Stress, the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018, can be defined as the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, stress is our body’s response to external pressures from a life event or situation.
Stress affects different people in different ways and it is important to understand how to cope with it. Stress is a response to the threat in a situation, whereas anxiety is a reaction to the stress.
Common things that cause stress include new or unexpected experiences, threats to our feeling of self, or feeling we have little control over something.
When we encounter stress, our bodies are stimulated to produce hormones that trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response; this helps us to respond quickly to dangerous situations.
The innate fight or flight response to stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the feeling of ‘pressure’ can help us achieve better results or push through tough situations like speaking in front of a crowd.
However, sometimes stress becomes excessive and too much to deal with. If our stress response is activated repeatedly, or persists over time, the effects can result in wear and tear of the body and cause us to feel as though we are in an endless state of fight or flight.
Rather than help us push through, this state can make us feel overwhelmed or unable to cope. Feeling this overwhelming stress over long periods of time is often called chronic, or long-term stress, and it can impact on both mental and physical health.
Nikki Robinson says: ‘So many people are living in a permanent state of fight or flight, with their minds and bodies caught in a cycle of still reacting to old trauma.
‘It is so important to identify if this is happening to you and to seek help so that your mental and physical health isn’t permanently affected.’
Nikki proposes five easy ways to reduce your stress levels.
1. Breathe out slowly. Your natural reaction to stress is often to keep trying to breathe in but forgetting to breathe out first so you end up with a lungful of stale air.
2. Stretch. Stretching is your body’s way of reducing tension that has built up in your muscles and you can use it whenever you need to, wherever you are. But remember never stretch into pain.
3. Drink plenty of water. Dehydration affects every cell and can affect your brain’s performance and your ability to cope with stressful situations.
4. Listen to your mind and body. By changing what you are doing as soon as you become aware that your stress levels are starting to increase, you can stop the cycle from escalating.
5. Check your posture. Do you tend to hunch over with your shoulders up around your ears? This position of stress feeds back to your brain that you are under stress, even if you are not.
The Mental Health Foundation offers 10 ways to help reduce your stress levels.
1. Realise when it is causing a problem and identify the causes. An important first step is to make a connection between the physical and emotional signs you are experiencing stress and start to formulate a plan of action to tackle them.
2. Review your lifestyle. Try not to take too much on and learn how to delegate!
3. Build supportive relationships. Friends and family can help you manage stress; expand your social network by joining a club or volunteering.
4. Eat healthily. A healthy and balanced diet will help reduce the risk of diet-related illnesses. Wellbeing can be safeguarded by adequate supply of nutrients, including essential vitamins and minerals—as well as water.
5. Be aware of your drinking and smoking. If possible, try to cut right down. Many people believe cigarettes and alcohol destress us, but the opposite is true. Alcohol can increase feelings of anxiety and stress and cigarettes raise our heart rate.
6. Exercise. Physical activity provides a natural endorphin ‘mind boost’ and it’s good for your physical health too. Even a little bit of exercise can make a difference. For example, walking for 15-20 minutes three times a week is a good start.
7. Take time for yourself. Practicing self-care and doing positive things for yourself can help to reduce stress levels.
10. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Look for things in your life that are positive and write down what makes you feel happy and grateful.
Do not be afraid to seek professional help; it is not an admission of failure.