Let’s Talk About Stress
Whenever I ask people how they’re doing these days, the answer I get the most is “Stressed out...I’m so busy”.
Stress has become a permanent feature of modern life. In fact, nearly three quarters of people have felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope.
Long-term stress causes changes in the body which can be bad for our health. We tend to make more unhealthy choices when we’re stressed – eating too much or unhealthily, increasing our alcohol consumption or smoking more.
Stress is also a key factor in poor mental health. People who feel stressed are also likely to feel depressed or anxious. Self-harm and suicidal thoughts are also associated with high-levels of stress. So is loneliness.
Lots of things can make us feel stressed. For most of us, it’s not just one thing - one thing we can cope with...it’s all the things at once that makes us feel overwhelmed and out of control. Long-term health conditions, debt, social media and email, and housing can all contribute to stress. The pressure to succeed and comparing ourselves to others are both particularly pernicious for us millennials.
The Stress Response
Our bodies have developed a sophisticated response mechanism for coping with sudden stress and threats. It’s often called the fight-or-flight response. In short, your body diverts blood away from non-critical functions e.g. digestion, your heart rate and breathing both go up, all so your body can get more oxygen to the muscles in your limbs.
Once the threat has passed, your body returns to normal. It’s actually pretty ingenious.
Stress can have a positive effect in our lives. The right type of stress can help you perform better in situations where you are under some pressure to do well, such as at work or school. In cases where the threat is life-threatening, the fight-or-flight response can actually play a critical role in your survival. By gearing you up to fight or flee, the fight-or-flight response makes it more likely that you will survive the danger.
The problem is, this system took millions of years to evolve and the way we now live has changed far quicker than our bodies. The stress response can’t distinguish between a sabre-tooth tiger or a looming deadline. We now go from stressful situation to stressful situation without ever giving our bodies a chance to rest and recover. Our bodies are designed to cope with acute, short-term stress. But the short-term effects of the stress response quickly became harmful to us if experienced over a long period of time without a break.
Our stress response is primed to face life-threatening situations. That’s why it gives us two options: fight or flight. It’s not designed for the psychological stressors we have in modern life. But the response can be triggered by both real and imaginary threats; debt, housing, relationships, email, social media, work deadlines…it’s exhausting just thinking about all these things.
All that adrenaline and cortisol — the activating hormones of the body — keep us up at night. They disrupt our digestion and our immune system. And over time, contribute to a myriad of physical and mental health problems.
Ultimately, our modern stressors come down to a mismatch between expectations and reality, when the perceived demands on us outstrip our perceived ability to cope. When we think about managing stress, both in our personal lives and in work settings, we need to think about both reducing the perceived demands and boosting our perceived ability to cope.
Observing your habits and behaviours is the first step to understanding them and changing them.
And stress is no different.
These simple questions can help improve awareness around stress. You can do this on your own with a piece of paper, but our awareness seems to be one of the first things to go when we’re stressed. So, we recommend doing it with a friend, family member or colleague.
Knowing ourselves is one thing but it can be really helpful to share this with people who are close to us and can help us spot the signs things are getting too much for us and suggest practices we know that work.
Step One: What makes you stressed?
We’re actually incredibly attuned to the things that make us stressed. Drawing our attention to those things helps us put coping mechanisms in place before it all gets overwhelming.
Step Two: How do you know you’re stressed?
We all have tell-tale signs we’re getting stressed, but we so often ignore them. Listing them helps us become more aware of them — put a list by your laptop!
Step Three: What are my unhelpful coping strategies?
We all have reactions to stress that we know aren’t helpful. Some of these — like withdrawing from friends and family — can be signals that we are stressed and haven’t noticed. Others are just downright counterproductive. Think binge-eating, binge-drinking, smoking more, going to be later…. You want to be doing less of these when you’re stressed…
Step Four: What helps me cope with stress?
…and more of these. For some reason, we are less likely to do the things that we know help when we’re in the middle of a crisis. Reminding yourself that you feel much better when you go for a run/see your friends/go to yoga/read a book makes it more likely you’ll do these when you are feeling stressed.
The Building Blocks of a Healthy, Resilient Life
Talk — it’s ok to say you’re not ok
Talking about our problems constructively helps us get perspective and hopefully support. I say constructively deliberately — just rehashing stressful situations actually activates the stress response. So, find someone you trust who can listen to you compassionately and without judgement and who can help you start to take action — like a coach, a good friend, or a therapist.
There is growing evidence that food affects our mood and eating healthily can have a positive effect. Fuelling your body well will help it cope with the effects of the stress response.
Exercise releases all sorts of feel-good chemicals in the body and helps counteract the effects of stress. Even just going out and getting some fresh air and a short walk can really help. Find a way to move your body that feels good to you: yoga, dancing around your bedroom, walking — it really doesn’t matter what you do, just that you do it.
Take time out to relax
Human beings aren’t meant to operate like machines — at high speeds, continuously, for long periods. We have natural rhythms that influence our energy throughout the day and throughout the year.
We can’t work well if we don't rest well. It might feel counterproductive to take a break or time out to relax when you’re really busy and overwhelmed. But I promise, you will be so much more focused and effective when you come back to work after a break.
Mindfulness is everywhere these days. And that’s because it works. Research has suggested that it can reduce the effects of stress, anxiety and related problems such as insomnia, poor concentration and low moods, in some people.
Being mindful really just means being present and paying attention to our thoughts and feelings in a way that increases our ability to manage difficult situations and make wise choices. You might choose to do that through a meditation practice, or it could be as simple as really paying attention to your cup of tea: how does the mug feel in your hands, how does the tea smell and taste?
Get some restful sleep
Needless to say, sleep is critical to feeling good, but it’s often disrupted when we’re stressed. Don’t worry if you’re not sleeping well — worrying about sleeping makes sleep more elusive.
There are lots of simple things you can do to start sleeping better. Avoiding screens an hour before bed, taking time to wind down in the evening,
Be kind — don’t be too hard on yourself
We all have bad days. Having a bad day doesn’t make you a bad person. Being kind and compassionate to ourselves is so important — try and treat yourself like you would behave towards a close friend or a child.
You would never criticize a toddler for falling over when they’re learning to walk — it’s all part of the learning experience. So, if you stumble or feel you have failed, don’t beat yourself up. Ask yourself what you can learn from the experience and move on.
Stress isn’t going away anytime soon but we can take steps to make sure it doesn’t trip us up.