Stress is something that everyone feels at some point in their life. There are all sorts of stressful situations that can be part of everyday life. Some low level stress can be helpful or motivational but high levels of stress for extended periods of time can be detrimental to your physical and mental health.
What is stress?
At it's most basic level, stress is your body's response to the pressures of a situation or life event. What contributes to stress varies from person to person and differs depending on our financial and social circumstances among others. Common features of situations that often cause stress include experiencing something new or unexpected, something that threatens your feeling of self or feeling you have little control over a situation.
This is why a global pandemic, where uncertainty is at the heart of it, has caused lots of people to feel stress more and more.
What happens to our body when we are stressed?
When we encounter stress our body produces stress hormones which trigger a 'fight or flight' response. This response helps us to respond quickly in dangerous situations. Sometimes, this response has a positive effect and is a beneficial reaction - the feeling of pressure can help us push through a daunting, nerve-wracking or intense situation eg. giving a speech to a large crowd. Following the event we can return to a resting state without any negative effects on out health, providing the stress is short-lived.
Many people can deal with a certain level of stress and not suffer any lasting effects. However, stress can become excessive and too much to deal with. If our stress response is triggered repeatedly, or if it persists over time, the effects can cause 'wear and tear' on the body and can cause us to feel in a permanent state of 'fight or flight'. This can make us feel overwhelmed, unable to cope and, over time, it will impact both physical and mental health.
Symptoms of Stress
- Feeling overwhelmed, irritable, fearful or anxious.
- Racing thoughts and constant worrying.
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
- Headaches, muscle tension or pain, dizziness.
- Sleep problems.
- Eating too much or too little.
- Stomach pain or nausea.
How to Manage Stress
Stress is not always preventable but there are several ways in which you can manage it to prevent it from becoming totally overwhelming.
First - don't be too hard on yourself. Take time to think about what has caused your stress, what you can do to help the situation and what is out of your control.
Split up Big Tasks
If something feels too overwhelming or difficult and you don't know where to begin, try breaking it down into smaller steps and give yourself credit for completing them.
Allow Time for Positivity
Try to take time every day to think about the good in your life - what went well, what your thankful for, the people you love...
Being active can help burn off nervous energy - it doesn't make stress disappear but it can make it less intense and easier to handle. It is recommended that you do 2-2.5 hours of moderately intense exercise a week. For example a brisk walk or swimming laps.
Take a Break and Take Time to Relax
Here are several ways to take time for yourself and relax that can help lower your stress levels:
- Relax your muscles: stretching, massage, hot shower or bath, getting a good night's sleep.
- Deep breathing: find somewhere comfortable, close your eyes, imagine somewhere you find relaxing, take deep breaths (5 seconds in, hold for 2 seconds, 5 seconds out), repeat for 5-10 mins.
- Plan downtime: meditation (or guided meditation), yoga, prayer, listening to your favourite music, spending time in nature.
- Plan time for hobbies: reading, knitting, art, sport, puzzles, movies, playing games.
- Mindfulness: try different techniques, it's about being in the moment, not stressing about the future.
Manage Social Media Time
Spending time on social media can be a distressing thing to do, especially in the current situation, so make sure you take time away from it. Switch it off and spend time relaxing or doing something you enjoy (see above).
Talk to Someone
Talking about your struggles or talking through a problem with someone can have a positive effect. You can talk to trusted friends, family or colleagues or you can talk to a doctor, therapist, a helpline or even a clergyman.
You can also talk to yourself:it's something called 'self-talk' and we all do it but for it to help with reducing stress you need to ensure it is positive and not negative. In order to do this you need to pay attention to what you are saying/thinking when you are stressed. If you are giving yourself negative messages, change it to a positive one. For example, instead of "I can't do this" try thinking "I can do this" or "I'm doing my best".
Planning out any stressful days or events in advance can really help alleviate nerves about it. Try making to do lists, planning the journey, listing what you need to take... You could even try setting your watch 5-10 minutes ahead so you arrive early and avoid the stress of potentially being late.
The main thing you need to remember is this:
Go easy on yourself.
Not everything will go perfectly. Even the most detailed plans can go awry. Don't lose your sense of humour - Laughter goes a long way towards making you feel relaxed.