April is Stress Awareness Month in the UK, and has been running since 1992 amazingly. Despite this long time, stress levels in society are high and it is implicated in a range of mental health issues particularly anxiety and depression. The Stress Management Society have four main threads of focus this year’s month, which are:
- talk about stress and its effects
- share your coping mechanisms
- be nice to those who are stressed and anxious
- look after yourself.
I’ll try to address a couple of those in this blog post, but one you’ll have to do yourself!
To start, stress is a huge topic hiding behind a little word. We can feel stressed about quite little things, as well as larger situations. And although something quite minor, perhaps waiting a few minutes in a queue, isn’t as ‘stressful’ as a major incident e.g. your boiler breaking and not being able to afford a replacement, the way the body responds to a stressful situation is exactly the same.
I have written a short handout about the stress response which you can download for free. In it I explain what the stress response is, and what you can do to activate the opposing response, the ‘rest and digest’ response. In brief, when you feel stressed the body activates the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, and diverts energy and nutrients from things like digestion and the immune system towards things like the muscles and increases blood pressure and heart rate so that it’s ready to take action. This is not a problem in itself, but, it becomes problematic when the source of stress doesn’t go away e.g. if your daily work is stressful, and if the body begins to lower the threshold so that the stress response is triggered from smaller and smaller incidents, and the body stays on high alert for longer each time. Over time persistent stress can lead to digestive problems, sleep problems, heart and muscular problems, lower immunity, mood fluctuations, inflammation and hormone problems.
But, before you start getting stressed about all those problems, it is possible to reduce your levels of stress and improve your body’s resilience. Some things that I find helpful include listening to music that I find calming or soothing (or loud and angry stuff if I need to let go of things!, practising meditation, being active outside e.g. walking, running or cycling, and eating chocolate (of course!). Yoga and having a relaxing massage are also good. Maybe you can come up with a list of three or five things that make you feel more relaxed and a bit happier.
Spending time looking after yourself is beneficial – not only if you’re feeling stressed, but also as a preventative approach. If you can incorporate your ‘good things’ into your daily life, you may feel more able to cope with the small and big stressful situations. There’s no need to wait until you’re feeling really stressed to then take action.
Longer term, I would encourage anyone who is feeling stressed to look at the causes of their stress to see if any can be removed or changed. You can maybe do this yourself by writing a list and thinking about each one, or talking with a caring friend, or seeing someone like a counselling therapist. What I have found helpful is applying an adaptation of the Serenity prayer, which I first heard on a Sinead O’Connor song (Feel so different) in 1990. That is, to either accept a situation, change the situation, or walk away. This might apply if there is something frequent or regular that is causing you stress: can you change your attitude so that you can accept it? Or can you change the situation itself? If not, is it possible to walk away? If you can apply one of those three approaches, you may reduce your body’s stress response and over time will feel less stressed.
I particularly like this image of a variation of (not) worrying over what we can/cannot control [Image source]
Let’s return to where I started, with the list of four things for stress awareness month. Hopefully you have learnt more about stress and its effects on the body through my handout, and I have shared some of my coping mechanisms and tips. If you’re feeling stressed today, be kind to yourself and spend at least 15-30 minutes doing something that makes you feel better, and, if you know someone who might be stressed, anxious or feeling down, send them a message or do something for them. For readers of this blog, here’s some pictures of nature you might find relaxing – choose one and imagine being there, combine with a slow and deep breathing pattern if you can.