Living Well With A Disability: 5 Powerful Strategies To Combat Stress

John came to see me for an appointment just after Christmas. It had been a tough holiday for him this year. 3 months earlier he had been diagnosed with a condition called chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) which causes extreme tiredness, muscle pain, poor sleep and headaches. Trying to manage Christmas with his partner and his family, while also trying to cope with his illness became too much for John and by New Year he was locked away in his bedroom, stressed and exhausted.

John had found out about my service through a friend and he called me to say that he was struggling and needed help. I asked him how he knew that he was stressed and he explained that he felt overwhelmed by his emotions. He found that he was easily irritated, the little things (and the big things) stressed him out and he worried constantly, like his brain was on overdrive. He told me that he felt the stress in his body, his muscles felt tense and he kept getting butterflies in his stomach. When he was stressed he found that he either took it out on those that he loved or he wanted to run and hide and not face his problems anymore.

There are an estimated 10 million disabled people in the UK like John, many who face extra challenges as a result of their disability. An American survey showed that 45% of people with a disability (and 36% of those with a chronic illness) reported a lot of current stress. Statistics from the UK government show that people with a disability rate their life satisfaction and happiness lower (and their anxiety levels higher) than those who do not report a disability.

It’s almost Easter now and John is doing a lot better. He is calmer and more relaxed and he is feeling more hopeful and optimistic. Dealing with his CFS is still hard work, but he knows that his symptoms improve when his mood improves.

So I asked John, “What did you find most useful about the treatment?”.

And so, these are the 5 strategies that helped John combat his stress. These strategies can also help you to manage your stress, both now and in the future.


Reach Out To Family & Friends

If you are stressed it is common to just want to go back to bed and throw the duvet over your head. Unfortunately, spending time by yourself (sometimes called social isolation) can make you to feel worse about your situation and can lead to depression.

Staying connected with family and friends will help you feel stronger and more resilient.

John found that calling an old friend from high school really helped to cheer him up and put things into perspective. He also made sure that he built time into his week to spend quality time with his partner, such as going out for a meal or going to the pictures.

There are lots of things that you can do to stay socially active, for example:

  • Take up a hobby or pastime that gets you out the house and meeting other people
  • Take up a sport or go and watch your favourite club play
  • Write a letter to an old friend
  • Invite your family round for a meal

Learn to relax

When we are stressed our brain triggers something called the fight or flight response (sometimes called the stress response). This change is designed to help us to cope with life or death situations (like being chased by a lion). This is what creates a lot of the unpleasant symptoms of stress such as tense muscles, heart beating faster and stronger, shortness of breath and sweaty palms.

When we are dealing with long term stress, or chronic stress, we are constantly being triggered and our body doesn’t have the chance to go back to a state of balance (what scientists call homeostasis). Therefore, we need to learn deep relaxation so that we can trigger the relaxation response (the opposite of the stress response).

When I talk about deep relaxation, I’m not talking about watching Eastenders with a bottle of beer after a day at work. Deep relaxation is created by switching off the outside world and “letting go” completely.

I taught John how to use hypnosis to relax (and you can follow this link to practice a simple 10 minute hypnotic relaxation session) but there are lots of other useful techniques you can look into:

  • Meditation
  • Autogenic training
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Deep breathing
  • Yoga

Practice Acceptance

John had his life already mapped out. He was ambitious in work and had career goals that he wanted to achieve. He was going to travel and see the world. He also wanted kids of his own in the future.

John felt like his CFS had robbed him of all his dreams.

We talked through the benefits of learning to accept his situation. Just as we grieve when we lose a loved one, we can also grieve when we lose the life we thought we were going to have. However, whilst it is healthy to grieve, it’s not healthy to brood about the past or a future that you were never promised.

I gave John this quote written almost 2000 years ago by a philosopher called Epictetus:

“When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it.”

John began to focus on the life he had, limitations and all. He used mindfulness techniques to be more present and found that he didn’t get so easily hooked into negative thoughts or feelings. He learnt to use his energies planning for the things he could do, rather than worrying about the things he couldn’t do.

