5 Creative Ways to Manage Stress and Live a More Balanced Life
Let’s talk about something everyone ever existed in this universe would have encountered.
Yeh, fair to say it’s a universal problem.
Before civilisation, human beings had to find food, shelter, and ways to survive before a lion showed up and tried to eat them all.
That was stressful.
Today, we have different definitions when it comes to stress.
Multiple tight deadlines vs. limited amount of time and resources.
Trying to fit in.
Feeling hopeless about situations outside our control.
Trying to align expectation and reality.
You know how the saying goes.. ancient problems require ancient solutions.
Or do they?
Let’s explore some creative and modern ways to manage stress.
Watch the video here if you fancy audio/visual format:
Stress vs. Pressure 🤯
First thing first. It is crucial to distinguish between stress and pressure because they are different, hence they require different techniques and strategies.
What is Stress?
The National Institute of Mental Health (1) simply defines:
Stress refers to the brain’s response to any demand.
This sounds neutral. But when we are in a situation of too many demands and not enough resources (time, money and energy), we begin to have feelings related to stress which may include overload and overwhelm. If such situations are recurring, we might develop chronic stress, which will impact our health and functioning in tremendous ways.
What is Pressure?
On the other hand,
Pressure is a situation in which you perceive that something at stake is dependent on the outcome of your performance.
Pressure involves anxiety to have to produce a specific result. Like before a job interview or when you have to get on stage to pitch. When you’re under pressure, you have to devote all your time and energy into that one thing as if your life depends on it. You don’t have any choices. It is like someone points a gun at you and you “have to” do your best. Can you imagine how much extra burden you carry if you live under pressure every day?
Real Life Example
A good example would be exams. Your results determine which university or job you can apply for, that’s why you feel the pressure to perform well. Your future depends on the outcome of the exam (not really, but we all thought like that back then). You also feel stressed because you don’t have enough time to study (you know, we suddenly want to clean our desk and sort out files during study period). That forces you to prioritise your tasks and revisit topics that you are the most unfamiliar with first.
Stress and the Brain 🧠
The brain is the key organ of stress response in terms of both perception of what is stressful and its ability to determine the consequences of stress for brain and body (2).
The amygdala, an area of the brain which is responsible for emotional processing and threat detection, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which controls the hormone system, to communicate with the rest of the body through nervous system when we experience a stressful event. As a result, a “fight-or-flight” stress response is triggered.
When we face a potential threat, we spring into action – to either fight (deal with it) or flight (avoid it). Some might freeze on the spot before the brain can comprehend what’s going on.
We also start experiencing physical reactions. Similar to a caveman facing an incoming tiger, we might experience increased heart rate, sweating, heightened senses and a rush of adrenaline. Emotionally, we might experience anxiety or sadness.
Our brain then tries to protect ourselves and bring us back to “normal” physical and emotional levels. Eventually, a hormone called cortisol is released, which restores our energy. When the threat is gone, the cortisol levels fall and we are “fine” again.
Stress in Our Times
We rarely need to fight a tiger nowadays (I feel so stressed when I see a snake or a spider, and I’m sure you can relate). Most of the time, we are lucky enough to be physically safe. However our brain is still triggering the same reactions when we face that demanding client or that difficult test. While a small dose of stress can keep us alert and sharp, chronic stress will have negative impacts on us. Some studies revealed that chronic stress can lead to long-term changes in “grey matter” in our brains, which impact our decision-making and problem-solving skills (3). Stress might also kill brain cells.
The Importance of Stress Management 🤜🏼
The real question now comes down to whether we are being aware of our stress levels. I grew up in a competitive environment which demanded the best academic grades while obtaining different skillsets like swimming, playing piano, drawing etc. I generally think that I’m quite resilient and “used to” stressful events. But everyone has different coping mechanism. As I always emphasise here, self-awareness is the first step to personal development. It is worth asking yourself these questions:
- When’s the last time you felt stressed?
- How did you feel (physically and emotionally) when you were facing stressful events?
- To what extent will stress help you perform better?
- How do you cope with stress?
There are always things under our control. Even in stressful situations, we can learn how to manage stress, and even optimise stress levels to our advantages.
A certain amount of pressure can boost our performance. On the other hand, a certain amount of stress can increase our productivity as well with increased physiological or mental arousal. For sure, too much of anything can be bad for you.
We want to function properly.
We want to optimise our lives.
And health is our foundation.
So, stress management is an important skill to develop in order to maintain our health and wellbeing.
From coping to managing stress
Don’t get me wrong, I do think coping skills are very important. However when it comes to stressful events, “coping with stress” sounds defensive and might not be an effective solution. It sounds like we have no control over stress if we have to “cope” with it. That being said, it does highlight one important thing: however uncontrollable the situation seems, we are still in control, and responsible for our thoughts, emotions and behaviours towards it.
You can find many common coping strategies online which might include:
- Seeking help
- Engaging in problem solving
- Challenging old beliefs and lowering expectations
Those might be helpful.
But we want to tackle the problem from another angle.
What if we can actually manage stress in a proactive manner? Not just how we regulate ourselves during stressful events, but also optimise our mindset and productivity, leverage the situation, and eventually “mastering” stress?
Stress has been an ancient problem. But ancient solutions might not always work in modern days, so let’s discuss the choices we have when we are under stress now. Feel free to try all these different stress management tips and find out what works for you 🙂
Modern Stress Management Techniques 😌
1. Time Management is Pain Management
Remember we talked about the main stressor being not having enough resources to meet demands?
Mastering time management can solve 80% of your problems.
I’ve spent years trying different time management and productivity hacks under the sun until I read about this ground-breaking theory from Nir Eyal:
Time management is pain management.
