Feeling stressed is, for most people, an unpleasant situation to find yourself in. Stress is all about being under sustained, abnormal pressure and what’s interesting is that each person will have a different tolerance to pressure and stressors. Pressure comes from different facets of your life including, but not limited to:
An increase in the demands on your time
Significant changes to your life and/or routine
Arguments with your family, friends or colleagues
Oftentimes, these factors can have a cumulative effect with each stressor exacerbating others; you may encounter stressors building on top of and feeding off each other. These stressful situations may cause you to feel threatened or upset and your body may create a stress response; this can be in the form of a variety of physical symptoms, changes in your behaviour and the expression of more intense emotions.
Some common signs of stress include:
Regular feeling of anxiety or worry
Having trouble concentrating
Significant mood changes
Changes to your eating habits (more or less)
Changes to your sleeping pattern
Increased use of alcohol/tobacco/drugs
Problems with digestion
If you notice any of these symptoms and feel that they may be adversely affecting your life, health and wellbeing, then it can be a positive step if you are able to identify the potential cause(s) of stress in your life.
It is then useful if you are able to classify these causes into three buckets; those with a practical solution, those that will improve given time and those that, unfortunately, are not in your control to influence.
Without meaning to sound flippant, you should aim to stop worrying about the stressors in the second and third buckets and let them go. You could do this by trying mindfulness, refocusing or another worry management technique; see https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/index.html for some helpful hints. You should aim instead to focus your time and energy on those in the first bucket.
There are some questions that you can reflect on that may make it easier to determine if stress is becoming intrusive. Ask yourself the following questions:
Are you taking on too many tasks/too much responsibility?
Are there some things you are doing that could be done by someone else?
Could you do things in a more relaxed manner?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, then you may need to think about assigning priority to the things you are trying to achieve and, ultimately, to restructure how you are living your life.
Some studies have shown that moderate levels of stress can sometimes be beneficial and can help you to perform better in difficult situations. However, stress has only been found to be favourable if it is temporary; extreme or sustained stress can contribute to both mental and physical ill health such as heart disease, lowered immunity levels, digestive problems, anxiety and depression, among others. It is therefore crucial that you are able to manage stress and keep it at a healthy level to avoid long-term harm to body and mind.
Some of the common indicators of stress mentioned above – changes to sleeping pattern, sleeping problems, excessive sweating and changes to your eating habits appetite - are caused by an increase in stress hormones in your body that help you to deal with pressures or threats, more commonly known as the 'fight or flight' response. Adrenaline and noradrenaline lead to increased blood pressure, heart rate and your perspiration rate; this is your body preparing for an emergency response. These hormones may also reduce blood flow to your skin and decrease your stomach activity. Because of your body’s response to these hormones, you may experience headaches, muscle tension, nausea, indigestion and dizziness. You may also notice you are breathing more rapidly and have palpitations; the long-term effects of these symptoms mean a potential increase of risk of heart attack and stroke.
Once the pressure or threat has passed, your stress hormone levels will usually return to normal (typically in a few hours) and the symptoms will reduce. However, if you’re consistently experiencing stress, these hormones will remain in your system; over time, the accumulation of these chemicals and the subsequent changes to your body may be damaging for your health.
Looking now to mental wellbeing and behaviours, you may find that prolonged feelings of stress lead to increased anxiety, higher levels of irritability, lowered self-esteem, constant worry, repetitive thoughts, irrational decision making, increased aggressiveness (verbal and physical) and you may find you are losing your temper more easily. All of these can lead you to become indecisive, tearful and withdrawn from social interaction. This can then become a vicious cycle as stressful situations feed off responsive behaviours and thoughts.
The good news is that there are some relatively straightforward solutions that you can implement right now!
Talk about it
Sometimes, it’s not easy to see your way out of a situation because you are too involved in it or feel like you are stuck with no options to proceed. Even if you are not the kind of person who takes advice easily, the simple act of sharing your situation and the associated feelings can have a positive effect. This can be friends, family, colleagues, a support group, whoever. You never know, but they may provide you with a way ahead that you have not even thought of.
Think it through
Thinking you are stressed will make you feel stressed; being busy does not have to equal stress. So, listen to your everyday thoughts, take time to plan and prepare yourself and make yourself think that you have command of the situation. Our thoughts tell us that we are stressed, so we can use our thoughts to tell us the opposite too.
Do something that increases enjoyment in your life, whether its sport, arts, stamp collecting, whatever, if it brings you joy, plan in the time to do that thing and bring balance to your daily/weekly life. Ensure this is protected time and do not let a busy calendar put you off doing it, so you end up doing other things that do not restore you.
Exercise alone is unlikely to cure your stress, but it may help to organise your thoughts, clear your mind and help you to regain control. Something as simple as a walk (my favourite) can help, but the possibilities are endless. You can try something new such as yoga, or you can go for a bike ride and enjoy the feelings of being free and outside. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter as long as you take yourself away somewhat from the here and now. Conversely, it is not a good idea to try to alleviate the stress by drinking, smoking, overeating, etc; these are not fixes and are likely to only make you feel mentally and physically worse.
Put the phone away
This is a tricky one, for a lot of people, as it has become so ingrained in our lives to reach for the phone. My advice, as stated in a previous blog about sleep, is to put the phone away and out of reach an hour before bed. Instead, watch TV, read a book, listen to music, chat with your partner, whatever. Put the phone away and ignore it. You won’t be tempted to check emails about work or to scroll mindlessly though the distorted achievements of your friends, family and colleagues. This sensationalised spin on reality can lead to feelings of panic as you feel you are not as successful/inspirational/creative/enthusiastic as your peers. Take a breath and put the phone down.
A clear head
There has been research carried out that suggests that meditation can help to alleviate feelings of stress after just eight weeks of practice. One of the common benefits of meditation is a “reboot” of the brain, allowing for more capacity to manage stressors as they appear, before it starts to accumulate and overpowers you. This does not have to be an expensive intervention either. Contrary to my point above about putting the phone down, there are lots of apps that you can use on your meditation journey; Headspace is one of the more well-known and favoured ones by users.
Write a list
My favourite suggestion as I am a huge fan of writing lists (and the subsequent crossing off of items!) If you feel like you have too much to do, you may lapse into wild attempts to complete tasks with a lack of real focus; moving faster and acting busy gives the false impression that you are getting more stuff done but this is often a false impression of reality. Write a to-do list. The bold emphasis is intentional. Do not keep this list in your head and do not just say it loud. Writing it down helps to reinforce the tasks. Also, start with the small, easy items on your list and work your way up to the large, important things after you have completed some of the smaller items. The momentum that you will have generated will allow you to tackle the bigger items already feeling positive.
Healthy eating and drinking (enough) water
Some evidence suggests that what you eat may affect your mood; a diet that is rich in vegetables, lean meat (where appropriate), fruits, and is high in fibre and low in sugar will make you feel less lethargic and more able to manage potential stressors. I have long been a proponent of drinking enough water (as per a previous article) and I would again advocate it here. I aim to drink a minimum of two litres a day to ensure a clear head and a flushed system. There is also the extra benefit of additional toilet trips leading to more movement and less time at a screen!
It’s important to remember that its ok to ask for professional help. All the suggestions above you will broadly be able to do on your own. However, if you feel are struggling to manage on your own then you should reach out for assistance; it is important for you to know that you can request help as soon as you need it and that it is not a sign of weakness. There are many different organisations that can help but your first port of calls should be your GP or your local IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological therapies) service; one key benefit is that you can self-refer. They will be able to signpost you to the most suitable help that is available to you. This might be Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, mindfulness or a particular voluntary organisation (see below)