This week (1st - 5th November) is International Stress Awareness Week - an annual event sponsored by ISMA (International Stress Management Association), and a time dedicated to helping people recognise, manage, and reduce their stress levels. This blogpost aims to contribute to this goal by looking into the impact that stress has on our bodies and our minds, and by sharing some practical ways to manage and reduce our stress levels.
What Is Stress?
According to the Mental Health Foundation, stress is 'the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure'. More specifically, stress is the way that our bodies respond to a perceived pressure or threat. Certain hormones are released to enable a 'fight or flight' response - this can be very helpful in the moment. It can allow you to push through exhaustion, make decisions quickly, or improve focus for a limited period of time.
Stress often feels like an inevitable part of modern life, and to an extent, it is. One 2018 study revealed that 74% of adults have been so stressed that they have felt unable to cope, with 32% saying that they have experienced suicidal feelings as a direct result of stress. It is perfectly normal to go through periods of stress- when a deadline is coming up or big life changes are happening. What is not normal is for that stress to be constant, or for it to get to a point where it feels unbearable.
Short-Term Consequences of Stress
Breathing harder and faster, can trigger hyperventilation and panic attacks
Heart beats harder and faster, pushing more blood into your muscles so that you can run if necessary
Tummy trouble: stomach-aches, nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting, heartburn, constipation
Long-Term Consequences of Stress
Increased risk of anxiety and depression
Diminished immune response (getting sick more easily)
Tension headaches and migraines
Muscle tension and pain
Increased risk of heart disease
Difficulties with eating and weight management
Acid reflux and chronic stomach issues
Trouble with memory, mental processing, and focus
Increased risk of type 2 diabetes and thyroid problems
I recognise the irony of sharing the consequences of stress - I'm sure there are at least some people reading this post thinking... 'well now I am stressed about my stress levels'. But the point of today is to get people thinking seriously about stress, and to get them to get serious about self-care. Self-care is stress management and stress management is self-care.
Ways To Manage And Reduce Stress Levels
Identify The Root Of Your Stress (And Address It If Possible)
Sometimes it can be hard to realise that you are stressed, let alone recognise where your stress is coming from - and it can be many different places at once. Take a moment to reflect on what you have going on in your life. Once you've identified the main cause(s) of your stress, think about whether it is something that will go away on its own, like a one-off work deadline, or something that needs to be addressed, like a strained relationship.
One of the best ways to reduce your stress levels is to attend to your stressors - even if that means temporarily increasing your stress levels, for example, by having a difficult conversation.
Write It Out
When you're stressed, it can feel like you don't even have the time to stop for five minutes - I promise you do. Just writing about your stress can help you identify the main source of your stress, and clarify exactly what you need to do. Even if it just takes the form of a to-do list, writing things out can make a huge difference, and help you manage your stress more effectively.
Learn To Say No If You're Getting Overwhelmed
To do this, you also need to be able to recognise when you are getting overwhelmed - establishing a daily journaling or mindfulness practice (even if it's just 5 minutes a day) can help with this.
Saying no can be difficult, especially if you have people-pleasing tendencies. To work up to it, practice pausing, or asking for more details before responding to a request. Remember that your time is your own and you do not owe it to anyone. It can also be handy to have a script of ways to say 'no' while still being polite:
'Thank you so much for thinking of me, but I can't make it this time'.
'I'm afraid I'm super swamped with work at the moment'.
'I really can't add anything else to my plate right now'.
'It sounds like a great opportunity, but I'm currently not in a position to give it my all'.
Build In A Break (And Do Something Fun)
It's always good to give yourself a little bit of time off, although when you're dealing with a lot of stress, it can be tempting to use that time to just catch up on sleep that you might be missing. However, studies suggest that stress, and stress-related procrastination can be reduced by using that break to actively do something fun, that takes up all of your attention. For example, some time playing a video game that you really enjoy or having a catch up with a friend will be far more beneficial than spending an hour or two lying in bed and scrolling aimlessly on Instagram.
This is another stress-busting way to spend a break or wind down before bed. Take it as self-care, focused around the five senses. Do one thing to soothe each of them:
Touch - e.g. Stroke a pet; wrap up in a fluffy blanket; get in a nice hot bath
Taste - Eat or drink something you enjoy - whatever it is, take your time and savour it
Smell - e.g. Light a scented candle; put on your favourite perfume or aftershave; go to a bakery or restaurant and pay attention to the aromas
Sound - e.g. Listen to some calming music, ocean sounds, or even an audiobook or podcast
Sight - Look at something that makes you feel happy or hopeful e.g. photographs of your friends, family, or pets; google images of beautiful places around the world; watch a comfort movie or tv show
Talk To Someone
Whether it be a colleague or someone who understands exactly what is stressing you out; someone that cares about you; or a total stranger via a helpline, giving yourself a space to vent can be really important. A listening ear or some words of reassurance might be just what you need. Sharing what you're going through can also foster stronger and more authentic social connections.
Do Some Exercise
That's not to say you need to go out and run a 10k or take up powerlifting. But changing up your scenery by going for a 10 minute walk, or taking 5 minutes to stretch can help reduce your stress levels, boost your mood, and allow you to return to the task at hand feeling refreshed and ready to go.
One Thing At A Time
When your to-do list is piled high with competing projects and priorities, multitasking might feel like the natural approach. However, most of the time, it actually less efficient and your performance may suffer as no one thing is getting your full attention. Furthermore, by taking a longer time to get multiple things at once, you are foregoing the natural boost of satisfaction that you get from getting something done.
Did you find this blog post helpful? Share it with your friends and family to help us overcome stress together!
What do you do to manage your stress levels? What topics do you want us to cover next? Let us know in the comments and help us start an open discussion about mental health and wellbeing.
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