Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke
Healthy ways to cope with Stress

 

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Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke has teamed up with Janice Bisp of Bisp Training to bring you information on how to cope with stress.

Is stress getting the better of you? Click on the image below to take our Stress Test and find out.

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What is Stress?

Understanding Stress

Top Ten Stress Busters

Mindfulness

Tips to Relieve Stress

Unhealthy Coping Methods

 

Stress is a natural reaction in the body designed to give short bursts of heightened energy or awareness such as the “fight or flight” reaction to help us run away from danger. Nowadays the body is more likely to experience stress because of worries about relationships, money, work, unemployment or ill health. Pressure can be good for us as it can help us get things done but excessive pressure over a long period of time can make us ill.

Extended periods of stress lead to a vast range of health related problems such as high blood pressure and increased risk of blood clots. These are worsened by the ways that we choose to cope with stress, such as smoking, alcohol or comfort eating which make us even more at risk of heart disease or stroke.

Humberto and Linda’s story is a reminder of the effect that stress can have on your physical health. Click here to read about the stress that the couple believe contributed to Humberto’s stroke.

What is Stress?

Stress is a natural reaction in the body designed to give short bursts of heightened energy or awareness such as the “fight or flight” reaction to help us confront or run away from danger. Nowadays the body is more likely to experience stress because of worries about relationships, money, work, unemployment or ill health.

Is stress harmful??

Pressure can be good for us as it can help us get things done but excessive pressure over a long period of time can make us ill.

Extended periods of stress lead to a vast range of health related problems such as high blood pressure and increased risk of blood clots. These are worsened by the ways that we choose to cope with stress, such as smoking, alcohol or comfort eating which make us even more at risk of heart disease or stroke.

Signs of stress

Manage-Your-Stress-Levels-IconThe first step towards managing stress is to realise when things are starting to get on top of you.

 

There is a long list of things that can cause stress: money worries, unemployment, problems at work, family and relationship difficulties, physical health problems, the pressure of being a carer, bullying…and many more.

 

Our bodies can cope well with short term pressures but too much stress can make us unwell. Extended periods of stress can lead to high blood pressure and increased risk of blood clots so it is important to be able to spot the early warning signs.

 

Physical early warning signs:

  • Insomnia and sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Heart palpitations
  • Stomach upset and gastrointestinal problems
  • Breathlessness without exertion
  • Headaches
  • Weakened immune system which can result in more coughs and colds.  

Psychological early warning signs:

  • Inability to focus and concentrate
  • Loss of sense of humour
  • High levels of anxiety and worry
  • Constant irritability towards others
  • Withdrawal from social contact
  • Lack of motivation to get things done

If you recognise any of these signs then you need to learn how to cope with stress in a healthy way.

Understanding Stress 

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Awareness

What causes you stress and how do you react

The first thing is to recognise the source of the negative stress you are feeling. This is not an admission of weakness or inability to cope. It is a way to identify the problem and plan measures to overcome it.  It’s a very positive and responsible thing to do.  So just take some time to realise that you are taking time for yourself to think through what is happening to you or around you and breathe deeply.

 

Balance

There is a fine line between positive / negative stress and how much can you cope with before it becomes negative?

If you are feeling stressed and feel overwhelmed don’t feel that you have to deal with the situation then and there.  You can stand back and think about what is happening and breathe deeply while realising that you can change the situation.  Remember stress is what we are thinking, we can change our thinking.  This is called Mindfulness.

Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford  says,

“Mindfulness allows us to become more aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings that we experience, “and to see how we can become entangled in that stream in ways that are not helpful. This lets us stand back from our thoughts and start to see their patterns. Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply ‘mental events’ that do not have to control us.”

 

Control

What can you do to help yourself combat the negative effects of stress ?

As referred to before, just remember you are in control of your thoughts and can change how you think about the problems that are causing you stress.

If you think you can change what is causing you stress then great but if not remember to talk to others about the problem.  For example remember to talk to a family member or a  friend and don’t forget your GP will be a great source of help and information.  They say a problem shared is a problem halved.

 

Also try to break the problem down into smaller chunks and deal with them one at a time. Sometimes the size of the problem can freeze our brains and make us feel unable to cope, so this is a good way to tackle it.  Again remember to breathe deeply and take time for yourself to think about how you will tackle what is causing you stress.

 

Benefits of Stress Management

  • Increases your energy levels
  • Improves the quality of your sleep
  • More focus
  • More positivity
  • Better resilience
  • Improves self esteem
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Healthier diet
  • More motivation and commitment to what events you are involved in
  • Feeling greater connectedness and understanding of events around you
  • Better interaction with other people

 

Top Ten Stress Busters!