I was mind-blown. Like this 🤯
Our biggest problem with time is not that we don’t have enough, but we don’t know how to prioritise our tasks and stay focused. Again, it’s a demand and supply problem.
When deadline is approaching and we are paralysed with too many tasks, what do we do?
We rearrange our workspace, go onto Twitter and YouTube, and decide to procrastinate some more.
The projects and responsibilities are daunting, so we avoid the problems.
Then we end up feeling more stressed because we really are running out of time.
This pain is more unbearable than the initial discomfort of starting that project.
You see how time management is pain management?
The hardest part is getting started.
Once you get through the initial discomfort of starting, you gain momentum and you keep going until it’s done.
Here are a few tips I typically use to tackle “big” projects:
- Break them down to smaller tasks
- If that doesn’t work, break them down further until it’s a no-brainer to do them right away (to the point where you ask yourself “how hard can that be?”)
- Estimate time you need for each task
- If you’re new to this, multiple what you estimated by 1.5 to create a safety net
- Track how you spend your time (as future reference)
- Turn off all notifications on your phone. Consider closing the doors if you work from home so your kids/pets/family members can’t distract you
These are the lessons I learned over the years. I think most of my success in my music therapy master degree came from the fact that I was aware of how I worked, my productivity level and planning early.
Proactive time management saved me from most unnecessary stressors.
Start taking control of your next hour. Then next day, next week, next month and so on. This is a skill you can learn, practise and get better at.
2. Manage and Optimise Your Performance
If time management is about efficiency, this one is about effectiveness.
How well do you know yourself?
Ask yourself these questions:
- What are my top 3 stressors?
- How well do I work under stress?
- How is the quality of my work when there is time constraint?
- What is the right amount of stress that stimulates me?
- How do I stay sharp and focused to complete my tasks?
Understand yourself so that you can manage and regulate your physical and emotional states when you navigate stressful events.
For example, if you are a perfectionist and you are asked to complete a task with a tight deadline, you might not be able to produce work up to your standard. If you have good stress tolerance and you rarely feel stressed, you might set artificial deadlines for yourself so that they stimulate you.
We can all leverage our situations to our advantage. That requires understanding what is under our control and a change of perspective. Eventually we will develop stress optimisation.
3. Say No
Similar to the #1 rule of productivity, when we face a supply and demand problem, the first solution is always to eliminate.
If you are in a privileged position to do so, reject things that don’t matter, or you can’t be bothered with.
We have spent too much time stressing about little things.
When we eliminate tasks that we don’t actually need to do, we free up time and energy to work on things that truly matter.
If elimination isn’t an option, try allocating tasks to others.
Your time, energy and attention are finite resources.
Essentially, you are learning how to prioritise. You can eliminate many stress triggers when you understand what’s important, and you make sure you allocate enough time for them.
4. Prioritise Physical and Mental Health
We cannot optimise our life without good health.
We cannot be productive or perform at our best without energy.
You have to understand this by heart to live a less stressful life.
If you’re not careful, this will sound counter-intuitive: you already have too many tasks competing for your time and attention, how could you squeeze in a 15-minute workout or 5 minutes to meditate?
To get out of the scarcity loop forever, you must put yourself first.
When you have enough sleep, you have energy and momentum to tackle your tasks with great efficiency.
When you have a clear headspace, you prioritise your tasks better, and you free up time to rest.
This is a new cycle. You can be in control of how you spend your time.
It’s time to turn the tables.
5. Productive Procrastination
This might be the most modern and creative solution among all.
Let’s admit it: sometimes we can’t help but procrastinate. It’s part of human nature to avoid discomfort and pain (it goes back to solution #1 doesn’t it?).
Over the years I have been practising productive procrastination without even knowing it was a thing. But when I reflected on how I maintained full time work/studies while growing my blog, YouTube channel and learning multiple languages, I realised this was IT.
If you try to squeeze in too many things in your life, you will definitely feel stressed and overwhelmed.
But if you have one main focus and you treat other things as hobbies, it’s another story.
Say you have to complete a huge project. In my case, it was a 5,000-word research proposal. It would take me weeks to plan, research, draft and edit. So I scheduled time for it every day. Each deep work session would last for 1-1.5 hours every day. When I felt like taking a break, I turned around from my work desk and would see my instruments.
I then practised guitar (the instrument with the most room for improvement) for 5-10 minutes. Usually I sang my favourite songs. This effectively replaced my old habit of scrolling through my phone during work break, which usually turned from 5 minutes to an hour (yes, I’m guilty).
This is productive procrastination. I wanted to get better at playing guitar anyway, but it was hard to “find” 10 minutes to sit down and get started. So when I wasn’t working on my main thing (the research proposal in this case), I would “distract” myself by working on this hobby. Even if I went slightly overtime, it was still enjoyable and I was still getting closer to my goal. Win-win.
Productive procrastination also means you are living a more balanced life – which is an effective way to manage stress. The beauty of this is that you never know when these skills will come in handy (P.S. I was an accountant with language and musical skills. Now I’m a music therapist.) – so why not make them habits so that you improve every single day?
Define your main goal. Prioritise it, but do throw in some secondary goals around it.
This year, I’m prioritising growing my business and I will procrastinate by filming more videos and working out.
What about you?
Note: these modern stress management tips won’t work when you face a tiger 🐯. But they will help you manage non-life threatening stressors.
Ultimately, we want to live a balanced, fulfilling life.
So prioritise health, understand ourselves better and design a lifestyle to achieve such goal. You got this 💪🏻
Handpan Meditation Track
(2) McEwen, B. (2013). The Brain on Stress: Toward an Integrative Approach to Brain, Body, and Behavior. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 8(6), 673-675. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691613506907