You’ve missed the train and will be late for an important meeting. Your deadlines are getting tighter, your hours longer, and you’re always under pressure to perform at peak level.
All of these scenarios can cause us to feel stressed out. Most of the time, that’s okay, as stress is a natural reaction to events that happen during the course of our lives.
It can even be beneficial to health, helping us to cope with difficult or dangerous situations. This is called the ‘fight or flight response’ or the acute stress response. In a stressful situation, our bodies react by activating our sympathetic nervous system, which releases hormones which prepare the body to deal with the threat or run for the hills!
When we are in fight or flight mode, our bodies emit signals, such as a rapid heart rate and breathing, dilated pupils, trembling and we either go pale or get flushed.
These signals are a response to help protect our bodies in an emergency. When the emergency passes, we revert back to normal levels within 15-20 minutes.
There are many situations that can cause high levels of stress, such as high-pressure executive careers, financial problems or difficult relationships. Often one may lead to another leading to a cumulative effect, with each stressor building on top of the other.
When we feel constantly stressed, our bodies remain in a hyper state of tension. This prolonged period of stress is known as Chronic Stress and can lead to serious psychological problems.
In turn, we may find ourselves in a state of progressive depression, coping with substance abuse or having suicidal thoughts.
Psychological and emotional signs that you’re stressed out:
- Depression or anxiety
- Anger, irritability, or restlessness
- Feeling overwhelmed, unmotivated, or unfocused
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Racing thoughts or constant worry
- Problems with your memory or concentration
- Making bad decisions
Whilst some people only experience psychological effects, many of us also feel the physical toll of stress on the body.
Mild symptoms such as headache, muscle tension and heartburn, are common, but prolonged bouts of stress can put a lot of pressure on the major systems in our body and cause damage to organs and tissues, leading to serious health problems.
Physical signs that you’re stressed out:
- Missed periods
- Erectile dysfunction
- Fertility problems
- Low sex drive
- Weakened immune system
- High blood pressure
- Risk of heart attack
- High blood sugar
- IBS and inflammatory bowel disease
Finding the root of the problem
When you feel completely overwhelmed with stress and anxiety for a prolonged period, it becomes difficult to cope with even the smallest daily tasks, let alone try to address the underlying feelings of stress and helplessness. However, it’s important to put some discipline into place and to make positive changes before things spiral out of control.
The first thing to do is to identify the root of the problem, which is causing you to feel stressed. Finding the connection between feeling stressed and the pressures you are facing will help you move towards a less stressful life.
Think about the triggers
What are you doing when symptoms of stress are triggered? Are you at work, home, or calculating your financial situation?
Start to recognise the symptoms and note down where you are and what you’re doing when they come on.
When you have an idea of what’s causing the problem, you need to decide whether the factors are self-manageable.
- Do your problems have a practical solution?
- Will they get better over time?
- Or are they issues that can’t be resolved without professional intervention?
If there are practical solutions to your problems, it’s time to implement them.
Here are some examples:
Delegation: If you are taking on too much at work, speak to your team about delegating some of your tasks.
Prioritisation: Do you need to prioritise a relationship over your work or work over a relationship to get the situation under control? Decide on your priorities and put lesser tasks or issues aside for now.
A great example of this can be found in the Coronavirus lockdown situation:
We are working from home and homeschooling our children. Attempting to keep both ourselves and our families focused. But to maintain order in a chaotic world can be highly stressful.
This is a key time for prioritisation and perhaps putting aside the rules that we might have insisted upon at home during normal times.
Organisation: How can you re-organise areas of your life so that they are handled in a more relaxed fashion?
Scheduling time between tasks and free time, time off from emails and social media, and not allowing colleagues to jump into your space for improvised meetings will help you to become more organised and focused.
When bad habits take over
Often when we find ourselves in stressful times, we turn to unhealthy habits. Using short-term fixes to feel better is a typical way of dealing with stress. You’re not alone.
Some of these habits might be harmless in the short-term, such as drinking too much caffeine or switching to watching endless YouTube videos instead of focusing on work.
However, if our stress is prolonged, these quick-fixes turn into seriously bad habits.
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Taking over the counter or prescription drugs on a frequent basis
- Taking illegal drugs
- Overeating or missing meals
- Emotional or physically violent outbursts
- Withdrawing from friends or families
- Find it hard to discuss your problems
How do we go about reducing the bad habits and introducing healthy ones?
It’s essential to be more aware of those moments when you reach for an unhealthy fix to your problem. When you feel like having one drink too many or starting an argument with your partner, why not try to connect with someone you can talk to instead.
It might not be easy at first, but as they say: a problem shared is a problem halved.
What steps can we take to protect our health from stress?
Aside from getting bad habits under control, there are lots of things we can do to move towards a healthier and more stress-free life.
Daily physical exercise, even if it’s only 20 minutes a day, is a positive habit to introduce and is scientifically proven to decrease tension and elevate our mood. Even light exercise and fresh air, such as a daily walk around the neighbourhood will do you the world of good.
Eat for health:
When we reach for sugary snacks or junk food, we are feeding our stress. Recent research suggests that certain foods affect our state of mind.
When we eat healthy foods, we get adequate amounts of nutrients, vitamins and minerals and have positive feels of wellbeing. When we eat unhealthy food, we feel negative about ourselves almost immediately after doing so, and we are increasing the risk of contracting a diet-related disease.
Mindfulness & Meditation:
You’ve probably heard something about mindfulness, but in your stressed state, you’ve dismissed it in favour of another glass of wine or a line of coke. However, mindfulness is an excellent method to help build inner strength and better manage stressful situations.
Both mindfulness and meditation teach us to become more aware of our thoughts and how to step back from them, so we don’t immediately react to certain situations. You also become more sensitive to the needs of your body, which helps reduce bad habits.
At White River Manor, we incorporate mindfulness therapy into our executive burnout and addiction programs.
Don’t beat yourself up
The most stressful thing about being stressed is blaming yourself when things don’t go according to plan.
In times of stress and worry, it’s important to keep perspective and remember that you’re not the only person to have a bad day.
Instead of beating yourself up, be kind and supportive instead. Take some time each day to appreciate yourself and if you are going to critic yourself, don’t always look for your faults, instead look at the bigger picture.
You’ll be amazed out how much is actually out of your control in these situations – especially with work-related stress.
When stress is prolonged, and your symptoms list grows longer, it’s time to take a step away and focus on self-care. Taking time off from work and yourself out of the routine is the best way to put things into perspective and make positive decisions about your future.
“I don’t have time for a holiday” is so often the excuse we use for avoiding ‘me’ time, in which we should be making healthy decisions about our future.
However, regular breaks are essential if we want to strike a healthy work-life balance. And they will do the world of good for our mental health.
Whether you stay at home and practice self-care, take a well-earned holiday, or book yourself into a recovery centre like White River Manor, the sooner you take action the quicker you’ll be back to your optimum self.
We can’t avoid it altogether, but it’s important to accept that holding onto stress is a detriment to our health.
Avoiding bad habits and keeping a healthy balance between work and play, helps us to live longer and stronger, be more successful at work and enjoy more fulfilling relationships.