Stress can be defined as the way you feel when you’re under abnormal pressure.
All sorts of situations can cause stress. The most common involve work, money matters and relationships with partners, children or other family members. Stress may be caused either by major upheavals and life events such as divorce, unemployment, moving house and bereavement, or by a series of minor irritations such as feeling undervalued at work or dealing with difficult children. Sometimes there are no obvious causes.
Stressful events that are outside the range of normal human experience, for example being abused or tortured, may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Some stress can be positive. Research shows that a moderate level of stress makes us perform better. It also makes us more alert and can help us perform better in situations such as job interviews or public speaking. Stressful situations can also be exhilarating and some people actually thrive on the excitement that comes with dangerous sports or other high-risk activities.
But stress is only healthy if it is short-lived. Excessive or prolonged stress can lead to illness and physical and emotional exhaustion. Taken to extremes, stress can be a killer.
What are the symptoms of stress?
When you are stressed, your body produces more of the so-called ‘fight or flight’ chemicals which prepare your body for an emergency. Adrenaline and noradrenaline raise your blood pressure, increase your heart rate and increase the rate at which you perspire. They can also reduce blood flow to your skin and reduce your stomach activity. Cortisol releases fat and sugar into your system (but also reduces the efficiency of your immune system). All these changes are our body’s way of making it easier for you to fight or run away.
Unfortunately these changes are less helpful if you are stuck in a busy office or on an overcrowded train. You can’t fight and you can’t run away. Because of this, you can’t use up the chemicals your own body has produced to protect you. Over time these chemicals and the changes they produce can seriously damage your health.
For example, you may start to experience headaches, nausea and indigestion. You may breathe more quickly, perspire more, have palpitations or suffer from various aches and pains. Longer term you may be putting yourself at risk from heart attacks and strokes.
When you are stressed you may experience many different feelings, including anxiety, fear, anger, frustration and depression. These feelings can feed on each other and can themselves produce physical symptoms, making you feel even worse. Extreme anxiety can cause giddiness, heart palpitations, headaches or stomach disorders. Many of these symptoms may make you feel so unwell that you then worry that you have some serious physical conditions such as heart disease or cancer – making you even more stressed.
When you are stressed you may behave differently. For example, you may become withdrawn, indecisive or inflexible. You may not be able to sleep properly. You may be irritable or tearful all the time. There may be a change in your sexual habits. Even if you were previously mild-mannered, you may suddenly become verbally or physically aggressive.
Who is affected by stress?
All of us can probably recognise at least some of the feelings described above, and may have felt stressed or anxious at some time or other.
Research has shown that around 12 million adults in the UK see their GP with mental health problems each year. Most of these suffer from anxiety and depression and much of this is stress-related. 13.3 million working days are lost per year due to stress, depression and anxiety.
Some people seem to be more affected by stress than others. For some people, just getting out of the door on time each morning can be a very stressful experience. Others are more relaxed and easy going and seem to cope better with pressure. If you think you are prone to stress there are various things you can do to help yourself.
How can you help yourself?
An important step in tackling stress is to realise that it is causing you a problem. You need to make the connection between feeling tired or ill with the pressures you are faced with. Do not ignore physical warnings such as tense muscles, over-tiredness, headaches or migraines.
If you find yourself becoming angry or upset you may find it helpful to take time out, even if it’s only for five minutes. Get yourself a drink of water or take a walk around the block until you feel calmer.
Learn to relax
If you notice you are becoming stressed, try to relax your muscles and calm yourself down by slow, deep breathing. Start by taking a deep breath, hold this for a count of three and then slowly breathe out. Continue this slow breathing until you feel more relaxed and then go on with what you were doing.
Mindfulness has been shown to be extremely helpful for managing and reducing the symptoms of stress, so you could also consider taking a course, either online or locally, to learn some techniques for practicing mindfulness in your daily life.
Identify the causes
Once you have recognised you are suffering from stress, try to identify the underlying causes. Sort the possible reasons for your stress into those with a practical solution, those that will get better anyway given time, and those you can’t do anything about. Try to let go of those in the second and third groups – there is no point in worrying about things you can’t change or things that will sort themselves out.
Some problems may be more complicated and need to be dealt with head on. If you are going through a bad patch in your marriage, for instance, you have to begin to talk things through. This might be difficult to do unaided, so you may need to call on outside help from an organisation like Relationships Ireland.
Make lifestyle changes
Once you’ve started to deal with the immediate causes of stress, try to review your lifestyle. Are you taking on too much? Are there things you are doing which could be handed over to someone else? Can you do things in a more leisurely way? You may need to prioritise things you are trying to achieve and reorganise your life so that you are not trying to do everything at once.
You can help protect yourself from stress by in a number of ways. For example, a healthy diet will help prevent you becoming overweight and will reduce the risks of other diet-related diseases.
If possible, try to cut right down on smoking and drinking. They may seem to reduce tension, but in fact they can make problems worse. They can put you at more risk of physical consequences of stress because of the damage done to the body. You may also find it helpful to reduce the amount of coffee you are drinking as the effects of caffeine on the body can be very similar to the effects of stress and anxiety.
Physical exercise can be very effective in relieving stress. If you are feeling angry, for example, it can be really helpful to play a game of bitter squash in which you take out your anger on the ball (but not on the player). Even moderate physical exercise, like walking to the shops, can help.
Take time to relax. Saying ‘I just can’t take the time off’ is no use if you are forced to take time off later through ill health. Striking a balance between responsibility to others and responsibility to yourself is vital in reducing stress levels. Relaxation classes can help you learn how to control muscular tension and breathe correctly. Alternatively you could try to spend more time on leisure activities such as sports, hobbies or evening classes.
Sleeping problems are common when you’re suffering from stress, but try to ensure you get enough rest. Try not to take sleeping pills for longer than a night or two.
One of the best antidotes for stress is enjoying yourself so try to bring some fun into your life by giving yourself treats and rewards for positive actions, attitudes and thoughts. Even simple pleasures like a relaxing bath, a pleasant walk, or an interesting book can all help you deal with stress.
Try to keep things in proportion and don’t be too hard on yourself. After all, we all have bad days.
Do not be afraid to seek professional help if you feel that you are no longer able to manage things on your own. Many people feel reluctant to seek help as they feel that it is an admission of failure. This is not the case and it is important to get help as soon as possible so you can begin to get better.
The first person to approach is your family doctor. He or she should be able to advise about treatment and may refer you to another local professional. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness based approaches are known to help reduce stress. There are also a number of voluntary organisations which can help you to tackle the causes of stress and advise you about ways to get better.
See MHI’s Manage and Reduce Stress Booklet (pdf) for more advice.