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1. Smile

SMILE – Smiling is the first line of defence against stress. It’s quick, easy, and free! When you smile your body releases feel-good hormones, while the stress hormone, cortisol, is reduced. Smiling helps you feel calm and in control. It lowers your blood pressure and makes you feel good about yourself.

 

162. Exercise
EXERCISE – As well as its undoubted benefits for your general health, exercise is highly effective in reducing stress. It improves blood-flow to the brain, helping you think more clearly. Exercise is also another great way to release endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and feel-good hormones. There is also evidence that people who are fitter are more able to handle the long-term effects of stress.

 

143. Get enough rest and sleep

REST and SLEEP – Taking a rest doesn’t just mean not doing anything. Rest can happen when you focus on leisure time activities such as – your hobbies, holidays, sport  – this counterbalances work and everyday stresses. And don’t forget you need sleep for energy, good concentration and general health. Chronic sleep-deprivation can affect your performance at work and in general, which can be a key factor in raising stress levels.

 

94. Positive thinking

THINK HAPPY – Changing our thoughts is not as difficult as you think, you can think happier thoughts.  . Try to adopt an outlook on life that stops you seeing external events as determining your happiness. Instead, see your thoughts as the determiner of your happiness. It takes practice, but if you can do this you’ll reduce the negative tension that leads to much of the stress in your life.

 

85. Reach out to others

ACCEPT HELP AND SUPPORT – When you need to reduce the pressure in your life, you can’t always do it on your own. Everyone should have a support network of friends, family, co-workers and other people they can call on to help take the strain – whether it’s practical help or a sympathetic ear when you feel down. Just ask, you will be surpised at how many people will be willing to help.

 

106. Achieve a good work-life balance

MANAGE YOUR TIME – Don’t let work dominate your life. No matter how ambitious you are, it’s important to make time for relaxation and fun. That might mean reducing the number of hours you work, or changing to a job that’s closer to home so your commuting time is reduced. Use time management techniques to ensure you’re more productive during your normal working hours, rather than continually staying late at the office..

 

127. Relaxation

USE RELAXATION TECHNIQUES – A good relaxation technique is an anti-stress weapon that you always carry with you, to help you deal with any stressful situation as it arises. Make relaxation a regular part of your daily routine. There are so many relaxation techniques, from deep-breathing and visualization to meditation and self-hypnosis. Find one that works for you – check out the many Youtube videos, books, CDs and DVDs that can help.

 

198. Eat a healthy diet

EAT A BALANCED DIET – A balanced diet that delivers all the nutrients your body needs to function at its optimum level is essential for dealing with stressful situations. And cutting back on stimulants like caffeine and sugar and depressants like alcohol and nicotine will keep your blood sugar levels constant and help you to avoid mood swings.

 

 

209. Hugging

HAVE A HUG – Make sure you get and give your fair share of hugs. Not only does hugging feel good, it has been proven to help reduce the stress level, cortisone.

 

 

 

1710. Seek professional help if you need it

OTHER SUPPORT –  If you feel that despite all your efforts stress is getting the better of you, remember  there are lots of people who can help.  Your GP will be a great source of information and assistance.  Also check out organisations such as The International Stress Management Association  which provides referrals to stress management professionals, as well as guidance on dealing with stress. Always consult your GP if you are Worried about your Health!

 

 

 

     

Mindfulness

Mindfulness practice helps us to live in the present moment by using the natural tools of our breath, our body and our senses as anchors.

Mindful breathing will help energise you by:

  • Bringing oxygen to your brain
  • Improving concentration
  • Giving you better clarity for decision making
  • Helping to nurture creativity for problem solving

There are many benefits of a regular breathing practice such as:

  • Helping to prevent stress from getting into the system
  • Helping to release accumulated stress from the body
  • Regular practice increases blood flow and slows the heart rate to reduce high blood pressure
  • Helping to relax our nervous system by reducing levels of blood lactate which can help people with anxiety
  • Helping reduce cholesterol, lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Decreases muscle tension, leading to a deeper level of physical relaxation
  • Regular, deep breathing practise into the abdomen can help to reduce stress hormones.

 

Start with a few minutes practice and build up to 10 minutes or whatever you are comfortable with.

