This is a stressful time. You don’t need us to tell you that, but what you may need from us is a plan for how to go about dealing with that stress. We’ve enlisted Dr Chris Shambrook, psychological consultant and director at PlanetK2, to help on that front, using his five-day plan to reduce stress. This plan employs techniques that elite athletes have adopted to ensure they can perform at the highest level.
“Elite athletes, with the help of their coaches, live in a constant cycle of managing the deliberately created stressors of the training programme so that they keep growing and developing,” says Shambrook.
“You could assume you’re OK or that the levels of stress you’re feeling aren’t a big deal. However, it seems sensible right now to adopt the mindset that ‘I’ve got more stress than I’m used to, I’m going to take care of myself to make sure it doesn’t add up to anything bad over time’.”
Sound advice. Take it away, Dr Shambrook.
Five-Day Plan For Minimising Stress
Day 1 – Take Stock And Plan
Elite athletes do a lot of self-monitoring and have a lot of well-practised rest and recovery routines. When the stress of training goes up, they know to pay more attention to their waking heart rate, morning weight, muscle soreness, morning mood and hydration levels for any signs that the stress has tipped them into the danger zone.
They also know that at this time, they need to pay attention to all the little things that add up to helping the body cope. So they take care of nutrition and hydration; they focus more on totally relaxing the body using breathing techniques or imagery to ensure they’re respecting the impact the training is taking; they ensure that the protective force field of sleep is prioritised, sometimes napping in the day if they need it.
So, today is your chance to do your equivalent of the elite athlete’s response:
- Tune in to your body. Check for signs of any response to stress: muscle tension, heart rate or breathing changes, sleep disturbance, gut changes, skin tone change… just look for signs, so you know how much care you need to extend to yourself.
- Tune in to your mind. Note down any mood changes, persistent unhelpful thoughts, changes in confidence levels or sense of control. Be honest – you’re looking for these changes, rather than trying to make excuses for yourself. Acceptance is key here!
- Make sure you’ve got a good plan for the next few days. Plan regular, healthy meals, good hydration, and a great sleep environment and routine. Be curious about how well you’re able to do it each day.
Day 2 – Focus On Right Now
Stress increases if we feel unable to respond or take control of a situation. This can be made worse by focusing on the future and unanswerable questions, which is a trap that elite athletes know they need to avoid.
There’s a time for looking into the future to get perspective and to plan. But there’s also a time for sticking in the moment and committing to immediate, controllable action that helps to build a sense of confidence and momentum.
If you’re focusing on reducing stress, it makes sense to be in the moment and concentrate on the things you are in control of. To ensure you’re doing this really well, today’s actions are as follows:
- Four to five times during the day, take the time to focus on your breathing, making sure you’re taking full and slow inhalations and exhalations. Notice what impact it has each time you stop, breathe and commit totally to the moment. Do this for 20 breaths each time and you’ll soon see how a simple mindfulness activity changes your stress levels.
- Each time you finish focusing on your breath, ask yourself, “What’s right now?” You should find it easier to choose the correct thing to focus on. Stress often goes up if you’re focusing on too many things or things you can’t do right now.
Elite athletes have to be superb at being in the moment, and they practise the discipline of “right now” thinking so they know this skill will be with them when they need it.
Day 3 – Share The Load
Every elite athlete knows excellence is never a solo pursuit from – performance to managing stress effectively. The best athletes are those who choose to benefit as much as possible from the support and expertise of the team around them.
You might not have the support team of an Olympic athlete, but most people have support to ensure you’re not carrying stress and worry all by yourself. So, day three of the stress reduction plan involves:
- Write a list of the people close to you. By each person, write down a way in which they do help you already or could help you if you ask. Then choose the top three people who you want to contact today or tomorrow to seek out the support they can provide.
- Get in touch with your top three people to see how they’re doing, and to let them know what’s going on with you and why you thought it would be great to connect with them. Go into the conversation knowing that simply by connecting you’ll feel supported and also knowing that you can ask for something that’s going to be of help to you. So often we choose to carry on alone, but we can choose to share the load.
Day 4 – Adopt A Challenge Mindset
When preparing for major events, athletes know a challenge mindset helps both mind and body. They know if they stay focused on the things they’re in control of, the reasons to be confident and what they want to learn from the situation they’re in, then they’re setting up a great relationship with pressure and opportunity. Because we’ve accepted that stress is present, it makes sense that we should make sure we’re employing this mindset to be in the best shape we can.
Day four has a couple of simple actions to take to complete your challenge mindset formula and minimise the chances of stress causing a threat mindset for you:
- Reflect back on day two and remind yourself of the simple impact of focusing on the moment and things you’re in control of.
- Build a list, alone or with help, of all the strengths you’ve got that are particularly useful right now and the times in the past when you’ve responded well to testing circumstances. Don’t be shy – these are your strengths, so make sure you’re taking nothing for granted and get a full list!
- Get a list of things you’d like to find out about yourself in the current situation. Do this by using the following sentence starters to prompt your thinking: “I’m curious to find out how well I can…”, “I’m looking forward to testing my ability to…”, and “I want to test how effectively my strength of X can be applied in this situation”.
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Day 5 – Mind Your Language
By now you’re probably in pretty good shape in terms of stress reduction. Day five has an extra language check to make sure the way you’re communicating with yourself isn’t causing unnecessary stress. The most successful athletes are aware of the way they speak to themselves, particularly when the pressure is on –it’s hard to always be your own most helpful ally!
Today you’ll check whether you’re using unhelpful language that might be unnecessarily raising stress. Listen out for any of the following and make a note of any time you use these phrases:
- “I must…” or “they must…”
- “I should…” or “they should…”
- “I need to…” or “they need to…”
- “I ought to…” or “they ought to…”
Demand-based thinking like this typically creates greater amounts of unhelpful responses to situations. Usually, the statements being made aren’t at all true. If you notice you’re using these words then it’s time to remove the demand and start being fairer to yourself. So, your final step of stress reduction is to shift the sentences into more helpful phrases using the following ideas:
- “I’d like it if I…” or “It would be great if they…”
- “I’ll see if I can…” or “I’ll let them know what I’d like…”
- “I’ll see how close I can get to…” or “I’ll see how much I can help them to…”
Practising more open thinking helps to minimise the extra stress that comes from demand thinking, so this extra check can help ensure you’re not undoing the other good work by making unrealistic demands of yourself.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.