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)
We are no strangers to feelings of anxiety – at certain stages of our lives or in particular situations, we would have experienced anxiousness and worry with relation to our careers, studies, relationships and even our environment. However, anxiety levels may go beyond the healthy norm for some people, and may instead develop into anxiety disorders that may have a debilitating effect on their lives. According to the American Psychology Association (APA), an individual who suffers from an anxiety disorder is described to have “recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns”, where the duration and severity in which the individual experiences anxiety could be blown out of proportion to the original stressor, resulting in undesirable tension and other physical alterations. In this article, we will be exploring a few types of anxiety disorders as well as how they can manifest within us.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalised Anxiety Disorder is a psychological issue characterised by persistent and pervasive feelings of anxiety without any known external cause. People who are diagnosed with GAD tend to feel anxious on most days for at least six months, and could be plagued by worry over several factors such as social interactions, personal health and wellbeing, and their everyday routine tasks. For example, an individual with GAD may find himself experiencing headaches, cold sweats, increased irritability and frequent feelings of “free-floating” anxiety. Others may also experience muscle tension, sleep disruptions or having difficulty concentrating. Often, the sense of anxiety may seemingly come from nowhere and last for long periods of time, therefore interfering with daily activities and various life circumstances.
In contrast, Panic Disorders are characterised by the random occurrence of panic attacks that have no obvious connection with events that are co-occurring in the person’s present experience. This means that panic attacks could occur at any time, even when someone is casually enjoying a meal. Of course, panic attacks could also be brought on by a particular trigger in the environment, such as a much-feared object or situation. Some individuals have reported that panic attacks feel frighteningly similar to a heart attack, especially with the rapid increase in heart palpitations, and the accompanying shortness of breath. Other symptoms also include trembling, sweating, and feelings of being out of control. With these panic attacks bringing on sudden periods of intense fear and anxiety, it can be exceptionally terrifying when these attacks reach their peak within mere minutes. However, a notable difference between a panic disorder and GAD is that an individual diagnosed with panic disorder is usually free of anxiety in between panic attacks.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a disorder marked by patterns of persistent and unwanted thoughts and behaviours. Obsessions are recurrent thoughts, urges or mental images that cause anxiety. On the other hand, compulsions are the repetitive behaviours that a person feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought or image. One common example often exhibited in films is where an individual has an obsessive fear of germs. This person may avoid shaking hands with strangers, avoid using public restrooms or feel the urge to wash their hands way too frequently. However, OCD isn’t purely limited to feelings of anxiety due to germs. OCD can manifest in other ways as well, such as wanting things to be symmetrical or in perfect order, repeatedly checking on things (“Did I leave my stove on?”), or the compulsive counting of objects or possessions. While everyone double-checks their things and has their own habits, people with OCD generally cannot control their thoughts and behaviours, even if they are recognised to be rather excessive. They can spend at least 1 hour a day on these thoughts and behaviours, and will only feel the much-needed brief sense of relief from their anxiety when they perform their rituals. As such, OCD can be exceptionally debilitating to one’s mental health.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Persons with Social Anxiety Disorder, or SAD, experience high levels of anxiety and fear under particular or all social situations, depending on the severity of their condition. They are often afraid of being subjected to judgement, humiliation or rejection in public, causing them to feel embarrassed. As such, individuals with SAD may feel extra self-conscious and stressed out, and try to avoid social situations where they might be placed at the centre of attention.
A phobia involves a pathological fear of a specific object or a situation. This means that one may experience intense anxiety upon encountering their fears and will take active steps to avoid the feared object. Phobias may centre on heights(acrophobia), birds (ornithophobia), crowds and open spaces(agoraphobia), and many others. People with agoraphobia, in particular, may struggle to be themselves in public spaces, for they think that it would be difficult to leave in the event they have panic-like reactions or other embarrassing symptoms. In severe cases, agoraphobia can cause one to be housebound.
Christmas is a time of giving, peace and joy. It is also a time to celebrate traditions where family and friends gather, feasting on Christmas goodies and exchanging presents. There are scents, sights and sounds that are familiar to Christmas time where individuals can form a strong attachment with. Therefore, such festivities may likely trigger strong memories and feelings within some of us. The feelings of loss, people being away from us, losing contact with others are examples of bittersweet memories that one can have during festivities like Christmas.
A past memory can also trigger different memories and they can become potentially difficult to process. Some may experience sadness when remembering a lost loved one, while others may feel anxious to attend social gatherings.
