Don’t let stress hold your life hostage
Most of us have had periods of feeing stressed in our life. When we are stressed, we can experience a range of physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioural symptoms, and can feel overwhelmed or burned out. Feeling stressed can feel difficult, challenging and sometimes even debilitating. However, the good news is, that we can have an enormous influence over how stressed we get and how often this happens. By cultivating healthy strategies in our life and in our daily routine, we can make stressful situations easier to manage, so that we can learn to thrive in life, not just survive.
What is stress?
Stress is our bodies way of alerting us to danger or a threat, real or imagined. When we feel stressed our bodies think it is under attack and switches to ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode, releasing hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol which prepare the body for survival. Under stress we might experience:
- a rapid heart-beat
- rapid and shallow breathing
- a dry mouth
- digestive problems
- cold, sweaty, numb or tingling hands or feet
- heightened senses
- extreme thinking
When we repeatedly experience the fight, flight or freeze response in our daily lives, it can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in our bodies. It can shut down our immune system, upset our digestive and reproductive systems, raise blood pressure, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the ageing process and leave us vulnerable to many mental and physical health problems.
Causes of stress can be positive as well as negative. For example, getting married might be just as stressful as a rocky relationship. Anything that puts high demands on us can be stressful and can be caused by internal and/or external factors. For example, some common external causes of stress might be relationship difficulties or financial problems. While internal causes of stress might be excessive worrying or being a perfectionist.
Symptoms of chronic stress
Symptoms of chronic stress can be put into four categories; cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioural. Cognitive symptoms may include:
- memory problems
- an inability to concentrate
- anxiety or constant worrying
Emotional symptoms may include:
- feeling overwhelmed
Physical symptoms may include:
- aches and pains
- frequent colds
- loss of sex drive
- constipation or diarrhoea
Behavioural symptoms may include:
- withdrawal or isolation from others
- use of alcohol, drugs, nicotine to help relax
Improving stress levels
There are many ways in which to build a tolerance to stress or cope with its symptoms. In the busy world we live in, it is important not to allow stress to sabotage our lives and take us hostage. Making time to implement some of the suggestions below, will not only make life more manageable, but will help support you take care of your emotional well-being and prevent long term health issues.
- Emotional awareness - being aware and recognising when we are stressed is helpful. If we can calm and soothe ourselves, we can increase our tolerance to stress and help us to bounce back from adversity. It is a skill that can be learned at any age.
- Exercise - research has shown that exercise can help depression and anxiety, and can be extremely helpful in relieving stress. Regular exercise can improve our mood and break the cycle of stress and anxiety.
- Support network and relationships – connecting to others can not only trigger hormones that relieve stress, but can also provide a safe network of people with whom we can share difficult emotions with - this can help us to tolerate stress better.
- Relaxation time - finding some time to relax can trigger the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the fight, flight or freeze response. There are many activities which can encourage relaxation such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing, listening to music or taking a bath (amongst many others).
- Eat a healthy diet - eating regular healthy meals is important for emotional and mental wellbeing. Cutting out caffeine, processed food and alcohol can really help with coping with life’s ups and downs.
- Sleep - not getting enough sleep can increase stress. There are many ways in which to improve sleep, which might include having a bath an hour before bed, or having a warm milky drink before bed.
- Mindfulness - research has shown that mindfulness practice reduces stress and anxiety, especially when practiced over an eight-week period. Mindfulness practice is a way of being present in the here and now and has been described by Jon Kabat-Zinn as, “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally”.
- Counselling - seeking help from a counsellor can allow you to explore and work through difficult feelings in a safe, non-judgemental and caring environment, helping you to identify which steps to take to overcome these challenges.
A final note
Whilst taking some of the steps mentioned above can be extremely helpful for stress, our attitude and outlook largely determine how resilient we are to stress. With a hopeful attitude, it is easier to embrace challenges, and accept change as an inevitable part of life. Similarly, if we have a sense of control, we are more confident in our ability to influence events and persevere through challenges. Although it can sometimes feel difficult to be hopeful when feeling overwhelmed and stressed, it is important to remember that making even the smallest of changes in our lives can have long lasting effects.
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