At the time of posting this it is International Stress Awareness Week, so we thought what better than raise some awareness by writing about it. When you are stressed and you feel a bit down or anxious (or any other feeling for that matter), you don’t realise what effect this has on your physical and mental health. Given that most of our stressors tend to be long-term (e.g. housing worries, work worries or money worries), this can have a repetitive knock on effect to our health.
So, let’s start with the basics – what is stress?
Stress can be defined as the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable.
Generally speaking, stress is our body’s response to pressures from a situation or life event but what we consider to be a stressor is very individual. By this we mean what you find unbelievably stressful is different to what another person finds unbelievably stressful. With that being said, there are some common features of things that can make us feel stressed including experiencing something new or unexpected, something that threatens your feeling of self, or feeling you have little control over a situation. More long-term, but equally common, stressors include divorce/separation, loosing a job, housing concerns, debt and work (did you know that work-related stress accounts for an average of 23.9 days of work lost for every person affected?).
People also have different ways of coping and the amount of stress they can tolerate.You know when you watch those Wall Street movies and people have these crazy, fast-pace jobs, they still get stressed (or could even be in a constant state of stress) but can manage it well enough to get through things. Although we are all susceptible to stress, there are some groups of people who are more likely to experience stressful life events, for example people with money concerns, people within the LGBTQ+ community or those with pre-existing health conditions.
Biologically speaking, when we encounter stress, our body is stimulated to produce stress hormones that trigger a ‘flight or fight’ response and activate our immune system. This response helps us to respond quickly to dangerous situations, in which we may decide to tackle the situation head-on…or not. But stress responses are not always negative. In some situations, it is appropriate or even beneficial, for example helping you push through situations that can be nerve-wracking or intense, like running a marathon, or giving a speech to a large crowd. In these sort of situations the stress response wears off without a negative effect on our health. However, there can be times when stress becomes excessive, long-lasting and too much to deal with. If our stress response is activated repeatedly, or it persists over time, the effects can cause you to feel permanently in this state of ‘fight or flight’. This can make you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope.
Am I stressed?
It is not uncommon for an individual to be unaware that they are stressed, or that they experience chronic/long-term stress, but there are 3 telling signs.
- Behaving differently
For example, you may become more withdrawn, indecisive, irritable, angry or tearful. You may sleep less or sleep poorly and be less willing to engage in activities you used to enjoy. More obviously, people begin to, or increase the amount of, smoking, drinking or taking drugs. Family and close friends may notice before you because these behavioural changes may directly affect how you interact with them.
- More emotional than usual
We touched upon this above but you may feel anxious, depressed, sad or frustrated. These feelings can sometimes feed on each other and produce physical symptoms, making you feel even worse.
- Body changes
Physical illness can begin due to stress, including headaches, nausea or even indigestion. You may breathe more quickly, perspire more, have palpitations or suffer from various aches and pains. These symptoms will stop if the stressor is short-lived but if not your sleep and memory may worsen, eating habits may change, or you may feel less inclined to exercise.
Now, how to manage my stress…
- Be observant. Recognise the signs of your body’s response to stress. We have summarised the most obvious signs above, so there is no excuse!
- Get regular exercise. Just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood and improve your health.
- Try a relaxing activity. Explore relaxation or mindfulness, which may incorporate meditation, muscle relaxation, or breathing exercises. Schedule regular times for this.
- Set goals and priorities. Decide what must get done now and what can wait. Learn to say “no” to new tasks if you start to feel like you’re taking on too much. Try to be mindful of what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do. To-do lists are great here.
- Stay connected. Keep in touch with people who can provide emotional support and practical help. To reduce stress, ask for help from friends, family or even mental health charities.
- Talk to someone. Seek help from your GP or any other healthcare professional sooner rather than later. The quicker you reduce your stress levels, the less likely you are to experience the negative effects. It is also possible that you have secondary conditions, for example depression or anxiety, that can be causing the elevated stress levels. You can contact us. We have a host of healthcare professionals ready to help you.
- Consider a clinical trial. This was one we read about and thought it would be great to include. Just because we are in the middle of a pandemic does not mean that the research stops. Being on a clinical trial has many benefits. Other than hoping you are in an active group with treatment, you can feel a sense of belonging because you are doing this alongside people who fit the same criteria as you. You can see what is going on currently here (ClinicalTrials.gov)and for your keyword write stress: