The month of April is Stress Awareness month – so I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk a little about stress. The past 12 months have been so challenging, that we have all probably experienced stress to some degree, and almost everyone feels stress at least once in their lives.
Here are some common myths about stress:
Myth: Stress is the same for everyone. Fact: Stress is an extremely subjective experience.
Myth: Stress is everywhere and can’t be avoided. Fact: Stress can be avoided or managed in many circumstances.
Myth: Stress is always bad. Fact: Sometimes, stress can be good.
Myth: No symptoms means no stress. Fact: Just because a person does not show signs or symptoms of stress does not mean they aren’t stressed.
Myth: Only major stress symptoms require attention. Fact: Even minor stress symptoms should be addressed.
Myth: Stress causes grey hair. Fact: Grey hair has other causes than stress.
Myth: Stress causes cancer. Fact: There are many factors that cause cancer. Cancer cannot solely be attributed to stress.
Myth: Stress is a motivator. Fact: Stress may motivate some people, but the benefits of motivation do not outweigh the overall negative toll on health.
Myth: Drinking alcohol is an effective way to cope with stress. Fact: Drinking alcohol can be even more detrimental for a person trying to cope with stress.
While stress affects everyone in one way or another, there are certain times and situations when pressure piles up and we need a little extra support to help us cope.
The Mental Health Foundation defines stress as ‘the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable’.
A recent study carried out by the ‘Mental Health Foundation’ showed that:
74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope and 32% of adults said they had experienced suicidal feelings as a result of stress.
Firstly, let’s demystify one of those myths. Stress is not always bad. Stress can be positive, keeping us alert, motivated and ready to avoid danger. Without this ability to feel stress, humankind wouldn’t have survived as a species. Our cavemen ancestors, for example, used the onset of stress to alert them to a potential dangers, such as a sabre-toothed tiger.
You may remember that I talked about this at the beginning of the pandemic last year, when most of us were experiencing stress and anxiety as a result of the first lockdown, when restrictions were first placed upon us, and there was a constant fear of the unknown potentially life threatening virus.
So just to recap. Stress is mostly a physical response to danger largely controlled by a tiny part of our brain called the amygdala. It’s the bit in charge when we are frightened and it’s pretty basic and has two settings fight or flight. (There is also freeze, meaning you just get paralysed). When this happens the brain releases a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. It is these hormones, which raise your blood pressure, increase your heart rate and increase the rate at which you perspire, preparing your body for an emergency response. They can also reduce blood flow to your skin and reduce your stomach activity, while cortisol, another stress hormone, releases fat and sugar into your system to boost your energy. As a result, you may experience headaches, muscle tension, pain, nausea, indigestion and dizziness. You may also breathe more quickly, have palpitations or suffer from various aches and pains.
Today, the ‘fight or flight’ mode can still help us survive dangerous situations, such being able to react quickly in emergency situations or when you are physically threatened. The difficulty is when our body goes into a state of stress in inappropriate situations and blood flow is going only to the most important muscles needed to fight or flee. Unfortunately when this happens the brain function is minimised and this can lead to an inability to ‘think straight, so we also become very bad at making decisions, absorbing information and generally thinking rationally.
You may experience periods of constant worry or racing thoughts and repeatedly going over the same things in your head. Some may experience behavioural changes, such as losing your temper more easily, acting irrationally or becoming more verbally or physically aggressive. These feelings can feed on each other and produce physical symptoms, making you feel even worse, particularly extreme anxiety which may make you feel so unwell that you then worry that you have a serious physical condition.
It’s natural and normal to be stressed sometimes. But long-term stress can cause physical symptoms, emotional symptoms and unhealthy behaviours. Try relieving and managing stress using a few simple strategies. You can’t avoid stress, but you can stop it from becoming overwhelming by practicing some daily strategies:
• Exercise when you feel symptoms of stress coming on. Even a short walk can boost your mood.
• At the end of each day, take a moment to think about what you’ve accomplished — not what you didn’t get done.
• Set goals for your day, week and month. Narrowing your view will help you feel more in control of the moment and long-term tasks.
• Consider talking to a therapist. Don’t forget Achieve together have an Employee Assistance Programme where you can get free confidential help 24 hours a day.
• If you feel overwhelmed, talk to your doctor
Many daily strategies can help you keep stress at bay:
• Try relaxation activities, such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises and muscle relaxation. Many programs are now available online, or on social
• Take good care of your body each day. Eating right, exercising and getting enough sleep help your body handle stress much better.
• Stay positive and practice gratitude, acknowledging the good parts of your day or life.
• Accept that you can’t control everything. Find ways to let go of worry about situations you cannot change.
• Learn to say “no” to additional responsibilities when you are too busy or stressed.
• Stay connected with people who keep you calm, make you happy, provide emotional support and help you with practical things. A friend, family member, neighbours can become a good listeners and share responsibilities so that stress doesn’t become overwhelming.
The Stress management Society are promoting Stress Awareness week and offer some good advice on managing stress. They also offer stress tests, and on-line support and resources. It is firstly important to recognise that it is stress and understand it before you can take action to do something about it. Check it out stress.org.uk
If you would like to contribute to the blog in any way, I am always happy to hear from you either by directly responding to the blog, or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Have a great April, Happy Easter,