There are two exercises below which are excellent mindful stress management tools which will keep your mind focused and anchored in the present moment. You can do these practises anywhere and they will have a calming effect on your whole system.  The trick is to take regular mindful breathes throughout the day to prevent anxiety; however they will help when you are feeling stressed, nervous, anxious or fearful.

 

Exercise 1 – Squared breathing exercise 4,4,4,4 5 – 10 minutes

  • Sit comfortably on a chair, with your hands resting gently on your lap with your feet firmly on the ground with your back supported.
  • Notice all the points of contact between your body and the chair.
  • Imagine that your feet are like weights, anchoring you in the present moment. If you feel comfortable gently close your eyes
  • As you breathe, observe the movement of the breath through your body.  Notice the gentle rise and fall of your belly and observe the movement of your ribcage, chest and lungs on the in breath and the out breath – follow the natural rhythm of your breath.
  • Then when you are ready breathe in for a slow count of 4, hold the breath for a slow count of 4, breath out for a slow count of 4 and hold for a count of four.  Then repeat breathing in for a count of four….etc.

squareExercise 2 – Calming Mantra

Mantras are used to focus the mind and helps liberate the mind from thinking.

‘I feel calm, I am calm’

The main way a mantra is used is to repeat a phrase over and over again.

This can be done silently in your mind or spoken out loud or chanted.

  • Sit comfortably on the chair, with your hands resting gently on your lap with your feet firmly on the ground with your back supported.
  • If you feel comfortable gently close your eyes.
  • Bring your attention to your breath and observe your breath, breathing in and breathing out and when you are ready, gently repeat silently with each in breath ‘I feel calm’ and with each out breath repeat ‘I am calm’ –
  • spend 5 minutes on this calming practise

Observe your thoughts 

 

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Tips to Relieve Stress

Eat More Mood Boosting Foods

There are certain foods that can boost your mood!

  • Cherries
  • Lemons
  • Oranges
  • Apples
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Garlic
  • Salmon
  • Turkey
  • A small amount of red meat.

These are happy foods” – they contain nutrients that naturally make us happy.

Here are a few more quick tips for destressing your diet to improve your health:

  • Snacking on nuts and seeds (eg. pumpkin or sunflower seeds) is a good alternative to unhealthy snacks like crisps and chocolate as they contain good fats.
  • Avoid salt to lower blood pressure – use herbs, garlic, ginger, chilli or lemon juice to flavour food instead of salt or sauces containing lots of salt, sugar and fat.
  • Cut out sugar, nicotine and alcohol – they stimulate adrenalin in the body and can trigger a stress reaction even when no major external stress is present.

And remember to eat well by following the Eatwell Guide

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Get More Exercise

  • Exercise is highly effective in reducing stress.
  • It improves blood-flow to the brain, helping you think more clearly.
  • Exercise is also another great way to release endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and feel-good hormones.
  • There is also evidence that fit people are better able to handle the long-term effects of stress.

Adults and older people need to do 150 mins of moderate physical activity per week (30 mins x 5) or 75 mins of vigorous activity. You can do it in 10 minute bursts throughout the day. (NICHS, ’Healthy Stuff’ pges 14/15)

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How to get more exercise

  • Walk up the stairs – don’t take the lift.
  • Pace up and down while talking on the phone.
  • Walk to the local shops or to leave the kids to school. Instead of dozing in front of the TV.
  • Have a quick walk during your lunch hour or after dinner in the evening.
  • Get off the bus one or two stops early and walk from there.
  • If you have a dog start to walk further or faster, or more regularly.
  • If you have a car, wash it by hand instead of going to a carwash.

 

Get Better Sleep

If you’re stressed, you may experience insomnia or trouble sleeping as a result, due to feelings of restlessness or anxiety. General worries – for example, about work, family or health – can keep you awake at night. These can cause your mind to start racing while you lie in bed, which can be made worse by also worrying about not being able to sleep.

There are many self-help steps you can take to try and get a better sleep, including having a better bedtime routine, winding down before sleep and getting into a regular sleeping pattern.

You can read more information and tips about getting better sleep and overcoming insomnia on the NHS website.

 

Relaxation – Have some ‘Me Time’

Stress in everyday life is inevitable, so relaxation and talking time out to yourself is vital to reduce those stress levels and recharge your batteries.

Taking time of yourself has psychological and physical benefits. If you give yourself a break you’ll feel refreshed and happier.  Having no me time can led you to feel overwhelmed with life, and resentful of friends and family.

‘Me time’ can mean different things to different people – it could be going for a run or walk, reading a book, having a long bath or sitting down with a cuppa to watch your favourite TV show – anything you enjoy and which allows you to really relax!

