WHAT IS STRESS?
We all sometimes talk about stress, and feeling stressed, usually when we feel we have too much to do and too much on our minds, or other people are making unreasonable demands on us, or we are dealing with situations that we do not have control over.
Stress is not a medical diagnosis, but severe stress that continues for a long time may lead to a diagnosis of depression or anxiety, or more severe mental health problems.
You can reduce the effects of stress by being more conscious of the things that cause it, and learning to handle them better, using relaxation techniques as well as other life-style changes.
WHAT CAUSES STRESS?
Situations which are recognised to be very stressful are associated with change, and with lack of control over what is happening. Some of the causes of stress are happy events, but because they bring big changes or make unusual demands on you, they can still be stressful.
SOME OF THE MOST STRESSFUL EVENTS ARE:
- Moving house
- Getting married
- Having a baby
- Serious illness in yourself or a friend or family member.
Stress is also caused by long-term difficult circumstances, such as:
- Relationship problems
- caring for a disabled family member or friend
- Difficulties at work
- bad housing
- noisy neighbours.
Not having enough work, activities or change in your life can be just as stressful as have too much activity and change to deal with.
IS STRESS HARMFUL?
Stress can have a positive side. A certain level of stress may be necessary and enjoyable in order to help you prepare for something or to actually do it – e.g. if you are taking part in a performance, taking an exam or you have to do an important piece of work for a deadline – it will be stressful even if you enjoy it, and the stress itself will keep you alert and focussed.
Our physical reactions to stress are determined by our biological history and the need to respond to sudden dangers that threatened us when we were still hunters and gatherers. In this situation, the response to danger was ‘fight or flight’. Our bodies still respond in this way, releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol .
The release of adrenaline causes rapid changes to your blood flow and increases your breathing and heart rate, to get you ready to defend yourself (fight) or to run away (flight). You become pale, sweat more and your mouth becomes dry.
Your body responds in this way to all types of stress as if it were a physical threat. You may merely be having an argument with someone, but your body may react as though you were facing a wolf. If the threat is physical, you use the effects of the adrenaline appropriately – to fight or to run, and when the danger is passed your body recovers. But if the stress is emotional, the effects of adrenaline subside more slowly, and you may go on feeling agitated for a long time. If the causes of stress are long-term, you may always be tensed up to deal with them and never relaxed. This is very bad for both your physical and your mental health.
The other stress hormone, cortisol, is present in your body all the time, but levels increase in response to danger and stress. In the short-term, its effects are positive, to help you deal with an immediate crisis, but longterm stress means that cortisol builds up and creates a number of stressrelated health problems.
SHORT-TERM POSITIVE EFFECTS:
- A quick burst of energy
- Decreased sensitivity to pain
- Increase in immunity
- Heightened memory.
LONG-TERM NEGATIVE EFFECTS:
- Imbalances of blood sugar
- Increase in abdominal fat storage
- suppressed thyroid activity
- decreased bone density
- Decreased muscle mass
- High blood pressure
- lowered immunity
- Less able to think clearly.
People’s tolerance of stress varies. A situation that is intolerable to one person may be stimulating to another. What you feel is determined not just by events and changes in the outside world, but how you perceive and respond to them. The important point is that you can learn to recognise your own responses to stress and develop skills to deal with it well.
How can I tell if I’m under too much stress? There are a number of symptoms that suggest you are under stress. The more of the following you experience, the more stressed you are.
HOW YOUR BODY MAY REACT
- Fast shallow breathing
- Constant tiredness
- Sleeping problems
- Tendency to sweat
- Nervous twitches
- Cramps or muscle spasms
- Pins and needles
- High blood pressure
- feeling sick or dizzy
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Craving for food
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Lack of appetite
- Sexual difficulties
- Chest pains
- Grinding your teeth at night
HOW YOU MAY FEEL
- Fearing failure
- Dreading the future
- A loss of interest in others
- Taking no interest in life
- That there’s no-one to confide in
- A loss of sense of humour
- Bad or ugly
- Fearful that you are seriously ill
HOW YOU MAY BEHAVE
- Finding it difficult to make decisions
- Finding it difficult to concentrate
- Denying there’s a problem
- Avoiding difficult situations
- Frequently crying
- Biting your nails
- Unable to show your true feelings
- Being very snappy or aggressive
- Finding it difficult to talk to others
If you tick off your own reactions, you can get an idea of your personal responses to stress. This can help you recognise signs of stress coming on, in the future.
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO HANDLE PRESSURE?
If your stress is caused by the pressure of being too busy and trying to fit too much into the day, you will need to plan each day, with time for work and other tasks, and time for relaxation. Making time for leisure, exercise and holidays is just as essential as spending time on business or home worries.
Remember that a little stress is good for the body and alerts the mind. But it needs to be short-term and to be followed by a period of relaxation.
MANAGE YOUR TIME
- 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.
- Make a list of things you have to do. Arrange them in order of importance, and try to do the most urgent ones first.
- Try to vary your tasks in a day. Vary dull jobs with interesting ones, tiring jobs with easier ones.
- Try not to do too many things at once. You could try to start something else if you have to wait for the next stage in a previous task, but if you have too many things going on at the same time, you will start to make mistakes.
- Once you’ve finished a task, take a few moments to pause and relax. Maybe have a healthy snack, spend a few minutes looking at the sky, or try a relaxation exercise.
- Have a change of scene. A short walk can make a big difference to how you feel, even if it’s a simple walk round the block. Try to focus on what is happening around you, rather than thinking about your worries.
- 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.
- Try to get away every so often, if you can, even if it’s only for a day out.
