Demystifying and Tackling Stress

As millions of us around the UK are experiencing high levels of stress1 and feel the damaging effect this has on our health overall, stress has become this ‘thing’ everyone’s heard about and accepts as existing, without necessarily understanding it. In this blog post I’ll bust some of the many myths around what stress is, what it means to our bodies and mind to be stressed, and how we can help strive for weakness and tackle the challenges of stress.

"We suffer more in imagination than in reality."

What is stress?

Stress is our body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure2. The threat or pressure normally activates our autonomic nervous system (ANS), one of the major neural pathways in our bodies3, responsible with regulating involuntary physiological processes such as heart rate, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal4.

The general response to stress is the activation of our sympathetic nervous system (SNS)3 which forms part of the ANS mentioned above. This is also called the ‘fight or flight’ response you might be more familiar with. As part of this response, we might experience an increase in heart rate, in breathing and overall alertness, whilst other bodily functions are decreased, such as digestion. When it comes to our ‘fight or flight’ response, we need to remind ourselves that this has been part of us humans for millennia.

Our response to stress can be triggered by real or even imaginary stimuli, which in turn can be mental, physical, or emotional. It does not always have to be a real life-or-death situation which increases our stress levels; however for our nervous system it may well feel like one every time.

In short bursts, stress can be beneficial as it helps us avoid danger or meet an important deadline. It is not unusual for people to say that they ‘perform well under stress’, however we should not confuse this with the best way of living our lives. Studies have shown that chronic stress (i.e. being exposed to high levels of stress over a long period of time) actually damages our health and can lead to burnout.

What is chronic stress?

Stress that carries on at a high intensity for long periods of time can be classified as chronic. Symptoms can be similar to the ones mentioned above or exacerbated. If any of them raise concern, remember to speak to your GP.

Stress – what does it look like – the signs?

For those of us experiencing stress, the following list of signs/stress induced challenges is not an exhaustive list of symptoms, but a mere indication of aspects affected by stress.

These symptoms can be Physical (aches, pains, digestive issues), Emotional (anxiety, overwhelm, irritability), Behavioural (eating patterns, alcohol, and drug consumption, sleeping disorders) and or Cognitive (memory problems, concentration issues).

Some of the most common ones tend to be:

  • Experiencing insomnia / sleep disorders (i.e. sleeping too much or too little)
  • Experiencing mood swings
  • Having little / no energy
  • Eating too much / too little
  • Pulling away from usual activities
  • Procrastinating
  • Experiencing libido changes
  • Worrying thoughts

Managing stress the healthy way

Allowing ourselves to care more about our mental and physical (and spiritual) wellbeing, enables us to manage our stress in a healthy way and makes self-care part of our daily routine.

Below are some of my Top Tips to implement for a less stressful life:

Taking regular breaks and stepping away from the desk is essential, even if for a few minutes to make a cup of tea as you will come back with an improved perspective.

Planning ahead enables the majority of us to feel more in control and less overwhelmed. After all, planning’s in our nature, as noted by researcher Shevaun Neupert5. Making plans in advance does not have to mean only work-related plans, but social plans too. So why not make plans which bring you joy, such as dinner with friends to a weekend break or enjoying a place of interest you have always wanted to visit.

Are you eating enough nutrients for your health and wellbeing like meeting all your 5-a-day needs? Are you drinking enough water?

These may seem like simple questions; however the answers might reveal a great deal. These days, fast food and prepacked meals tend to sometimes overshadow the fresh fruit and vegetables we should eat for our mental and physical health and wellbeing. Try a back-to-basics approach when it comes to nutrition – understand what your body needs are, link this with your preferred foods (fruits, veggies, legumes, etc.) and ensure moderation. There are many reliable sources of information out there, such as the NHS Eat well. One simple tip, have a rainbow of food colours when you eat as that will help ensure vital vegetable and fruit nutrients.

Also known as the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), i.e. the other part of the autonomic nervous system, is responsible for our ‘rest and digest’ state.

The PNS promotes relaxation in several aspects such as it reduces our heart rate, lowers the intensity of our breathing, relaxes our muscles and functions such as digestion, immune system and cell repair are increased. When PNS is dominant we rest and ultimately fall asleep and I like to call the PNS as our in-built ‘relaxation system’ because tapping into it allows us to calm down, release tension and recentre ourselves.

An easy way for us to tap into this would be to practice deep breathing. For example taking 3 deep breaths (into the abdomen, so called belly breathing) can help lower our stress levels quite dramatically sometimes. Another well-researched6,7,8  way to do so is Progressive Muscle Relaxation. A technique which involves tensing and relaxing our muscles one by one. This practice is generally safe and can be followed via dedicated apps or hypnotherapy recordings, while sessions normally last about 30 minutes.

A lack of sleep can lead to increased chances of stress, but stress can also cause a lack of sleep. Have a look at your sleep habits and regimes. Your sleep routine should encompass your preferred way of unwinding at the end of the day, be it a bubble bath or reading a book, as well as your preferred times for going to bed and waking up. Sleep is your way of signalling to your body and mind that it is now time for rest and recovery so make it a great one, personal to you and keep at it.

We can all use some form of exercise to stifle the build-up of stress. Some forms of exercise, such as taking a brisk walk or a HIIT (high intensity interval training) class, not only deepens breathing but also relieve muscle tension. Others, such as yoga, Pilates, or tai chi, tend to combine fluid movements with deep breathing and mental focus which in turn induce calm.

No matter which form of exercise suits you best, the most important element is to keep going. This is why it is imperative to choose a form of exercise that brings you joy and not something you dread. There are a multitude of ways to exercise nowadays, however if you are a beginner this can be very overwhelming. So why not start slowly and follow the NHS recommendations on walking.

Challenging our thoughts allows us to reflect and find our own answers to the problems we face. Just as much as we challenge ourselves to present proof to what we think, e.g. ‘What evidence is that for that belief?’. In situations of stress we might become overwhelmed with worry and outcomes. As a result, ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ or ‘What would be a more helpful and realistic way of looking at this situation?’ in order to help release tension and bring in a calmer perspective on things. This practice can also help us problem solve our stress inducing issues in a helpful manner.

Last but definitely not least: remember to include joy into each day. It will lighten up an entire day!

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