Stress is a contributing factor in seven out of the top ten causes of death worldwide. This is why it is vital that we understand what stress is and the impact it has on our health, both physically and emotionally.
What is stress?
Stress is very common and something we all feel at times, there are all kinds of stressful situations that can be a part of our daily lives. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) define stress as, the adverse reactions people have to excessive pressures or demands placed on them. So, stress is our body's reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. Unfortunately, none of us can avoid stressful situations, we all face stressors, even on a daily basis. However big or small they might be, it’s how we cope with the stressors that impacts how we feel.
Stress is subjective, everyone perceives stress differently. This is important to remember in the workplace. You might be very stressed about something that your colleague isn’t at all stressed about (and vice versa), but remember we are all different. I always think about rollercoasters to explain this. I bet some of you reading this article love rollercoasters, and thrive off them wanting to go on them again and again. Whilst others absolutely hate them and find them very stressful. Now, the rollercoaster is the same for everyone but peoples experience of it varies greatly.
Also, when we hear the word stress we instantly think of it as a negative, but not all stress is bad. For example, the stress of your alarm clock going off in the morning, it gets you up and ready for the day ahead. A certain level of stress or pressure is desirable. Pressure helps to motivate people and boosts their energy and productivity. But when the pressure becomes too much to cope with, that positive force turns negative and this is when it can affect out mental health.
What impact does stress have on us?
I am sure most of you have heard of our fight or flight stress response. It is our survival instinct. Our fight or flight kicks in every time we perceive stress or threats. We have 2 systems within our autonomic nervous system, our parasympathetic state of rest and repair and our sympathetic response of fight or flight. When we experience stress, our physiology reacts by activating the sympathetic nervous system.
So, when we perceive a threat we activate our sympathetic nervous system and we have a lot of physiological responses, some of which include:
· increased heart rate
· increased blood sugar levels
· increased blood pressure
· muscle tension
· digestion slows/ stops
If we are entering this state too often, over time it can lead to a lot of health related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, injuries, inflammation, and due to digestive issues we can end up with nutrient deficiencies. Too much stress can affect our mood, our body and our relationships, especially when it feels out of our control. It can make us feel anxious and irritable, and affect our self-esteem.
In our modern life, we spend too much time in the sympathetic nervous system. On average we cross our fight and flight response 8-15 times per day. Think about deadlines, decisions, traffic, relationships, conflict, financial woes, nerves, and any other stress-inducing events that happen to you each day, whether they are big or small, real or perceived. Experiencing a lot of stress over a long period of time can also lead to a feeling of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, often called burnout.
Signs and Symptoms of Stress:
There are all different signs and symptoms of stress. Cognitive symptoms, how it affects our brain, emotional symptoms how it makes us feel, physical symptoms, what it does to our bodies and behavioural symptoms, how we react. Spend a moment thinking about what your signs or symptoms of stress are?
It’s important to be aware of these signs and if you notice them, do something! Too often we ignore the early stages of stress. We let it build up and we keep brushing it to the side. We only pay attention to our stress levels at an all time high, but if we tackle it during the early stages and deal with it then we can prevent it from getting to that all time high where it leads to mental ill health or burnout.
So, this is the stress container. We are all born with a capacity to handle stress (represented by the container). Stress flows into our containers (our lives), if we have lots of good coping mechanisms, the stress flows in and out smoothly. If we haven’t got these good coping mechanisms, then the stress flows in and starts to build up and up and up until we are overflowing with stress and this is when stress will really begin to impact our mental health.
So the taps represent ways of releasing stress or solving problems to make life less stressful. The taps could be emotion focused (like mindfulness) or problem solving focused (like better time management).
Ø Spend a few minutes to think about (or write down) what stress flows into your life? (like we said earlier, it doesn’t matter how big or small the stress is).
Ø Then, go through your list of stressors and think about what stressors are within your control? What stressors can you actually do something about? Put a star by them.
Some stress is out of our control and we have to accept that. Traffic, for example, we could let the fact we are stuck in traffic cause us a lot of stress, but actually it is completely out of our control and getting stressed about it will not serve us in any way. It’s important we save our energy for the stress that we can do something about (more on this later).
Ø Then think about what are your current coping mechanisms for these stressors that are within your control? Do they actually help? Are they useful? If not, can you think of a more effective coping mechanism? I’m sure you can all think of some good coping mechanisms (talking to a friend, going for a walk, creating a to do list) and some that aren’t so useful (alcohol, smoking, retail therapy).
Ø Now, for the the stressors that are outside of your control, can you accept that they are not within your control? The sooner you can do this, the less energy you waste and the more energy you can put in to the stressors within your control.
What can you do?
There are plenty of things you can do to help cope with stressful events, and simple steps you can take to deal with feelings of stress. It is a good idea to create a list of useful coping mechanisms that you can try for when you are feeling stressed.
Lifestyle factors can play a big impact on how we manage stress:
Ø Nutrition – We need to try and maintain stable blood sugar levels. Try to eat more real whole foods and less processed foods. Processed or sugary foods can cause big spikes in blood sugar, which are then followed by a big drop in blood sugar, often leaving us feeling tired, moody and craving more sugar.
Ø Physical activity – A lot of people often mention getting out for a walk, jog or cycle is a coping mechanism when they are stressed. Try to implement regular physical activity in to your days. Physical activity is scientifically proven to improve our mood and release tension.
Ø Prioritise sleep – When we are poorly slept everything can seem more stressful. Make your sleep a priority as sleep and stress are often a vicious circle.
Ø Practise mindfulness – There are many mindfulness techniques which can help us to manage our stress, breathing is one of the most powerful. Some apps I would recommend are Head Space, Calm and Smiling Mind.
Ø Make time for self care – what do you enjoy doing? Make time for it even if its 10-15 minutes a day.
Work is a major cause of stress for many people. So, what can we do at work?
Ø Make use of the support that is on offer – Mental health champions or first aiders.
Ø Raise issues at 1-2-1’s or team meetings.
Ø Protect that work/life balance – Make sure you take your lunch breaks and finish work on time.
Ø Create open and honest environments so people feel they can speak up when things are stressful.
Ø Make use of your annual leave and try to spread it out throughout the year.
Ø Support and encourage each other.
Although we cannot control everything, it is important that we can identify stress. We should look out for the signs and symptoms of our stressors. We should acknowledge whether the stressors are within our control or not, so we can use our energy more wisely. If you are feeling overwhelmed with stress and it is impacting your daily life, it is important that you seek professional support. Speak to your manager, mental health champion or GP/ health professional.
Written by Jasmine Hawkins, Associate coach for Wellbeings