Providing counselling services for expats in Stockholm, I’m often helping my clients to manage and find ways to relieve stress. This stress might be related to cultural factors including the difficulty many report in making friends with Swedes or it could be to do with a close relationship or marriage. It can be associated with a combination of factors, for example work pressure, unfulfilled hopes or plans, perceived expectations or the adjustment to a new life in Sweden. The impact of stress isn’t always obvious.
People come to me wanting new ways to think or ‘mental tools’ for dealing with their circumstances. But regularly I meet people who so stressed-up, they can’t think so easily, in new ways or old. This article is about some very basic things you can do to manage stress. If that interests you, read on.
5 Ways to Manage Stress
Here are 5 fundamental steps you can take to start getting back in control of the stress in your life. These tips are recommended by doctors, psychologists and major organisations like the British NHS (National Health Service).
1. Eat well.
When we don’t refuel our bodies regularly, our physiology can go into a stressed state and our more subtle cognitive (thinking) capabilities can be adversely affected. It’s much harder to problem solve when hungry, for example. On the flipside, using food to numb emotions can lead to overeating and unintentional weight gain. Aim for a balanced diet and regular nourishment.
2. Ensure you get enough sleep.
Sleep is regenerative and gives us a chance to let go of tension. It’s the body’s passive way of regularly relieving the effects of stress and becoming refreshed by allowing the brain to go into ‘quiet mode’ so we regain physiological balance. Of course sometimes stress can also interfere with sleep, in which case we don’t get the regular physical and mental refreshment we need. If your sleep is affected, develop a routine to support sleeping (google ‘Sleep Hygiene’). Sleeping tablets are not an ongoing answer, but if you are severely sleep deprived, you might need to discuss this with a GP. There are also gentle herbal treatments that some people find helpful.
3. Take regular exercise.
Exercise is a great way to shake out the effects of stress. When we exercise, we are directly working on our physiology and we can reverse the automatic stress response that happens to us when we are under pressure. For those of us from warmer countries, in the winter it can be difficult to find the motivation to exercise in Sweden and not everyone lives in central Stockholm or has access to indoor gyms and fitness centres. But even a short walk can make a difference and is better than nothing.
4. Put some structure in your day.
We all need to offset work with rest and play. Again, this can be difficult for expats without strong social connections. When we are trying to do the same thing for too long each day, the consequences are usually boredom, frustration and irritability or depressed mood. Everyone has chores they have to do (things like shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing etc), but without the balance of imaginative activities, our stress reactions can take over. Planning some exercise, social activities and time for creative interests around your work and non-negotiable commitments will help to make sure you stay on top of stress.
5. Talk about your problems.
It might sound like a cliche, but sharing problems and feelings really is a release valve for stress. It works differently for different people. Writing in a journal or diary can be one way of expressing thoughts and feelings but it doesn’t necessarily give the sense of a listener being present. Talking with friends can provide an outlet for emotions. However many English speakers tell me they find it difficult to make friends in Sweden and you might not have been here long enough to establish trusting friendships. Or perhaps you want to discuss something you feel you can’t share with a friend and need someone who you can be sure will remain impartial and maintain your confidentiality. That is where a counsellor comes in.
Some people tell me they just want to ‘dump’ what is happening for them, to ‘get it off their chest’ or make a confession about something they have been thinking about or doing. Others want a sounding-board (boll-plank in Swedish). Others want to have a good cry and to express how they feel. Some expats ask for help with decision-making or problem-solving. All of these are fine with me. The most important thing is: Don’t keep the problems to yourself!
Vulnerability to Stress and Building Resilience
Our vulnerability to stress and our coping skills for dealing with it can change with our circumstances. For example, people who have experienced trauma or child abuse when young sometimes have a heightened stress response to day to day events. But moving to a country like Sweden and adjustment to a new culture can involve a lot of stress as well. Building resilience to stress takes time. Don’t leave it too late to get help. If you are struggling with stress, make an appointment to discuss ways forward. If you are not sure, but think that managing stress might be a problem for you, contact me to find out how we might work together.