This is the fourth part of my five-part series about stress management. The first three parts can be found here:

I recommend reading the blog posts in chronological order.

Common sense tools

In part 3 I promised to divide stress management tools into two categories: Common sense tools and non-intuitive tools. Let’s look at the common sense tools in this part 4 and non-intuitive tools (which need some understanding of psychology) in the next post in part 5.

Common sense stress management tools are just as their name implies - just common sense. But there are quite a lot of scientific studies that they work - e.g. physical exercise helps to relieve the symptoms of depression. I’ll provide my listing of some common sense tools - everyone can add his or her items to the list - the most important thing is that these items should revitalize you.

Why Some Activity is a “Common Sense Tool”?

The idea of common sense tools is that they are somehow “revitalizing”. Have a look at the graph of Stress Management Part 1. Think about these viewpoints:

  • Common sense tools are “positive”, “revitalizing” things in your life. Your life comprises a lot of things: work, family, friends, hobbies, other activities and most certainly some worries (at least occasionally). A positive revitalizing thing is simply a thing in your life that you enjoy and that makes you happier and your overall well-being more satisfactory.
  • You should have a lot more revitalizing things than consuming things in your life. You can think of yourself as a battery: the revitalizing things in your life charge your mental batteries and consuming things that consume your mental batteries. You want your batteries to be fully charged. If they are only minimally charged for a long period of time - the result can be as horrible as a burn-out.
  • Common sense tools make your Width of perspective in life wider - which is a major positive thing helping you from dropping down to unhealthier levels in the Vicious Cycle of Stress. This is also why you should endeavor to stay in the Normal area of life because there your Width of perspective in life is wider and you have a lot more positive things.
  • Common sense tools are things that lower your stress level simply because you spend less time with things that cause stress in your life. The idea of common sense tools is that you spend more time with revitalizing things than consuming things (that cause stress). They also help you not to think stressors in your life (this slips a bit to the category of non-intuitive stress management tools - more about them in part 5).

List of Common Sense Tools

Ok, let’s go to the list of common sense tools.