  • Try to have half an hour of ‘Me Time’ every day – or at least a few hours every week.
  • Be mindful and plan regular relaxation time.
  • Do things you love and spend time with people who enrich your life.
  • Prioritise and plan your relaxation time within your diary.

If you find it hard to set aside time to yourself, schedule it permanently into your day and treat it like an important meeting which cannot be cancelled or rescheduled!

As well as knowing what we should do to relieve stress we should also be aware of avoiding unhealthy coping behaviours

Stress can have an indirect effect on your health if it makes you eat more, drink more, smoke more or take drugs to cope.

Smoking, drinking, taking drugs and comfort eating are all normal reactions to stress.

They may all make you feel better in the short term but they actually have a negative impact on your ability to cope with stress.

Smoking and Stress

Smokers use cigarettes as a coping mechanism. Many smokers tell you that smoking relaxes them. 

Smokers might take a break and go outside the building to have a smoke when they are stressed. They light up and they inhale deeply. The nicotine which is inhaled acts as a mild sedative which reduces the feeling of anxiety and pain. This is what makes the smoker feel relaxed. However, the nicotine also releases adrenalin which increases your heart rate, blood pressure and your breathing, which have the opposite effect.

The part of smoking that does relax your body without harming it is the deep breathing and inhalation. So if you feel stressed, instead of reaching for a cigarette, just breathe deeply in the same way as you do when you smoke and you might find that this gives you a feeling of calm too.

Smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack compared with people who have never smoked.  It increases the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and a variety of cancers. These facts aren’t very relaxing, are they?  While having a smoke during a stressful day may feel like a relaxing break to reduce stress at the time, please think of the longer term and much more difficult stress and pain that could come with developing a life threatening disease due to smoking.

Stopping smoking will also mean you’ll have more money to spend on other things that you enjoy.

Alcohol and Stress

Alcohol is often used as a way of coping with stress.  However, alcohol disrupts sleep leaving us tired, irritable and less able to cope with what is stressing us in the first place. Alcohol, as a chemical, is a depressant so can actually make feelings of depression or anxiety worse, not better.  

Regular and high consumption of alcohol can lead to high blood pressure and high cholesterol which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Using alcohol as a means of destressing simply avoids the underlying issue, and could severely damage your health and increase your risk of heart and stroke conditions.

Drugs and Stress

The damage drugs do to our health, relationships and finances can cause problems, which increase our stress rather than reducing it.

As well as the dangers of addiction, overdoses and finanical problems, drugs can increase our chances of getting heart disease, stroke or lung damage, as they can cause high blood pressure, blood clots, cardiac arrest or heart failure.

The table below shows the effects of a number of drugs on the cardiovascular system and lungs. Energy drinks have been included as they have such a strong effect on blood pressure!

drugs-table

    

Comfort Eating and Stress

Sometimes we can use food as a means of de–stressing as it is something we have control over.

Quite often it is carbohydrates that we crave when we are feeling stressed – “comfort food” is often sugary or stodgy. But carbohydrates can make you sleepy and so are not what your body needs when it is trying to cope with a stressful situation.

And an increase in weight due to comfort eating could lead to future health problems. Instead you should try to eat foods that make you happy.  

Bananas

  • Stress and the lack of magnesium are so closely related that it is advisable for those who lead a very stressful life to eat foods rich in magnesium, such as bananas.

Oranges

  • Two glasses (350 ml) of fresh orange juice are enough to diminish nervousness, bad moods and depression. Lack of vitamin C can make you irritable and dejected.

Walnuts

  • Due to the type of soil in which they grow, Brazilian walnuts are rich in selenium, which can be related to pleasant disposition! One or two walnuts are enough.

Chocolate

  • Ninety percent of all women have a craving for chocolate, especially when they are premenstrual, bored or very tense.
  • Some experts believe that like many other foods that are sweet and rich in carbohydrates, chocolate can have a soothing effect. But you should only have a small amount as a treat.

Turkey

  • Turkey is rich in tyrosine which increases the concentration of hormones that work within the brain to increase motivation and encourage reflexes. This helps the body resist stress.
  • Tuna or chicken are also good options.

Hot peppers

  • Capsaicin, the substance which gives food a spicy heat, stimulates the nerves in the mouth and causes a burning sensation. The brain responds by creating endorphins.
  • Endorphins are similar to an opiate (such as morphine) and, as well as being a painkiller (against the hot pepper), they also give a temporary feeling of well being.