Acceptance can be a practice that takes time, but John found that “letting go” and accepting that things were the way that they were helped him to deal with life so much better.


Commit to your values

When we are stressed we lose focus of the things that are important to us. The impact of John’s stress meant that he had lost his direction in life. Spending some time thinking about his values, helped John to get back on track. He started to do more of the things that he enjoyed and were meaningful to him and less of the things that were unhelpful.

Our values are what give our life meaning and purpose. They are expressed through our behaviours and our actions. They are different to goals as they don’t have an end-point. Examples of values are:

  • Compassion
  • Assertiveness
  • Generosity
  • Fun
  • Loyalty
  • Self-control
  • Teamwork
  • Vitality

Spend some time thinking about the different aspects of your life; work, family, relationships, education, parenting etc. Then think about how you want that aspect of your life to look if you were fully committed to your values.

For example, “In my personal relationship with my partner my intention is to be caring and affectionate when I am with them”.

Thinking about you values might help you get involved in new and interesting activities, such as:

  1. Joining a disability support group
  2. Volunteering in your local community
  3. Getting involved in a local church or faith group
  4. Starting an educational course

Get Organised

In his working life, John was a manager who loved being in control. He always had his things-to-do list handy and put all his appointments in his online calendar. He always knew what his priorities were and always met his deadlines.

His personal life, on the other hand, was completely chaotic. Bills were always paid late, birthdays missed and bins never went out on the right day.

This just added extra pressure on John and made him feel more stressed.

By applying some simple planning techniques John was able to get his home life back under control and reduce his stress.

The easiest strategy to start with is called the 4 D’s of productivity. When a task comes your way, use the 4D’s to decide how best to deal with it:

  • Do it – If the task can be dealt with straight away, don’t wait  – get it done straight away
  • Delegate it – Is there someone else better placed to deal with it? If so pass it on. You might agree to do something in return to help them out
  • Ditch it – If it’s really not important, bin it. Then you can focus your energies on more important stuff
  • Defer it – If the task is non-urgent, or you don’t have time to complete it, put a reminder in your calendar or diary and allocate enough time to deal with it.

Get Organised: 6 Steps To Less Stress

I always find it interesting how clients can be brilliantly efficient and effective in some areas of their life but not in others. For example, clients who can manage so well in stressful working conditions,
who can manage large teams of staff or complex working environments, can fall apart when dealing with a difficult home life. The skills and knowledge that they draw on in the workplace go out the window when confronted with a stroppy toddler or intrusive parent.

Using effective time management and organisational skills throughout our lives is a great way to reduce our stress and anxiety. Many clients find themselves overwhelmed by emotions when dealing with life’s challenges and it is usually linked to a feeling of losing control. Learning to relax and slow down, by using techniques such as hypnosis or mindfulness, can really help but so to can making some very simple and practical changes.

If you want to get back that feeling of self-control, and start to feel less stressed, try to incorporate these 6 changes into your life today.

Ditch Perfectionism

Striving to do your best can be a good trait to have. It can lead to great achievements in your life such as passing exams or a successful and rewarding career. However, research shows that the dark side of perfectionism can lead to poor physical health and even an early death.

Setting high standards for yourself can help you to achieve personal and professional goals, but setting unrealistic standards throughout your life can lead to unwanted stress.  

The key to ditching perfectionism is starting to accept that you can’t be perfect at everything that you do. Begin by changing your “self talk” – the words that you say to yourself. Replace “I must…”, “I should…”, “I have to…” with more realistic words such as “I hope to…”, “I’d like to…”, “I wish to…”.

Then make sure that you start to set yourself goals and targets that are realistic and achievable. No one can be the perfect parent, perfect partner, perfect employee and the perfect son or daughter.  

Finally, congratulate yourself on your successes but be more compassionate with yourself when things don’t go the way you had hoped.

Stop Procrastinating

Do you find yourself putting tasks off or avoiding them completely? Perhaps you are avoiding them because you’ve just got too much on, or perhaps you are just not motivated to do it. If you are a perfectionist perhaps you are avoiding it because you don’t want to do it badly or wrong, or perhaps it’s a task that you know (or assume) you are just not going to enjoy doing.