  • Sleep. Lack of sleep or bad sleep will affect your brain so that you have less resilience to stress. Long term sleep deprivation has a major risk pulling you down the Vicious cycle of stress. If you sleep badly, consult a doctor or seek help e.g. from the internet using keywords “sleep hygiene” etc. Bad sleep and stress are a really bad combination since they easily form together a vicious negative feedback loop that worsens both your future sleep and your future resilience to stress (and again amplifies both problems - that’s why it’s called a negative feedback loop). Break this negative loop as soon as you notice it.
  • Family. A lot of data says that family protects your mental health. Mental problems are more common among people who live alone. This doesn’t mean that you are determined to be sad if you live alone, the data just says that on the average family people do it better. There are two conclusions to be drawn: If you live alone it might be a good idea to get a family (easier said than done). Another conclusion is that if you have a family, take good care of it since your mental health also depends on it.
  • Relationship. If you have a solid relationship with your spouse - that can be a real life-saver. There is a flip side of the coin, though. I once read a study which said that people (on average) see a good relationship to double their sense of happiness compared to people who live alone. But those people who saw their relationship as bad felt that the bad relationship made their overall happiness eight times worse compared to people who live alone. So, a relationship is basically, a gamble: compared to being alone you can double your happiness but with bad luck, you can loose eight times your happiness capital. Get a relationship if you think you can handle it - or otherwise, stay single.
  • Physical health. On average it’s a very good idea to take care of your physical health since good health protects your mental health and makes you more resilient to stressors ( = consuming things).
  • Positiveness. A positive attitude to life (happiness, hope, and optimism) has been proven to make you more resilient to stress and also gives you more years in life. There’s a famous study in psychology known as the “Nun study”. Nuns have a pretty similar lifestyle, so they make a good homogenous group for psychological studies. In the famous Nun study, the young nuns were divided into two groups based on how positive or negative attitudes they had towards life. Then the researches waited for some decades and watched the nuns drop: the “positive” nuns lived considerably longer (I guess the research was also passed to the second generation of researchers since nuns tend to live long). Another interesting thing is that you can learn to be positive (but let’s write another blog article about that someday).
  • Relatives. Relationships with other relatives than your immediate family members also tend to make people happier. In cultures in which it is common to live near a lot of relatives and have close relationships with them, people tend to have fewer mental problems (and stress). Maybe they talk more with each other (see talking below).
  • Friends. Friends are good in the same way as family and relatives. With a good friend, you have a chance to talk about your problems. Some studies claim that talking to a good friend about your problems may be as effective as short term psychotherapy (and your friend probably isn’t going to charge you some 100 euros per hour).
  • Physical exercise. There is a lot of clinical evidence that physical exercise can be as effective as a mild antidepressant medication. If you don’t exercise anything now it’s time to start. Good alternatives are e.g. jogging, walking (e.g. nordic walking), cycling, gym exercise, etc. I do long walks with my best friend Miska in Haltiala woods - three common sense tools at the same time: a pet, nature, and exercise! I also do a basic gym exercise in my basement some three times a week using just my body weight - a simple but good exercise to do (and I can watch some documentaries on TV at the same time).
  • Make a line between work and home. Depending on the resilience of your psyche you should consider making some rules of engagement between work and home. The best way to pull yourself down the Vicious cycle of stress is to bring stressful work to home. It might be a good idea to make some basic rules on how you operate, e.g:
    • Don’t bring work at home. Do work at your office and make your home a work-free zone in your life. This practice enforces your sense of mental freedom - but let’s talk about the non-intuitive tools in the next part.
    • Don’t do over-long days at work. After a normal working day go home - you also probably work better the next day when you are refreshed.
    • Keep your work phone offline at home and don’t check your work email. Your free time is your free time and meant for your relaxation. If you are 24/7 mentally connected to your work this may pull you gradually down.
  • Reasonable workload. If you feel some kind of “insufficiency”, non-stop haste, or hopelessness in your work you should strongly consider contacting your line manager and talking with him or her about your job description and your workload. If there is a constant big gap between your sensed requirements at work and your strength to handle your work or your capabilities, this condition may result eventually in burn-out. So, your common sense tool is to have a reasonable workload.
  • Talking. Talking is good. If you have problems, talk to somebody: your spouse, family member, relative, friend, colleague, doctor. Someone else most probably will have a different and more objective way to look at your problems. Maybe together you will find some new aspects and ways out of your problems.
  • Hobbies. Hobbies are an excellent way to lower stress. If you have some hobby which requires intensive concentration all the better (let’s talk about concentration more in the next part when we talk about non-intuitive tools). Outdoor hobbies that require physical exercise are also very good.
  • Less haste. Haste is bad. Haste makes your mind to signal your body that there is a pack of lions chasing you. Try to think about how you could drop some things out of your life that create haste (and especially if they are consuming things). Be creative, you certainly find some things that are not that important after all.
  • Nature. The meditative aspect of nature is very important (more about that in the next part). Walking in nature is also very good for your physical health.
  • Humour. You should take things less seriously and have more fun. Laughing is good for your brain. It’s pretty amazing, but studies have shown that even artificial laughing and artificial smiling have positive effects on your mental health! Somehow your body doesn’t “know” whether you are laughing/smiling artificially or for real, and your body signals to your psyche that “something fun must be happening right now”, which pushes your brain into a better mood. Humour can also help you to see things (even some bad things) in another (funny) way and maybe this new perspective can raise you above the troubling issue as an observer (more about mindfulness later). Humour is a very good tool to handle stress, so you should definitely learn to use it. Try to learn to be funnier!
  • Learning. Learning has two major effects on your brain. The first effect is that learning, in general, protects your brain from deteriorating too soon (new neural connections, refreshing existing neural connections). The second effect is that if you are learning a new skill that you enjoy you have a new common sense revitalizing tool that helps you from thinking stressors in your life - the less you think the stressors, the better. I study programming languages and new technologies as you may already have read in my earlier blog posts.
  • Pets. Various studies have shown that pets have revitalizing effects on human beings. I got my first dog - Miska the Samoyed - some three years ago. I got also a new best friend and new revitalizing activities to do with my best friend, more about that in the About page.
  • A lot of other funny and revitalizing things - just continue the list with your favorite activities that you like. The only rule to follow is that the thing must be revitalizing and you should enjoy doing it.

My life is nowadays quite easy as it is - my children are already adults and I have a lot of free time to do whatever I like. If you have small children your situation is a lot more challenging. But then it is even more important for you to take care of your mental health - your children need happy wellbeing parents to grow themselves into happy and healthy adults.

In the next part, we are going to talk about more non-intuitive stress management tools. So, stay tuned and do something fun today.

The writer has double majors: Master of Arts (Psychology) and Master of Science (Software Engineering). The writer has spent his career in the field of software industry but still reads various psychology related articles with great interest.

Kari Marttila