing active stress management, I make a point to be proactive and the laundry is usually the prime candidate to tackle. The act of goal setting and achieving beyond the basics can be a rewarding and invigorating experience, and I often find I continue organizing the rest of my living space as a result.
When it comes to the ‘shoulds’ category, you might begin to realize it sounds a lot like a chore list. And, frankly speaking, it is. What differentiates your standard chore list from active self-care is the mindfulness and awareness you assign with your tasks. When we’re completing our daily chores mindlessly, our time and energy aren’t focused on stress-management. When we reframe the day-to-day activities that we HAVE to do into activities that we CHOOSE to do, these tasks gain more value and will make them more enjoyable. With that being said, it’s likely that not everyone will scrub the toilet with a big smile on their face (I recommend having your mouth closed, actually!), but keeping the long-term vision of a cleaner space and a better mental state will hopefully take the sting out of it.
Finally, my favourite activities in the area of active stress-management are the ones that I’ve been wanting to do, but just haven’t made time to. I find it valuable to make a clear distinction here, in that active stress-management should be just that - active. Many of the activities that I engage in on a day-to-day basis are passive and difficult to be mindful of. These would be activities like checking my Facebook account, mindlessly watching shows or watching that funny cat video for the 100th time. If you’re like me, you’re probably doing that frequently enough as it is. I believe that any activity that can cultivate mindfulness, growth and development are the best. This can be as simple as reading a book or putting new music on your phone. Or, it can be the start of something larger, like starting a painting or writing a chapter of that book you’ve always wanted to write.
Additionally, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of self-indulgence every once in a while, so long as it’s practiced with moderation and awareness.
Overall, the purpose of mindful and active stress-management is to improve our daily lives, and to improve and maintain the quality of the work we do with some of our community’s most vulnerable young people. When we take care to manage our stress, we ensure that we bring our best selves to work each and every day, re-charged and re-energized.