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What is stress?
Stress is difficult to quantify or explain, but it is something that almost all of us have felt at one time or another. Most people describe stress as being overwhelmed and/or under pressure and feeling unable to cope. Everyone has different thresholds for stress and while some people may prefer a busy, hectic lifestyle, others get stressed by even small changes in their routines.
Stress can come from nearly any aspect of life, from family or relationship problems to financial or work related issues. When you feel stressed this often impacts on your ability to think clearly or carry out tasks which then adds to the stress.
How does stress affect me?
Stress can have lots of negative effects on mental and physical health. People often feel anxious, irritable and low in mood or self-esteem. It can feel as if your thoughts are racing, leading to trouble sleeping and difficulty concentrating. Some may even turn to alcohol or drugs as a result of this.
In addition, ongoing stress can lead to increased levels of adrenaline, the hormone released in the ‘fight or flight’ response. This can cause physical symptoms like the feeling of a ‘knot in the stomach’, vomiting or diarrhoea, sweating, palpitations, headaches, pain and dizziness.
There is also concern that stress may be linked to other longer term health problems such as IBS, psoriasis and tension headaches.
While it may not be possible to avoid stress entirely, it is important to find ways of managing it to minimise its impact on your mental and physical wellbeing. Although everyone has different coping strategies, a few of the following may help:
1. Keeping a diary
This is particularly helpful if you are not sure what is causing your stress. When you have felt particularly stressed, write down where you were, what you were doing, what emotions you felt and the thoughts going through your mind. This can really help to identify the triggers for your stress and perhaps develop better ways of coping.
As well as benefitting your general health, exercise can be a very good way of lowering stress levels and helping you sleep better. Current guidelines suggest exercising at least 30 minutes on five days a week.
3. Time Management
Taking control or having a plan to deal with a stressful situation can help. This could be by writing a list of things that you have to do and prioritising or making a timetable for different tasks. Sometimes by breaking down a big problem into a few smaller chunks it can seem more manageable.
4. ‘Me Time’
Although when we are stressed it can seem that there is no time for anything, it is important to set aside some time each day to do something that you enjoy or find relaxing. This can clear your head and reduce stress, making other tasks easier. You might even want to plan this relaxation time into your schedule, so that you don’t get overrun and forget.
5. Look for positives
During times of stress it can be easy to overlook the positives. Looking for things that are good in our lives or things we are grateful for can help to put things into perspective. Writing down what you are thankful for at the end of each day can help.
Mindfulness describes being aware of our surroundings and how we feel in the present moment. This can help to increase our awareness of ourselves and to gain perspective. One way to practice is to take five minutes every day to concentrate on noticing your surroundings, the sensations in your body and allowing thoughts to come and go while trying not to dwell on any.
7. Relaxation Techniques
In times where we feel overwhelmed by worry, relaxation techniques can help. Here are two you can try:
Muscular Tensing & Relaxation: starting at the top or bottom of your body, gradually tense up each muscle group in turn for a few seconds and then allow it to relax completely.
Deep Breathing: take long, slow breaths in and out and concentrate on your breath.
8. Talk to someone
Perhaps the most important thing when overcoming stress is to have support. Often other people can see a way out of our problems that we may have overlooked. Friends, relatives and colleagues can be a good source of support. There are also a range of professionals you can turn to, e.g. The Samaritans.
In work related stress, occupational health teams can be very helpful. A GP can also be a great place to turn to for help and support. They can also give advice about counselling and medications if necessary.
If you do not feel ready talk to someone else, websites such as Moodjuice can be very useful.
By Dr Sian Jones