April has been recognised as stress awareness month since 1992. Stress can have a serious impact on both our physical and mental health; knowing what it is, recognising the signs, identifying causes, finding ways to manage it, and what to do if we can’t, are all key to a happy, healthy life.
It is our body’s natural reaction to pressure. A physical and emotional response to a thought, situation, or event that we find difficult, frustrating, or challenging. Stress has many triggers, consequently it can feel like there are lots of different types, however you can categorise stress in three main ways.
Acute stress. This is the type that occurs when we experience a momentary fright, like the shock when something crashes or a car backfires; the panic if we lose our house keys or mobile phone; the anxiety around an impending deadline or when we must give a presentation at work.
It is generally short-term, fairly low-level and eases once the event has passed. It can even be beneficial, as it is a great motivator to complete a task, or stay alert, ensuring we avoid danger.
Episodic acute stress. This is when the bursts of acute stress happen too regularly or frequently. This could be because a person’s job is particularly demanding, or they have taken on a lot of responsibility. It also commonly occurs in those individuals who make unrealistic demands of themselves, by setting unreasonable or impossible to achieve goals. And in those who tend to catastrophise situations, who always assume the worst possible outcome.
Chronic stress. This can be the result of living with persistent stress over a long period of time. Such as when someone is dealing with a chronic illness, either as an individual or the caregiver of a loved one; is in an unhappy, or a physically or emotionally abusive relationship; a toxic work environment; being subjected to bullying, discriminatory, or antagonistic behaviour; living in a dangerous or violent area. The long-term build-up of stress can lead to serious physical or psychological illness, including mental health conditions such as burnout, depression, and PTSD.
There are many signs of stress, and it can manifest in different ways. It causes both physical and psychological symptoms, and at times will alter the way someone behaves.
Physical symptoms can include –
• Racing heart and chest pains.
• High or raised blood pressure.
• Difficulty sleeping – despite feeling exhausted.
• Headaches and dizziness.
• Tension in the muscles, jaw clenching or teeth grinding.
• Tummy and digestive issues.
• Problems having sex, or low libido.
• Poor immune system – increased colds and infections.
• Forgetfulness and trouble focusing.
Psychological symptoms such as –
• Anxiety and panic attacks.
• Irritability and anger.
• Worry and fear.
Everyone feels stressed at times, it often occurs when we don’t feel completely in control of a situation, when we can’t predict the outcome, are facing big changes in our lives, or are worried about a person or an event.
Stress can be a reaction to a single situation, or it could be a build up from several smaller incidents. It can even happen when we are participating in a joyous event – such as getting married.
A major stressor for a large proportion of people is work. Fear over losing a job, being unhappy but staying because of financial insecurity, poor management, unsafe or unsatisfactory working conditions, extreme pressure, too much responsibility, or a hostile or discriminatory atmosphere can all place enormous strain on someone over a long period of time and can lead to burnout and breakdowns.
Other causes of stress can be attributed to external life events, and these can include –
• Death of a loved one.
• Long-term illness or an injury.
• Divorce and separation.
• Loss of a job.
• Caring for an elderly or sick relative.
• New baby.
• Getting married.
• Moving house.
• Traumatic event – a natural disaster, violence, sexual assault, being burglarised.
Sometimes the stress comes from within and can occur because of worrying. This could be concern about a specific situation happening at that time – not being able to pay the bills or meeting a deadline. It could be a more generalised fear about what is happening in the world at large. For example, watching tv news reports of war, disasters or terrorism can all make it feel very close to home, and that can cause anxiety.
Stress is not an illness; it is defined as a state of mind that can have a serious impact on our psychological well-being, and if not addressed can lead to both physical and mental health problems.
Identifying the signs of stress, and finding healthy ways to cope, is a key factor in managing day-to-day and leading a productive, happy, and successful life. Research has also shown that people exposed to stress are more likely to smoke; abuse alcohol or drugs; and be susceptible to addiction and relapse.