Living in a pandemic, things have slowed down considerably, and feelings of loneliness have intensified because of a lack of stimulation in our environments as well as physical interactions with others. In sum, we have been inside our own cocoons. A quieter Christmas this year may also mean a heightened sense of loneliness, anxiety and depression. Here are some ways to cope with some of these unpleasant feelings you may experience during this festive season.
Connecting with your values can help you to achieve some meaning and purpose in life. Think about what makes your life worthwhile and the values that matter most to you. Some questions to ponder: how do we want to be as a person, what do we want to stand for, and how do we want to connect to the environment around us. For some, feeling positive emotions and being optimistic are important, while for others, engaging in enjoyable and pleasurable activities (e.g. playing the guitar) are meaningful to them. Other individuals may also focus on social relationships with others and some may derive their sense of satisfaction by celebrating their personal accomplishments. When you navigate through life with your values, you will not only experience great inner strength and joy, but you will also have a meaning and purpose which will help you to tide through life’s challenges.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle
Looking after yourself physically also helps you to look after yourself mentally which will benefit your overall wellbeing. A good night’s sleep and keeping a balanced diet are both equally important. Having at least eight hours of sleep every night and consuming a diet filled with fruits and vegetables can be helpful for your body. Additionally, exercising at least thirty minutes a day also helps to keep your mind active, leading to a healthier body. Do also, keep yourself hydrated with plenty of water. All these help maintain a healthy lifestyle.
In closing, try not to dwell on things that have not worked out. As we live in unprecedented times, things can easily interrupt our daily routines. Focus on smaller and more manageable tasks and when you do achieve them, remember to celebrate your small victories! Here is an anonymous quote that I saw at a doctor’s clinic waiting area: “Life is too short to wake up with regrets – so love the people who treat you right, forget about those who don’t believe everything happens for a reason. If you get a chance, take it. If it changes your life, let it. Nobody said life would be easy. They just promised it would most likely be worth it.”
Harris, R (2008). The happiness trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, United States of America: Trumpeter.
Mok, Y.M. (2018, December 26). Commentary: The festive season brings loneliness, sorrow and anxiety for some. Channel News Asia, Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/christmas-festive-season-depression-ocd-lonely-sad-grief-stress-11059260?fbclid=IwAR2DisPAYSAB3aB2-K1HIyfWywQfGZNQHVsHsyY-TKSRG-f1h75J14G8k2s
Pascha, M. (2020). The PERMA model: Your scientific theory of happiness. Retrieved from: https://positivepsychology.com/perma-model/?fbclid=IwAR1B_Zuan1aYIkFIowe6aEUIrqnNyjwfVv0x4Hp5GFXOCRYJ4a1ecMF3a-M
The anonymous author of this article is a person in the recovery of Major Depressive Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. The views of the author are not those of Promises.
I have struggled with Self-Harm since I was a kid. Most of us are aware of the tantrum’s kids put up when they are upset. They hit others, drop to the floor, scream, and cry. When I felt overwhelmed by certain emotions, in particular anger or sadness, I would use my hands to hit my head. I had trouble identifying and regulating my emotions. My primary school counsellor told me that I have anger management challenges when I shared with her how I find myself unable to control my anger and would hit myself or the well. Little did I know that these behaviours were early signs and symptoms to what would become a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder given to me in my 20s.
When the word ‘Self-Harm’ is mentioned, most people think about ‘cutting’. A very common and increasingly concerning the mode of coping for persons in distress, more so for young people, even children. Fortunately, I never turned to ‘cutting’ until I was 23. I was actively suicidal from the stress of battling my illness while also trying to excel in my degree. I began with a penknife and one cut. Soon, that one cut led to many and I found myself with a new problem.
I struggle with Self-Harm till this very day; however, I have come a long way with the help of medications and therapy to reduce the frequency of Self-Harm. I have been trying to replace Self-Harm with healthier coping methods such as exercise.
When I do not wear long sleeves, I end up exposing the scars on my wrists to the world. Generally, I tend to feel ashamed of my scars and it took me some time to embrace them. However, responses from others who have noticed my scars have caused discouragement to me and led me to feel ashamed once again. Ironically, this does not deter me from ‘cutting’; instead, it increases the urge because I develop self-hatred and feel like I deserve to be punished and scarred for my behaviour.
