3 Nov 2020
For International Stress Awareness week our in-house therapist Patricia explains what stress is, why it just as prevalent now and what we can all do to manage it.
Stress Awareness Week is an opportunity to consider how stress might be affecting us and if so, what we can do to help.
Some stress is normal and is a part of everyone’s life. It’s when stress is constant or severe that it can become overwhelming and affect our mental health, cause emotional exhaustion or physical illness. It can impact our relationships, our work, our families and all aspects of our lives.
So what is stress? The stress response is a physiological mechanism that activates the nervous system and specific hormones in the body, leading to physical changes such as increases in heart rate, blood pressure and rate of breathing. Blood vessels expand and energy is released into the body, ready for action. In earlier stages of human evolution, the stress response leading to ‘flight’ or ‘fight’ may have enabled us to survive some immediate threat and there may still be instances in today’s world when we need to act quickly in this way.
There are many challenges to us in modern life that could be perceived as possible ‘threats’, causing the same physiological response. The problem is that there may be many different stressors and they may not get resolved quickly, which may leave us in this heightened physical state for longer periods than is helpful. This can lead to fatigue, feeling pressured, maybe even feeling anxious or struggling to sleep. We may become irritable or quick to anger while prolonged stress also affects our immune system and can even make us ill.
While we are all faced with stressors every day, it’s when we don’t know how to handle a stressor or it leads to expanding worry and anxiety (basically when we feel overwhelmed for a period of time) that it becomes important to take action to help overcome this.
In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have the additional uncertainty that this brings along with possible economic or health stressors. All of this makes understanding stress and knowing how to manage it incredibly important.
So what can I do to help tackle stress? Making time for yourself can be challenging if you care for others or feel there just is not time. Taking care of yourself is vital to avoid becoming so stressed and overwhelmed that you have nothing left for anyone else and risk your own mental and physical health in the process.
Doing something you enjoy is one of the best ways to tackle stress and worry. An activity you like doing can make you feel calmer, more positive or simply help you shift focus.
It could be reading a book, getting involved in a hobby, having a warm bath or shower, watching a favourite film, listening to music or being in nature. Exercise also helps stress, due to the release of positive hormones (endorphins) when we exercise, as well as supporting our overall fitness and physical health.
Time spent with others we enjoy being with may also help, but of course with COVID-19 that may be more difficult now to do in person.
Another tip for when you are feeling stressed is to identify a task you can complete and feel a sense of mastery with. This could be cleaning a cupboard or shelf of a cupboard, paying some bills or doing some admin. It could be any task you can both start and finish. It might not be an inherently enjoyable task but the sense of achievement and satisfaction this can give is a good antidote to stress.
Mindfulness and relaxation are both helpful for stress too, particularly as stress is so physiological. It is our body as well as our mind that gets stressed. Something that is physically relaxing can help, as can a mindfulness practice that enables the mind to settle on a focus and thereby the body can soften and ease. It is often our thinking that is leading to stress in our body. Even slowing and deepening the breath can help send ‘slow down’ signals to the body.
Maybe Stress Awareness Week is a reminder to do a ‘stress check’ and see how you are doing right now? What would be supportive for you? Is there anything in the above suggestions that you could plan in for this week? Your mind and your body will be grateful, and in this time of this COVID-19 pandemic, looking after yourself is more important than ever.