This year, the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is Stress.
Stress can be defined as a state in which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope with pressures that feel unmanageable.
What does stress feel like?
We all know what it’s like to feel stressed – it seems to be a normal part of our lives and many of us refer to ‘feeling stressed’ as an almost daily occurrence.
What makes us feel stressed can vary hugely from person to person and differs depending on our social and economic circumstances, the environment we live in and our own different personalities.
In certain situations stress can be useful – it can motivate us to finish that essay or run that last mile. But it can also feel overwhelming and lead to a range of mental health problems that can seriously affect the way we live our lives.
You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response. This is a response that helps us to react quickly to dangerous situations. When we are stressed, we produce hormones that trigger whether we fight or take flight. If our stress response is activated repeatedly, we can begin to feel permanently in a state of ‘fight or flight’ . Rather than helping us to push through, this pressure can make us feel overwhelmed, anxious and unable to cope.
What makes us stressed?
Wherever you look, there are surveys about what makes us stressed. The death of a loved one, divorce or separation, losing a job and money problems are major factors often cited but other triggers can include health worries, not getting enough sleep, the amount of work we need to get through in a day and the pressures we put on ourselves. Often small, seemingly manageable pressures can build-up and create a feeling of continual stress. Even positive life changes – like moving to a bigger house, getting a longed-for job promotion, going on holiday or planning a party – can be sources of stress.
The signs of stress
When you are stressed you may feel anxious or fearful, angry, frustrated or worthless. And sometimes these feelings can produce physical symptoms, making you feel even worse.
Stress at work can also have negative impacts on mental health – long hours, excessive workloads, tight deadlines, bullying and lack of support are some of the common issues people face. In today’s economic climate, there is a tendency to feel “grateful” to have a job and the pressures of working life can be accepted rather than questioned. Some people can even consider it a weakness to suggest they are unable to cope.
Stress can show up in many ways.
Being able to “switch off” can be an issue, as can getting to sleep or staying asleep. Stress can cause exhaustion in other ways – constantly running from one emergency to another and not taking the time to rest or recuperate can create burnout and anxiety.
Or you may become an erratic timekeeper – taking on too many tasks, then trying to avoid tasks and leaving them until the last minute or becoming so overcome with worry that you get forgetful.
Becoming withdrawn may become a problem too. If your self-esteem or confidence is low, you may not feel capable of coping in social situations, so you may choose to avoid them – and withdrawal can be so subtle that you may not even realise it is happening.
Some people become irritable, angry or tearful; others may develop addictive or excessive behaviour – not just with food, alcohol or drugs but compulsive shopping, gaming or a reliance on social media. There may be a change in your sexual habits or the way you interact with family and friends.
Stress symptoms can also affect your bodily health and research suggests a strong link between stress and certain physical complaints such as High Blood Pressure and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Headaches, nausea and indigestion are also quite common symptoms that may be connected to stress levels as well as things like perspiring more, having palpitations or suffering from various aches and pains.
Who is affected by stress?
All of us can probably recognise at least some of the feelings described above and may have felt stressed and overwhelmed at some time or another. Some people seem to be more affected by stress than others and, for some people, simply getting out of the door on time each morning can feel too much. Although many people can find strategies that make them feel as if they’re coping, it is worth being aware of any changes in your normal behaviour so that you can take steps to combat stress sooner rather than later.
How can you help yourself?
The good news is that there are things you can do to help manage some of the signs of stress and identify, reduce and remove stressful factors that might cause you to feel overwhelmed.
If you feel comfortable, talking to a friend or someone close about your feelings may go a long way to help. But, everyone is different and sometimes that just isn’t enough to have a positive effect on long-term stress.
So, what can we do?
1. Recognise it and take control
An important step in tackling stress is to recognise it and try not to ignore warning signs like tense muscles, feeling over-tired, and experiencing headaches or migraines.
Once you have recognised it, try to identify why you might be feeling this way. Sort the possible reasons for your stress into different areas: those with a practical solution, those that may get better anyway given time, and those you can’t do anything about. Take control by taking small steps towards the things you can improve.
Think about a plan to tackle the areas where you can make a difference. This might involve setting yourself realistic expectations and prioritising essential commitments – and letting some stuff go. If you feel overwhelmed, ask people to help with the tasks you have to do and say no to things that you cannot take on.
2. Look at your lifestyle
Are you taking on too much right now? Are there things you are doing which someone else could do or help you with? Could you ease the pressure on yourself by taking a more leisurely pace? You may need to prioritise things you are trying to achieve and reorganise your life so that you are not trying to do everything at once.
3. Look after your health
A healthy diet will reduce the risk of diet-related diseases plus the right food can have a positive effect on our mood. Feelings of wellbeing can be protected by ensuring our diet provides adequate amounts of nutrients including essential vitamins and minerals, as well as water.
And, if possible, try to cut right down on smoking and drinking. You may think they will reduce tension, but they can make problems worse. In particular, alcohol can increase feelings of anxiety.
Exercise in almost any form can help relieve stress. Being active can boost your feel-good endorphins and distract you from daily worries.
We all know that exercise is good for your body but it can feel like another pressure to fit it into your life. The good news is that virtually any form of exercise, from swimming to walking to yoga, can act as a stress reliever. And, even if you’re out of shape, a little exercise can go a long way towards helping you manage your stress and anxiety – and add some much-needed energy and wellbeing to your daily life.
As you begin to regularly add some exercise to your daily routine, you may find that this focus on a single task, and the resulting energy and optimism, can help you to relax, improve your sleep and lower the symptoms associated with mild depression. Even a little bit of physical activity can make a difference, for example, walking for 15-20 minutes once or twice a week is a great start.
5. Take Time Out
Taking time to relax and allowing time to do positive things for yourself can be a very positive stress reducer. Striking a balance between responsibility to others and responsibility to yourself is vital in reducing stress levels.
6. Improve your sleep
As mentioned before, sleep problems are common when you’re feeling stressed. Exercise can be really beneficial, try to restrict your caffeine intake to the mornings and avoid screen time for an hour before bed to allow your body time to wind down. You can also increase your body’s store of melatonin (the sleep hormone) by getting outside more in the mornings. Our Yoga-for-Sleep classes on Mondays can be a great way to tackle your approach to sleep!
7. Be kind to yourself
Try to keep things in perspective and don’t be too hard on yourself. Look for things in your life that are positive.
If you still feel overwhelmed by stress, do seek professional help either through your GP or a professional counsellor. It may be exactly what you need to support you through this particular moment in your life. Many people feel reluctant to seek help as they see it as an admission of failure. This is not the case and it is important to get help as soon as possible so you can begin to feel better.