Through this sharing of my experience, I hope to send a message of love to peers who are challenged with Self-Harm, whatever form it might take on. I also want to raise awareness among members of the public on what were some unhelpful words and behaviours people have made towards me, more so out of a lack of awareness rather than a lack of concern. I have learnt to forgive them, and at times have also made the effort to voice my discomfort over their words and actions. Here are five things people have said or done to me that were completely unhelpful, and very likely also to be unhelpful to anyone else challenged with Self-Harm.
1. Touching me without permission I get it, you notice the scars and you get worried. Without thinking, you grab my arm and go “what is this? Did you cut yourself?”. Leaving the question for later, the very act of grabbing my arm to look at my scars without permission is a big ‘NO’. I am hypersensitive to my scars and it takes much courage for me, even till today, to deliberately lift my arm to show my scars. What may surprise you is that, often, this act comes largely from my own parents and also the professionals I see for help. It is good practice to always ask someone for permission if you wish to touch them, even if it means to give a hug. Because some of us who have challenges with trauma and dissociation are hypersensitive to touch. Hence, do be mindful of those around you and remember: If you do not like people grabbing you to see something (on you), it’s the same and perhaps even more, for those of us learning to accept our scars.
2. “Doesn’t it hurt?” No, it doesn’t. This answer may come as a surprise to many, but when I am under extreme stress and emotional distress, the act of physically inflicting hurt on myself gives me relief. The greater the physical “pain” the greater the relief. For me, this goes for any act of self-harm be it ‘cutting’, punching the wall, or knocking my head against the wall until it starts bleeding. I can only compare this to someone who meets with an accident. The body goes into shock to the point the person may have a broken leg; however, he or she is not feeling any pain. I do not have a formal education in psychology or biology, but I believe my brain “shuts down” the part that feels pain which aids me to self-harm without feeling the actual pain.
3. “The scars are so ugly! Why do you enjoy this? Can’t you stop?” This is a three-part question, but it often comes to me in one line of questioning. First, I want to say that I do not enjoy this. Not at all. I would love to have clear and beautiful skin too. Every time I look down at my arm to see the scars, I feel hatred towards myself. “How could I do this to myself? I am a horrible person”. And yet, I find that I cannot stop. A coping method I have turned to, since childhood, to cope with the traumatic experiences and intense emotions is self-harm. It has become the default and almost automatic ‘subconscious’ act whenever I am in distress.
4. “It doesn’t look too bad” I know that this statement is in direct contrast to the one above. But I have had this said to me by peers and sadly, professionals. There is not much need for me to elaborate on this statement as it is obvious that it is unhelpful. This statement makes me feel like a failure and makes me want to hurt myself even more. The ‘Depression voice’ is always on standby, ready to jump in with a “See, you are useless at even trying to hurt yourself? You call that a cut?! You are a coward. Go and do it again”.
5. Taking away or hide the sharp items that I could use to hurt myself This is probably most relatable to parents and caregivers supporting someone who is challenged with self-harm. It is very natural to become protective and do what it takes to stop your loved one from hurting themselves. “If I take away their means to hurt themselves, then they have no choice but to stop, right?” Unless you tag along with your loved one 24/7, it is very easy to drop by the nearest bookstore to buy a new penknife. More importantly, in doing so, you are taking away the one thing that I have which keeps me from jumping out of my window or overdosing on my pills. Until I learn to safely stop self-harming in therapy, to take it away from me by force, will throw me into an emotional turmoil that will only make me feel worse.
So please, next time you notice someone with scars that look like they might be from the act of cutting one-self, please be gentle and kind to the person. Be extremely mindful of what you say. Perhaps, a guiding thought could be: If you cannot entertain the idea of causing pain to yourself, imagine how much pain the person must be in to be able to cause harm to themselves. When I self-harm, it is a desperate means for me to stay alive. It is a cry for help: for attention, for love, care and non-judgemental support.
If you know a loved one who self harms please do gently prod him/her towards seeking help from a trained professional.
Originating from the Greek word ‘wound’, trauma is used to describe the unwelcome recollection of disturbing experiences – those which can cause one to relive horrifying, spine-chilling moments of a disaster or a tragic event which leaves a deep mark on a person’s life.
