It begins with the tightening of your chest. Your breath is shallow and you gasp, hoping that your lungs will fill. Soon, your mind begins to scatter. Focusing on a matter becomes a challenge and you pause, hoping that the dizziness will leave. The room experiences a plunge in temperature. Your naked feet feel awfully cold and you put on some socks, hoping that the blood will return. An overbearing heaviness then weighs on your shoulders.
Unfortunately, that was not a description of a nightmare I experienced. What you just read was how I used to physically experience stress. It is in the past tense because you tend to deal with your emotions better as you mature. Everyone differs in how their body responds to stress. Some deal with it better; some are overwhelmed. What we want to avoid is the reduced quality of work that we ultimately produce. In this two-part series, we will first consider what not to do when the going gets tough. We can then explore tips on how to deal with it effectively.
1. Ignore it
There is power in self-awareness. Period. By acknowledging that you are stressed, you are in control of the situation. You prevent it from creeping up on you, building slowly and when you need it the least, launch its full assault. You are not losing the battle when you accept how your body is responding; you are cutting off its legs before it gains in confidence. After accepting that you are swamped, you can then steel your garrison in defence as you continue to work.
2. Beat yourself up (on the inside)
It is natural to feel disappointed with yourself if the only reason you are behind in your dissertation is because you went to one too many after class drinks earlier in the semester. Just as you have chosen to cut off its legs, you must not give it the chance to recover and return with greater vengeance. Now is not the time to feel sorry for yourself (frankly, there should never be a time), you don’t have much time to spare!
3. Attempt to develop super powers
Goal setting is important when you are stressed – it allows you to focus and breakdown the task at hand into manageable chunks. What you do not want to do is set yourself up to fail by shooting for the moon beyond the night sky, in a different star system. Writing 5,000 words a day for your dissertation in one day was never going to be achievable. Covering 10 topics in a day for your final exams was never realistic. Plan your work in advance to avoid cramming at the end.
4. Overdose on caffeine
You are tired but you must stay awake. I admit that caffeine usually does the trick. However, subjecting your body to huge amounts within a short period is not ideal. It increases your heart rate, making you edgy and potentially more stressed. Just look at that woman in the picture. It is much better to increase your heart rate by going for a jog or swim (more on that next time).
5. Binge watch Netflix
It baffles me at the sheer number of my classmates who watch hours of television to alleviate stress. Yes, an episode of Modern Family or Parks and Recreation will work wonders, but you are overdoing it when you go through an entire season in one sitting. Be responsible.
There is an endless archive of advice on how to de-stress on the web. While they are very useful, being aware of our thoughts and restraining ourselves from destructive habits will keep us sane. In the next article, pardon me for I too will join the endless archive of how-to advice on relieving stress.
Aaron Lim is a practicing lawyer, and co-founder of WordPeckers.org