According to NHS reports, doctors wrote 13% more notes for stress and anxiety in 2016/17 than in the previous year, while the most recent Labour Force Survey estimates that 11.7 million workdays per year are lost to stress.
If you experience excessive stress over a long period of time it can cause headaches, muscle tension and sleeping problems. However, equipped with the right tools, stress can be positive, helping you become more productive.
Enter the flow zone
If you take early action, it’s possible to turn negative stress into positive pressure. Within reason, a bit of stress can be a powerful motivator. Eustress is the energy you experience when you’re challenged by a difficult situation but still in control. Aiming high for something important but challenging will give you the experience of eustress – training for a marathon, travelling to a foreign country or going on a first date. While stressful, the anticipation, excitement and courage required to undertake any of these activities helps to push you to higher levels of performance, cope under pressure and develop determination.
This kind of positive stress is sometimes called “flow”, meaning a state in which you are so involved and engaged in an activity that you lose track of time and forget about what’s going on around you. To enter the flow zone, you need to give yourself the space to concentrate intently on a task that is challenging, but that you have the skill to complete.
So how do you ensure when you’re studying you’re experiencing eustress, not distress?
- Practice, practice, practice – to be able to achieve flow you need to be skilled at what you’re doing. This doesn’t mean you need to know indirect tax back to front, but it does mean you need to practice being a better student by studying regularly, developing a better ability to focus in each study session and finding ways to connect the concepts you’re learning.
- Remember hard work equals meaningful results – to achieve flow you need to be working on something that challenges you, that allows you to become immersed in solving the problem or learning new skills. Your studies are a perfect vehicle to achieve flow. Work that matters to you will help you find flow.
- Give yourself space – avoid distractions like emails and text alerts which pull you out of the zone. Give yourself an environment to work in that allows you to focus completely.
- Set goals – You need to know where you’re going in order to get there. Working hard without an idea of the outcome means it’s impossible for you to know what success looks like, and therefore what to strive for. Satisfaction will come from knowing you’ve achieved what you set out to do.
Give mindfulness a try
Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, recommends using mental exercises to build a more resilient body and mind.
“Mindfulness involves making a special effort to give your full attention to what is happening in the present moment,” explains Mamo. “You focus on what’s happening in your body, your mind or your surroundings, in a non-judgemental way. It can help people become more self-aware.”
Try a mindfulness course to learn how to focus on the present moment and turn stress into motivation. You can try an online course, work with an offline practitioner, or try The Mindfulness App to practice on the go.
Set and defend your boundaries
To make stress motivational, it’s important to set some personal boundaries. Carole Spiers, chair of the International Stress Management Association, recommends seeking help if you struggle with a specific task, or if balancing out multiple commitments becomes difficult. It’s also important to stick to healthy study habits to maintain a clear work-life balance.
“At the end of your day you need to shut down and return to your personal life,” says Spiers. “There are plenty of people who never switch off. There are many small things you could do. For example, not going to bed at night with your phone next to you could help considerably.”
Always focus on the task at hand – whether you’re studying or relaxing – by removing distractions. Put your phone away and find a quiet spot to study. Keep track of why you’re doing a specific task and what goal it ultimately serves.
Don’t be too hard on yourself
If you feel guilty for experiencing stress it’ll always be harder to turn your stress into positive motivation. Gail Kinman, a chartered psychologist and an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, believes it’s important to be kind to yourself if stress makes you feel like you’re worthless or weak.
“We’re often much harder on ourselves than we would be on our loved ones,” she says. “We tell ourselves that we don’t work hard enough and should be able to cope. But if somebody you’re close to was going through the same thing, you’d be much more understanding. Practice self-kindness: see yourself as human and fallible, and as somebody who deserves forgiveness and breaks.”
Rather than letting stress take control of you, take control over your stress and turn it into motivation. Arm yourself with a strong set of skills to achieve that enjoyable flow state, use mindfulness to turn your perspective on its head, and focus on your long-term goals. Celebrate your success once you’ve completed a task, and you’ll find yourself benefiting from the energy and stimulation it brings before you know it.
Get inspired by Elizabeth Claxton, director of accountancy firm Rostrons in Norwich, who shares in this podcast how a chance interview set her on a surprising career path in finance, and how treading her own path and not fitting a mould, led to her success.
Coco d'Hont is a staff writer at Flibl and reports on technology, finance and workplace wellbeing. Follow her on Twitter @cococatani.