Procrastination, and the worry that sometimes comes from putting off a task, especially with an impending deadline, can lead to additional stress. Much better to tackle the task head on as early as possible.

A great way to avoid procrastination is to start by reaffirming your goal.  Is it a task that really needs to be done? Are you the best person to do it? Do you know anyone else who has completed it who can give you some advice? What is the outcome if the task isn’t completed?

Then set yourself a realistic deadline and allocate sufficient time in your diary to complete it.

Finally break the task down into smaller, more manageable steps.

Set Priorities

When we have so many competing tasks and deadlines it can be hard to see the wood for the trees and easy to become overwhelmed by negative emotions. To prevent this from happening take some time to set your priorities. What are the key tasks that you need to complete and what can be pushed back, or is simply no longer required?  Once you’ve made a decision on your most important tasks you can begin by completing those tasks first.

Have A System

For many people who are stressed, when their brain is ramped up and on high alert, their mind becomes filled with all the things that they have to get done. In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen stresses the importance of moving planned tasks and projects out of your head and having a proper system for filing and recording them. In Problem-Solving Therapy: A Treatment Manual the authors discuss the value of “externalising”, getting all the clutter out of your head so that you can think more clearly.

Many of us might be really organised in work, but allow our personal life to become chaotic. To get organised quickly and simply there are 4 essential steps:

  • Set up a filing system – invest in some folders and something to store them in (you don’t need to buy a filing cabinet, a small expander file might be sufficient). Collect everything in your house that needs to be filed away eg bank statements, theatre tickets, instruction manuals, post-it notes and create a file for each. Make sure you create suitable systems for electronic documents and email as well.
  • Get a note taking device, either a physical notebook or an electronic one such as the Evernote app. Use it to jot down ideas or anything that comes to mind – get it out of your head!!
  • Buy a calendar/diary or make the most of online calendars such as Google Calendar. Put everything in it – birthdays, anniversaries, appointments. Start to use it to book time out for things that are important to you eg going to the gym, meeting friends, taking the kids swimming.
  • Start a task list/things to do list – again, this can be physical, such as an A4 pad, or electronic, such as the app Remember The Milk. Write down everything that you need to do, no matter how small. Review it regularly and keep it updated.

Start to say “No”

Are you a people pleaser? Does it feel wrong to say “No” when others ask you for help? Are other people’s responsibilities getting in the way of your goals?  Then you need to start saying “No”.

It might seem hard at first, you might feel that you are letting other people down or are worried that other people will think badly of you. However, learning to say “No” can be liberating. Consider how much extra time and energy you would have if you had said “No” more often.

So, start to practice saying “No” to the small requests and work your way up to bigger things. Don’t apologise and avoid the trap of saying things like “I will try to do it later if I’ve got time”. Learn to be polite but firm and accept that you can only be responsible for your own feelings and you can’t influence how other people feel.

Learn To Delegate

Just as many people can’t say “No”, others find it difficult to delegate tasks. Perhaps it’s the fear that another person won’t do the job as well as you (see Ditch Perfectionism) or perhaps you don’t want to be seen as being weak. Whatever the reason, now is a great time to start delegating tasks.

The 4 D’s is a classic productivity system for deciding what to do with the tasks you have:

  • Drop it – Does it really need doing? If not, drop it
  • Do it – Can it be done straight away? Then do it now
  • Defer it – Is it going to take more time or resources or knowledge than you’ve got now? Then defer it
  • Delegate it – Are you the best person to do this task? If not, delegate it

In the workplace if you are a manager, then delegation is a skill that you should be developing anyway. Even if you are not a manager there may be opportunities to delegate tasks to colleagues who are better suited to the task. Perhaps in return you could do something that you are better at or would enjoy more.

Even within a family setting, tasks can be delegated effectively. Including children in household chores is a vital part of learning life skills. Teaching children to tidy their own room, wash up or make their own breakfast can free up your time considerably. Make sure you explain the task fully to them and learn to accept that they aren’t going to reach your standards straight away.