Flashbacks can be particularly frightening for people with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a delayed stress reaction, where an individual involuntarily re-experiences the mental and physical responses (i.e emotional, cognitive and behavioural aspects) that accompanied the past trauma. Symptoms can be particularly intrusive, presenting themselves in the form of nightmares and emotional distress upon remembering upsetting memories, and even certain physical reactivity after the exposure to traumatic reminders. Additionally, depending on the severity of one’s condition, the negative alterations in mood and behaviours may vary. Alterations may comprise of (non-exhaustive):
Exaggerated self-blame or others for causing the trauma, and a sense of invalidation
Decreased interest in activities
Increased irritability or aggression
Hyper-vigilance, excessive paranoia or heightened startle reaction
Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
Risky or destructive behaviour (can include the development of maladaptive coping strategies such as substance abuse)
A sense of isolation
Avoiding trauma-related stimuli / reminders of the traumatic event (including places, activities, people, thoughts or feelings that may bring back unwanted memories).
Unlike what most would perceive, PTSD does not solely affect individuals who have been through a tragic event personally. Apart from the direct exposure to a trauma, people can also develop PTSD through the witnessing of the event, or upon learning that a close one was exposed to the trauma. The indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma in the course of professional duties (such as first responders or paramedics) can also make one prone to developing PTSD. With the effects lasting a lifetime for some individuals, PTSD can be debilitating to one’s mental health, robbing one of joy and freedom.
This is where Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) comes in. DBT is a comprehensive cognitive-behavioural treatment that can provide strong empirical support for individuals struggling with PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI), and others. Intended to help persons with complex issues that place them at high risks of suicide or other self-destructive behaviours, DBT focuses on imparting the knowledge and skills to cope with PTSD and trauma reminders. Moreover, it also aims to assure the generalisation and application of skills learnt to the environment beyond the treatment setting, as well as to ensure that dysfunctional behaviours are not inadvertently reinforced. DBT consists of four stages, with the first two being the standard, essential stages for all clients.
Stage 1: Aiming to Achieve Better Stability and Behavioural Control
It is safe to say that most of the work is done at stage 1, where clients work hand-in-hand with their therapists to target behavioural dyscontrol and to address the chaos within them. When clients first take on DBT, they are often said to be at their lowest point in their lives. As such, stage 1 focuses on achieving control over life-threatening behaviours, therapy-interfering behaviours, as well as other factors that are causing a decline in their quality of life. At the same time, it will serve to increase one’s behavioural skills which can include mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness , emotion regulation, distress tolerance and self-management. In short, this helps the individual to stabilise, and to reduce the frequency of impulsive and emotional outbursts.
However, stage 1 alone is insufficient. Although there are reductions in unwanted behaviours arising from the traumatic experience, these people may not have perfect control over their condition yet, and thus may still feel depressed, and anxious along with other PTSD symptoms.
In this stage, trauma-focused treatment is engaged, and past traumatic experiences are safely explored. Therapists will help clients to emotionally process them by approaching (gradually) the avoided trauma-related memories, as well as to help them continue applying the skills learnt in stage 1. With that said, the main objective of stage 2 is to discourage the client from silencing and burying the emotional pain.
Subsequently, this makes it easier for therapists to assess the severity of the problems, the relationships between the issues faced and to determine the hierarchy of needs based on the client’s goals.
Stage 3: Achieving Ordinary Happiness and Tackling Unhappiness
Upon ensuring that the individual is no longer suffocating under the same weight of fear that they once were, stage 3 aims to maintain progress and reasonable goal-setting. This establishes greater stability and addresses any other remaining problems in living. As the clients’ previous undesirable behaviours may have disrupted other aspects of their lives, stage 3 will also focus on improving relationships, and increasing valued daily activities.
Stage 4: Regaining the Capacity for Sustained Joy
Lastly, some people will choose to engage in stage 4 to find comfort in and to work towards spiritual fulfilment. This mainly helps to tackle any feelings of incompleteness as well as to ensure one’s capability to maintain an ongoing capacity for happiness.
DBT is an efficacious prototypic phase-based treatment of PTSD as it is a support-oriented approach to treatment, helping individuals to identify their own strengths and then building upon them to improve the person’s outlook on their life. By improving one’s ability to cultivate emotional regulation, increasing one’s ability to handle challenging emotions, and coping with conflict properly through interpersonal effectiveness, DBT can help traumatised individuals develop invaluable life skills that will allow them to achieve an overall improved quality of life.
Zimbardo, P. G., Johnson, R. L., & McCann, V. (2017). Psychology: Core Concepts (8th ed.). Pearson. (Accessed 22/11/2020)
Wagner, A. (2015). Applications of dialectical behaviour therapy to the treatment of trauma-related problems. Portland DBT Institute. https://adaa.org/sites/default/files/Wagner_MC.pdf (Accessed 22/11/2020)