Staying in control
We often talk about ‘feeling stressed’ but what IS stress, what triggers it and how can we deal with it to help make sure we’re not negatively impacted?
It’s fair to say that the past 18 months have been extremely stressful. Not only have there been long hours and high work intensity, but the global pandemic and Brexit have impacted the bottom line and significantly changed the way we all work.
Remote meetings, material delays and staying ‘COVID-safe’ have all impacted our day-to-day working lives and brought a whole new set of challenges. So how can we deal with this added stress?
The Mental Health Foundation explains that stress is “our body’s response to pressures from a situation or life event”. Interestingly, factors contributing to stress are not all situational as our ability to tolerate stress is coded in our genetic make-up. Understanding this helps us to recognise that something we find relatively straightforward, may be extremely stressful for someone else and vice versa.
It’s also important to note that some stress can be beneficial. It helps drive us and keep us motivated. For peak performance, a degree of pressure is necessary for most people otherwise we can get bored and disengaged. It’s when we feel that we have no control and the situation is persistent and overwhelming, that stress is experienced as negative and ultimately damaging.
The stress container
One way to help us understand how we experience stress and to address our stress levels is to think of it as a stress container which represents a receptacle into which everyday stresses flow.
Everybody’s container is a different size based on different factors such as life experiences. When the container overflows, difficulties develop. Helpful coping strategies can function as a tap to help let stress out of the container. These can be things such as asking for help, getting plenty of rest and taking time to do things which help you relax.
Unhelpful coping methods such as working late or drinking alcohol, which we may think is helping us relax but could be doing the opposite, could block the tap and cause the container to overflow.
As our stress reactions were originally designed to protect us from hungry predators as opposed to worrying about being late for an important meeting, it’s no wonder that the ‘fight or flight’ response doesn’t quite cut it any more. Stress has evolved and comes in many forms including physical, emotional and chronic stress.
Physical reactions to stress can include a low immune system which increases vulnerability to infection, gastric problems, musculoskeletal issues and skin conditions such as psoriasis.
Stress can also alter our behaviour. Stressed people are more likely to respond with anger or irritability which risks diminishing personal and professional relationships. In addition, prolonged exposure to stress can lead to formal mental health problems such as depression or anxiety disorders.
How can we reduce our stress levels?
Pressured situations increase the level of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol in the body. Physical exercise can be used to metabolise excessive stress hormones and increase production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins.
You don’t have to be an athlete or run miles every day to feel the benefits. One of the best forms of exercise is going out for a walk. No equipment is needed, apart from a good set of trainers and you can burn 150 calories in 30 minutes.
Sleep is also a powerful stress reducer. A regular sleep routine helps calm the body and improves concentration, regulates mood and sharpens decision-making. To help get a good night’s sleep, stop doing any mentally demanding work several hours before going to bed so that you give your brain time to calm down. Try taking a warm bath or reading a calming, undemanding book for a few minutes to relax your body, tire your eyes and help you forget about the things that worry you.
“For peak performance, a degree of pressure is necessary for most people otherwise we can get bored and disengaged”
As much as we all love that first cup of coffee in the morning, caffeine is a stimulant and will increase your level of stress rather than reduce it. We might need that first cup but throughout the day, try swapping it for water, squash or herbal teas. Keeping hydrated also helps your body cope with stress.
A glass of wine at the end of a busy day may seem appealing and make you feel less stressed, but alcohol can also increase feelings of anxiety so it’s best avoided if it’s been a stressful day.
We all have stress and it’s a natural reaction to many things in our life. The important thing is to recognise when it starts to negatively impact us and take appropriate steps to look after our mental wellbeing.