Understanding and controlling stress

June 2017

While stress can be unavoidable, how you deal with it makes all the difference to your happiness, writes Alan Hartstein.

The financial-planning sector has experienced a significant amount of volatility in recent years, much of which has taken its toll on advisers. Clients blamed some for big losses suffered during the global financial crisis, while other high-profile cases involving bad advice tarnished the reputation of the entire industry.

The whole sector has since become a target of increased media and political scrutiny which has led to more tightening of regulations, which were complicated enough to begin with.

When you add rising business costs and keeping up with technological change to this increased scrutiny, you have a recipe for stress and anxiety that has left many advisers feeling exhausted, cynical, downtrodden and pessimistic.

What’s causing my stress?

  • pressure to perform
  • conflict in values
  • wanting what we can't have
  • social media / technology
  • health issues
  • family issues
  • relationships
  • financial challenges

But just what are the major causes of stress and what can you do about them? University of Sydney School of Psychology senior lecturer Damian Birney believes stress and anxiety are often natural responses to pressures we feel to perform at our best in the areas of our life that are important to us.

“If we think of stress and anxiety as arousal, then too little can lead to apathy and lack of effort and too much to unproductiveness. The right amount of arousal leads to optimal levels of engagement and motivation to achieve [both in our work and personal lives],” Birney says, the arousal levels obviously differ from individual to individual.

Other stressors could be due to a mismatch between our values and the values endorsed by our workplace and our work colleagues. Birney says the underlying causes of stress have never really changed and “sometimes the things we want are beyond our reach with the resources we currently have and we need the self-knowledge to recognise this”.

Claudie Masina, a stress and wellness coach at BeTruWell in Sydney, believes we are fighting an uphill battle against stress and anxiety in the modern world. While finances, family issues, relationships and health have consistently been the top causes of stress and anxiety in Australia, as per The Australian Psychology Society stress and wellbeing survey 2015 – social media and technology in our daily lives has since crept into the picture and is now identified as a major contributor.

“An increasing number of people just don’t know how to switch off anymore. Our perceptions of success are constantly being influenced by what we see on our social-media feeds and can challenge our emotional wellbeing,” Masina says.

Finding the best way forward

  • regular physical exercise
  • challenge negative thinking
  • focus on what's important
  • eat well
  • change situations or your outlook

One of the best ways to cope with stress is to build your personal resiliency levels by getting joy and positivity back into your day-to-day living, Masina says. “Try challenging your thoughts; gaining perspective on what is important in your life and calling on this awareness when you find yourself feeling overwhelmed. Do not normalise any negative thoughts or anxieties you may have.”

Regular exercise has been proven to release tension and is a great tool to assist any stressful times. The key to how effective any type of exercise is, however, is how regularly you practise it, Masina adds.

Birney agrees that exercise and a positive mindset are important, as is a good work-life balance and appropriate diet.

“Physical wellbeing is important for our cognitive health and to function effectively. Knowledge gained from experience is also important. We should learn from our successes and failures to better solve problems or to anticipate them before they occur.”

A sense of control is also vital to managing stress, and meeting our own definition of success can give us this sense of control.

“Successful people are good at knowing how to change a situation to suit their strengths and to modify their outlook if they can’t change the situation, or to choose a new environment if all else fails. Knowing when and how to do this is the key,” Birney adds. “Seeing the world as a learning experience, rather than just a performance one, can help us to deal with stress.”