As it is one of our body’s natural responses, there is very little you can do to prevent stress completely. However, there are several things you can do to manage it more effectively. Here are some top tips:
Learn to relax. Sounds easy, right! But most of us struggle to switch off completely. With the hustle and bustle of life, technology meaning we are constantly in touch with the outside world, it can seem impossible to take time out to do nothing. Many individuals use alcohol and drugs to wind down, which is a dangerous habit, as dependency can form quickly.
If you don’t have much time, practice some deep breathing. A growing number of studies show that breathing techniques are effective against stress, anxiety, and insomnia. As little as 10 minutes a day can make a difference.
Manage your time and priorities. Be realistic about what you can get done, and how long it is going to take. Don’t overfill your days, constantly running from one job to another with no time to eat, or even breathe. An unachievable to-do list is only going to put extra pressure on you. Break jobs and responsibilities down into manageable chunks. Psychologically we feel much better when we complete a task, so give yourself a chance to get stuff finished.
Another helpful suggestion is to turn off notifications on your mobile phone and laptop. Not essential reminders, but all those different apps that send you a message, do you need to be informed straight away? If you are working, it can be incredibly distracting, dragging you away from stuff that needs to be done, ultimately lengthening the time it takes to finish jobs. And if you are relaxing, it can disturb rest time, dragging you back into work mode.
Learning to say no, knowing your limitations, setting boundaries (and sticking with them), are all big factors in cutting down on excess stress. Don’t take on responsibilities that aren’t yours (emotionally or physically), you don’t have to do everything yourself, let other people help. Be pragmatic and honest about your capabilities, whether it is a time factor (i.e., you don’t have enough), or because it is not in your skill set, and you currently don’t have the energy to learn something new … or you just don’t want to. If that family member or co-worker is not pulling their weight, then address it. Stop picking up the slack for other people, if they are continuously leaving you to finish their job(s) then say no. It will be tough the first time, but in the long run you will feel the benefit tenfold.
Prioritise your health. Make sure you are looking after your body’s needs. Get enough sleep, if you are struggling try and cut down on the caffeine, this can have a serious effect on the body, especially as we age. Avoid electronic screens in the evenings just before bed, the blue light suppresses the body’s release of melatonin, which is a natural hormone that makes us feel drowsy. That means no scrolling through social media, or watching late night movies, or the news – which can all additionally impact our sleep quality and emotional well-being, so are best avoided just before bed.
Eat well, and adopt a healthy diet, that means plenty of fruit and vegetables, cut down on saturated fat, sugar, salt, avoid processed foods, and drink enough water. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty, that means your body is already dehydrated, try to drink 6-8 glasses of water a day, more if the weather is hot or you are doing a lot of physical activity.
Do some exercise. Even if you can’t spare much time, a stroll in the park, or walking to work can make a positive difference. Studies have shown that 11-20 mins of daily exercise can lower your risk of stroke, heart disease and cancer. It can also improve your mood, aid concentration, and help with getting better sleep.
Having a support system. This means you have a network of people that can provide you with practical or emotional support. Whether it is someone who can pick the kids up from school when you are running late, or it is friends that you can unload to when life is tough; these support systems are your crutch, they will help you improve your overall health and well-being, reducing stress and anxiety.
For some people lifestyle changes are just not enough, they may need a little outside help. This could be in the form of a weekly visit to a therapist, some anti-anxiety medication prescribed by a doctor, or a stay at a residential treatment centre.
Fully qualified counsellors and therapists can help patients identify where they are experiencing unhealthy levels of stress in their lives, and work on coping strategies. In some cases, a psychiatrist may recommend a course of prescribed medication, this should only be done following a thorough examination and taking into consideration all the factors involved.
When an individual is experiencing chronic high levels of stress, is on the road to burnout and/or exhaustion, is using drugs and alcohol, or is unable to function in their day-to-day lives, then a stay in a residential treatment centre may be the best course of action. It will give them a chance to get away from daily stressors, put all their focus and attention on getting well and learning healthy stress management techniques for the future.
Here at our luxury mental health and addiction rehab clinic, set on the idyllic Balearic Island of Ibiza, we treat clients struggling with mental health conditions such as burnout, trauma, anxiety, and depression, as well as alcoholism, addiction, and substance abuse.
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