Stress as a health issue is being recognised more and more by the mainstream over the last few years. I was amazed to discover that it caused over 10 million lost work days last year and is the reason for 1 in 5 visits to the GP. I have seen in my practise how stress causes many health issues such as digestive problems, headaches, insomnia, back pain, hormonal imbalance and general fatigue to name but a few. Stress can also be at the root of anxiety and depression.
Everyone experiences stress of some sort or another in their lives, and in the right setting a little stress can actually be good for us. So what can we do to keep our stress at a manageable healthy level? There are two main areas to address, the first being to manage our response to stress and the second to manage the causes of stress.
Typically, when a stressful situation arises adrenaline is released in the body. This primal reaction known as the ‘fight or flight’ response is aimed at helping us survive physical threats to life. Its effects include increasing your heart and breathing rates, diverting blood to major muscle groups; abdominal and jaw tension to protect vulnerable areas and narrowed vision. This is great if we need the strength and focus to escape a burning building, but not so great in a job interview!
Prolonged or regular adrenal responses can be very detrimental to our physical and mental health since resources are diverted to immediate survival and away from long term health functions such as digestion, immunity and sleep. To counteract its effects we need to stimulate what is known as the ‘rest and repair’ response. There are many techniques that can be used for this, in my experience I have found the following really helpful:
Immediately (during the adrenaline response):
· Breathing is a very powerful tool. The main objective is to have the exhale much longer than the inhale which will have a calming effect on your nervous system. In yoga there are many breathing techniques, one of which is called Bhramari or Bee Breath – you can see how to practise here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PodTxc8qyR4
· Talk a walk, ideally outside, to get some fresh air and dissipate the energy released by adrenaline.
· Remind yourself that it’s not a life or death situation and you can only do your best in that moment. This will help to get some perspective and reduce negative thinking.
· If possible, try to see the funny side – laughter is a great stress reliever.
· Schedule some calming exercise or activity such as yoga or swimming in your week.
· Practise relaxation techniques at bedtime to improve your sleep and help your body repair. Relaxation is a skill so the more you practise the easier it will be to relax when you need to.
· Have regular treatments such as reflexology which can create a state of deep relaxation and trigger the body to heal itself.
· Spend time in nature, whether a garden, local park or a day trip somewhere you love.
When thinking about the causes of stress, it is a mistake to think that all stress is bad. Stress can be defined as something that challenges us beyond our current capabilities. When this happens in small steps the stress is a motivation for growth and development. However, when the demand is too great and we don't have the resources to meet it, the effects are detrimental. To give a physical example, when I was weight training, I had a goal to bench press 40kg. We started at 20kg and built up over the weeks so my body could adapt to the new demands. If I had gone straight in at 40kg the stress on my body would have been too great causing an injury and a lot of frustration!
Tips for managing causes of stress:
· Write down everything you feel is causing you stress.
· For each item, ask yourself if it is something you need to have in your life or is it something that can go? This could be a project, ongoing task or a person in your life.
· For remaining items, can anything be rescheduled, or done less frequently, or can you change the terms?
· Check whether what you are asking yourself to achieve is reasonable or even humanly possible?! Often things by themselves seem like they are achievable but when put all together it can become clear that it is impossible to do all of them.
· Break down projects into manageable steps with dates for completion. This can reduce feelings of overwhelm and help you regain a sense of control.
· Factor in contingency time. Sometimes things beyond your control go wrong or get delayed; if you allow for this it will avoid the stress of being behind schedule.
· Delegate what you can and don’t be afraid to ask for help. – For example if your workload is unmanageable, ask for an extension of a deadline or help with certain tasks.
· Learn to say no! Only take on tasks that you can comfortably achieve and say no to things that cause you stress.
· Factor in down-time to rest and restore. This is absolutely crucial – failure to build this into your weekly schedule will ultimately lead to failure overall as your body and mind will not function properly. Relaxation is not being lazy, it’s taking responsibility for your health and performance!
I hope that helps you to be calmer and happier. If you have any favourite stress-busters, please add them in the comments below.