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.
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.
Signs of stress
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.
The first step towards managing stress is to realise when things are starting to get on top of you.
Physical early warning signs:
- Insomnia and sleep disturbances
- Muscle tension and pain
- Heart palpitations
- Stomach upset and gastrointestinal problems
- Breathlessness without exertion
- 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
The ABC of Coping with Stress
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.
There is a fine line between positive and negative stress. You need to be aware of how much pressure you can cope with before the balance tips and it becomes negative stress.
What can you do to help yourself combat the negative effects of stress ?
If you think you can change what is causing you stress then great. You may be able to change the situation altogether, for example if it is your work that is stressing you, you could try talking to your boss to negotiate changing your work hours or reducing your workload.
You may also be able 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.
However, if you can’t change the situation that is causing you stress, then you will need to change how you cope with it, before it starts to seriously affect your health.
NICHS has a programme called Well Mind for workplaces who want to address stress in the workplace.
Breathing exercises are an excellent stress management tool which keep your mind focused and anchored in the present moment. You can do breathing exercises anywhere and they will have a calming effect on your whole system. You can do them before you go into a situation which you know you will find stressful, so that your heart rate is lowered beforehand.
One breathing technique is called Squared Breathing.
- 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.
This video shows how Squared Breathing is used.
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.
Mindfulness can be practised at any time at all – while you are walking along, driving, cooking, eating, or even just breathing. If you are focusing on the present moment and paying deliberate attention to the activity you are currently, then you are not thinking about the past or the future with all the associated worries, regrets, panic and negative thoughts.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1
This is a technique that can be used when driving, walking, commuting etc. It is a means of distracting your brain from the past or future and forcing it to focus on the present by finding things in your immediate environment. In this technique you are looking for:
5 things you can see
4 things you can hear
3 things you can touch
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste
This video shows the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique being used as a way of relaxing and reducing stress.
At the end of a busy working day, one way to unwind is to use mindful cooking. Close the kitchen door and give yourself some “me time”. While cooking you immerse yourself in your senses, noticing the colours of the food, the textures, the chopping sound and motion, the sizzling as the food cooks, the changes in colour as it cooks, the rhythm of stirring and the flavours as you taste it.
Observe your thoughts
Reframing is a technique is a technique to change the way you look at things in order to feel better about them. There are many ways to interpret the same situation so pick the one you like. Reframing does not change the external reality, but helps you view things in a different light and less stressfully.
For example, you could view a problem as an opportunity, a weakness as a strength, oppression (‘against me’) as neutral (‘doesn’t care about me’) or unkindness as lack of understanding.
Where reframing is concerned with how you think about a situation, non-reactive awareness is about how you respond.
Instead of reacting to emotions, or the situations that cause those emotions, on impulse, this technique is about responding not reacting.
Are you a reactor? Quick quiz…..
If someone jumps the queue in a shop, do you:
- Immediate express anger towards them
- Physically not allow them to get past you
- Wait and take a deep breath, perhaps realising they only had one item, and allow them to jump the queue.
If someone writes you an angry email when they aren’t happy with you, do you:
- Write an angry email back
- Not reply
- Suggest meeting them to discuss the matter,
If someone scraped your car due to bad driving, so you:
- Tailgate them until they stop
- Shout out the window at them
- Ask for their contact details so they can pay for the damage.
If you have answered mainly 1s or 2s you are a reactor. Next time you encounter a situation where your natural reaction would be to get angry, think of traffic lights.
Red = pause
Amber = breathe
Green = respond
This technique gives your brain time to process what is happening, to observe your own emotions and respond in a way that doesn’t cause you stress. This technique isn’t about “letting other people get away with stuff”. It is about ensuring that how you react/respond doesn’t harm your own health.
Top Ten Stress Busters!
GOOD MOOD FOODS – There are certain foods that can improve our mood. Foods containing folic acid like green leafy veg, spinach, broccoli, avocado. Foods containing magnesium like seeds, bananas, 3 bean salads and avocados – again! White meats containing tryptophan like turkey, chicken and tuna or omega 3 like salmon. Food containing antioxidants like blueberries and blackberries. Foods that produce endorphins or block pain and depressions like dark chocolate and hot chillis.
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.
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.
4. 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.
5. 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 t00 much of the stress in your life.
ACCEPT HELP AND SUPPORT – When you need to reduce the pressure in your life, you can’t always do it on your own. A problem shared really is a problem halved. Research has shown that discussing problems with people in similar situations reduces stress levels. It is important to have a support network of friends, family, co-workers and other people you can call on to help take the strain – whether it’s practical help or a sympathetic ear when you feel down. Just ask – you may be surprised at how many people will be willing to help.
7. 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.
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.
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.
10. 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!
How Not to Cope
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!
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.