- Develop an absorbing hobby or interest – an activity that uses your brain in a completely different way from your everyday work can be a great release. It can also be a great way to make new friends. This is sometimes easier when you are focussing on a shared activity with others, and not on yourself.
- 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 them will also produce hormones which help you to relax.
- Practise being straightforward and assertive in communicating with others. If other people are making unrealistic or unreasonable demands on you, be prepared to tell them how you feel and to say no.
- If you find yourself in conflict with another person, try to find solutions which are positive for them as well as for you. Try to find the real cause of the problem and deal with it.
TRY TO ACCEPT THINGS YOU CAN’T CHANGE
It isn’t always possible to change the things you don’t like or find difficult, but you can try and change your own attitude to them so that you don’t build up feelings of resentment or start taking your feelings out on others.
“I saw a big road junction in India with a red traffic light that said, ‘Relax’. Maybe more road junctions should have these.”
HOW CAN I LEARN TO RELAX?
Relaxation is the natural answer to stress. Everyone should make time in the day to relax, whether we feel under stress, or not.
People often confuse relaxation with recreation. However, if hobbies or other activities – including exercise – become excessive, and make you feel even more driven or pressurised, they cease to be relaxing. If you are already exhausted in daily life, trying to relax by doing even more is not the answer.
The first thing is 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, or getting impatient with the photocopier. Instead take the opportunity for a few moments of calm.
The second is to learn some breathing and relaxation techniques.
Breathing Relaxation starts with breathing. Many people – especially those who are under stress – have a tendency to take shallow breaths, using only the top part of their chest to breathe, and not their stomach muscles. Learning to breathe more deeply can make you feel a lot calmer and increase your sense of wellbeing. Making your out-breath longer than your in-breath is especially calming.
TO IMPROVE THE WAY YOU BREATHE, TRY THIS SIMPLE EXERCISE:
- Sit down, or lie down on your back. Make sure you are comfortable, and loosen any tight clothing.
- Notice how you are breathing, how fast, how deeply, and how regularly.
- Put one hand on your upper chest and one on your stomach, just below your belly button.
- Slowly breathe out (count to 11)
- Gently breathe in (count to 7), so that you feel your stomach rise slowly under your hand.
- Breathe out again (count to 11), feeling your stomach fall.
- Pause for a few moments and then repeat the process again.
If you find that only the hand on your stomach moves, then you are breathing correctly. There should be little or no movement in your upper chest; your hand should stay still. Once you have learned to breathe this way, you may find you get into the habit of it all the time, and not just at chosen relaxation times.
There are three important parts to relaxation techniques:
- Preparation – this means making time for relaxation, choosing a suitable position and making sure you are comfortable.
- Method – this should follow a logical sequence, and it will be more effective if you stick to the suggested order.
- Recovery – this should be part of any exercise you do. Make sure you include time for this part in your plans.
With regular practice and repetition, relaxation will become second nature.
- If possible, plan to set aside a specific time each day
- If you can, choose a quiet place. It’s easier to learn if you are not interrupted. • If you have young children, see if they will join in doing the exercises and then snuggle up to enjoy the peace and stillness.
- It’s impossible to relax if you are cold, so make sure you are comfortably warm.
- Avoid practising relaxation when you are hungry or just after eating a meal.
- If you use a CD or MP3 player have it close by so that you can operate it without difficulty.
Don’t worry about whether you’re doing everything correctly; just do what you can, and enjoy the feeling.
WHAT ELSE CAN I DO TO COPE WITH STRESS?
Acknowledging your problems Sometimes , people let their lives slip into chaos to mask underlying problems they are not facing or dealing with. The only person who can decide if this is happening is you and, if it is, it may be a good idea to consider talking things through with a professional. (See ‘Useful contacts’, and Mind’s booklet making sense of talking treatments.) Once you’ve begun to tackle your problems, you will then be more able to relax.
Sleep is very important to health, and sleep problems, such as insomnia, are a common sign of stress. Lying awake worrying about things can make everything seem a lot worse – and the small hours of the morning are the worst time to be thinking about them. If you find you can’t stop worrying it may help to write a list of the things that are bothering you, or write yourself a letter about them. Once they are recorded, you may be able to switch off and relax more easily. Some people find it very helpful to keep a diary.
Mindfulness is an approach to wellbeing that involves accepting life and living ‘in the moment’. This includes paying attention to the present moment and taking time to see what is happening around you in a nonjudgmental way, rather than focussing on what you are trying to get done and going over your problems again and again. It involves being aware of each thought, feeling or sensation that comes to you and accepting it.
Physical activity – as long as it is not done to excess – is important for reducing stress levels and preventing some of its damaging effects on the body.
Exercise does not need to be sporty or competitive; you can benefit simply by becoming more active, as part of your daily routine. Walking or cycling rather than taking the car or bus, or climbing the stairs rather than using the lift, can help a lot.
When things get too hectic or difficult, and you feel under stress, it’s often easy to forget about eating well. But what you eat, and when you eat, can make a big difference to how you feel and how well you cope. It’s important to make time for regular food or snacks and not to miss out on meals, such as breakfast. Try not to rush; take time to enjoy what you’re eating.
The key to a healthy diet is variety of different types of food, with a balance of protein, carbohydrate, oily fat and fibre, including plenty of fruit and vegetables.
When you are tired and stressed you may feel like a quick sugar rush, but this will leave you feeling tired again later. It’s important to keep a steady blood sugar level. Usually we are only aware of this if it has dropped and we suddenly feel weak and hungry; but it may also affect your mood, making you depressed or bad-tempered. If you can, try to eat things that are digested more slowly and give you a steady supply of energy.
It’s also important to drink plenty of fluids; however, many sweet fizzy drinks and caffeinated drinks can make you feel quite jittery – especially if you are already stressed.