Mental toughness

Author and basketball player John Dabrowski explains how successful people manage stress

Stress is how you feel when the pressure you’re under exceeds your ability to cope with it. It is a state of mental or emotional tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. And in this busy, modern world, there’s always too much to do: yet another deadline; daily meetings; and numerous people demanding your attention. The stress of all these demands can be devastating if not addressed.

Everyone reacts to stress in different ways but there are some common symptoms to look out for, which can be psychological, emotional, behavioural, physical, or a mix.

Psychological symptoms of stress can include:

Constant worrying

An inability to concentrate

Seeing only the negative

Memory problems

Emotional symptoms of stress may include:

Mood swings


An inability to relax

Feeling overwhelmed

Behaviour can also change and you may:

Eat more or less than usual

Use alcohol, tobacco or drugs to relax

Develop nervous habits

Physical symptoms can include:

Chest pains


Teeth grinding at night

High blood pressure

Stress may be inevitable, but how we cope with it is our choice. It is also worth remembering that a little stress is good for the body and alerts the mind, keeping you focused, but it needs to be short-term and followed by a period of relaxation.

Here are some simple tips to manage and reduce your stress levels today:

Manage Your Time

At times we all feel overburdened by our to-do lists, and this is a common cause of stress. Accept that you cannot do everything at once.

Make a list of all the things you need to do in order of genuine priority. Note which tasks you need to do personally and which can be delegated to others.

Identify your best time of day (you may be a morning person or an evening person) and do the important tasks that need the most energy and concentration at that time.

Take Control

Stress can be triggered by a problem that may on the surface seem impossible to solve. Learning how to find solutions to your problems will help you feel more in control thereby lowering your level of stress.

One technique involves writing down the problem and coming up with as many possible solutions as you can. Decide on the good and bad points of each and select the best one. Write down in detail each step that you need to take as part of the solution.
Learn to Say No

A common cause of stress is having too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Yet in this situation many people will still agree to take on additional responsibility, perhaps due to a fear of missed opportunities, conflict or rejection. Learning to say no to additional or unimportant requests will help to reduce levels of stress.

Engage in Relaxation Techniques

It is important to become more relaxed in daily life and not to waste energy on things that don’t require it, such as fidgeting impatiently while you wait for the kettle to boil. Instead, take the opportunity for a few moments of calm. Learn some breathing and relaxation techniques and each day try to relax with a stress reduction technique.

Eat a Healthy, Well-balanced and Nutritious Diet

Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. These are stimulants that will increase your level of stress rather than reduce it. Swap caffeinated and alcoholic drinks for water, herbal teas or diluted natural fruit juices and aim to keep yourself hydrated as this will enable your body to better cope with stress.

Aim to avoid or reduce your intake of refined sugars, which can be found in many manufactured foods. These can cause energy crashes and may lead you to feel tired and irritable.

 Indulge in Physical Activity                 

Stressful situations increase the level of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in your body. Physical exertion can help with this. When you feel stressed and tense, go for a brisk walk in fresh air. Try to incorporate some physical activity into your daily routine on a regular basis, either before or after work, or at lunchtime.

Get More Sleep

Ensure that you maximise your relaxation before going to sleep. Stop doing any mentally demanding work several hours before going to bed so that you give your brain time to calm down. Try taking a warm bath or reading an undemanding book for a few minutes to relax your body, tire your eyes and help you forget about the things that worry you.

Aim to go to bed at roughly the same time each night so that your mind and body get used to a predictable bedtime routine.

Develop a Positive Mindset

Reframe your thoughts. Find the positive in every negative situation you face. There is always something positive in everything negative – your job is to find it.

Visualise the outcome you want to achieve in meetings, presentations, and other stressful events. Use all your senses to imagine the scene in great detail. Experts agree that visualising an event before it occurs increases the chances of success.

Make time for your friends. Talking to them about your day and the things you find difficult can help you keep things in perspective – and you can do the same for them. Smiling and laughing with friends will also produce hormones that help you relax.

At the end of each day sit back and reflect on what you’ve achieved rather than spending time worrying about what still needs to be done. Find three things to be grateful for and focus on those. Gratitude is one of the quickest ways to change from a negative to a positive mindset and should be used every time you feel negative.

Mindfulness is a great way to de-stress. It is simply being in the moment and one great way to achieve this is to concentrate on your breathing. Slowly breathing in and out and concentrating on your breath stops you from thinking about anything else.

If you can do something about a stressful situation you are facing then do it. Make a phone call, organise a meeting or send an email. Once you have done this don’t give it one more thought. Worrying about something you can’t do anything about causes more stress.

Negative stress does not have to be a part of life. Successful stress management is about learning how and when to take control. With these tips in mind you will be able to control the stress before it controls you.

John Dabrowski is a former world record breaking basketball player and accomplished author. His book Off the Wall – How to Develop World Class Mental Resilience is a must-read for all high achievers in the business world.