We all know life can be a little challenging from time to time. And if we’re stressed, it can really take a toll on not only our mental health, but our physical health and well-being too.
Stress Awareness Month has been held every April since 1992 to increase public awareness of the causes, signs and coping strategies for stress. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the past year that they’ve felt overwhelmed and unable to cope. And it’s damaging our health. Stress, if not managed, can lead to a whole host of problems, including anxiety and depression. It is also linked to insomnia, and even heart disease, and problems with our immune system and digestive system. If you’re feeling stressed, it’s important to understand what’s causing it and to learn what steps you can take to reduce it for yourself and those around you.
What is stress?
We’ve all felt overwhelmed at some point. Struggling to hit a work deadline. Money worries. Or a to-do list that seems endless. But what exactly is stress, and how does it affect us?
Stress is simply a physical response, where your body thinks it’s under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode. This response releases a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol to prepare the body for physical action. This causes a number of reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion. Though not all stress is bad. A small amount of stress (short-term or acute stress) can push us just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioural and cognitive performance. And intermittent stressful events can help keep our brain more alert. Examples of acute stress could be sitting in a traffic jam, or an argument with your partner. And we’re designed to recover quickly from short-term stress.
The body isn’t so good at handling chronic stress, however. This long-term stress forces our body to work harder to keep us functioning normally. This can cause a whole host of health problems if not managed quickly, and it can lead to an inability to ‘think straight’, which can really affect both our work and personal lives.
How does stress affect your health?
We all experience stress in different ways, and this contributes to stress manifesting itself differently from one person to another. Stress targets the weakest part of our physiology and personality, so if you’re prone to headaches or insomnia for example, these will likely be symptoms of stress for you. Or if you’re normally an impatient person, this will be the first area to present itself under times of stress.
A small amount of stress can be a good thing, allowing us to be challenged, and keeping us alert, motivated, and ready to avoid danger. But too much stress can make us ill, and in severe cases, can bring on extremely serious symptoms or diseases.
If you’re under constant stress, this can lead to both physical and emotional problems, as well as changes in behaviour.
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension/pain
- Stomach problems
- Skin conditions
- Chest pain
- Sexual problems
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Constantly worrying
- Struggling to make decisions
- Being forgetful
- Depression and anxiety
Changes in behaviour:
- Being irritable and short tempered
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Eating too much or too little
- Avoiding certain places or people
- Drinking or smoking more
Each and every one of us will feel stress at some point in our lives—it’s all part of human nature after all—but it’s important to get on top of it so you don’t become too overwhelmed. In order to minimise stress in the first place, it’s crucial to identify what’s causing it as early as possible, so that action can be taken before serious stress-related illness occurs.
What can I do to help reduce stress?
If you do find yourself feeling stressed, there are some things you can do to help reduce it. Try starting with these 8 effective ways to de-stress:
- Exercise: Regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do to combat stress. It can help lower stress and anxiety by releasing endorphins, giving you confidence and improving the quality of your sleep. Try to find an exercise routine or activity you enjoy, such as walking, dancing, swimming or yoga. Discover more amazing benefits of exercising for just 5 minutes a day.
- Reduce your caffeine intake: Caffeine is a stimulant found in coffee, tea, chocolate and energy drinks. People have different thresholds for how much caffeine they can tolerate, though high quantities can increase stress and anxiety. In general, under five cups of coffee per day is considered a moderate amount, but if you notice that caffeine makes you jittery or anxious, consider cutting back.
- Spend time with loved ones: Social support from friends and family can help you get through stressful times and lower your risk of anxiety. It helps release oxytocin, a natural stress reliever, which is an effect opposite to the fight-or-flight response. It’s essential to have someone to talk to if you’re feeling stressed, worried or anxious, so you should never be afraid to pick up the phone.
- Use essential oils: Aromatherapy can help lower stress and anxiety, so try relaxing in a bath with a candle or essential oils to benefit from calming scents. Some scents are especially soothing, including: Lavender, Rose, Bergamot, Frankincense, Sandalwood, Ylang ylang and Orange. These calming scents can also help improve sleep.
- Practice calming breathing exercises: Deep breathing and meditation activates the relaxation response to help reduce stress and anxiety. There are several types of deep breathing exercises, including: diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, belly breathing and paced respiration. The goal is to focus your awareness on your breath, making it slower and deeper. When you breathe in deeply through your nose, your lungs fully expand and your belly rises. This helps slow your heart rate, allowing you to feel more at peace and in control.
- Listen to music: Listening to music can have a very relaxing effect on the body. Slow-paced instrumental music and nature sounds can induce the relaxation response by helping lower blood pressure and heart rate, as well as stress hormones. But listening to any music you enjoy can have a positive effect, so why not put on some of your favourite tunes? And even better still, have a good old dance around the kitchen to help release those happy hormones.
- Spend time with your pet: Spending time with your pet is a relaxing and enjoyable way to reduce stress. Interacting with pets may help release oxytocin, a brain chemical that promotes a positive mood. Pets also help relieve stress by giving you purpose, keeping you active and providing companionship—all qualities that help reduce anxiety.Read more on the benefits of owning a pet with 5 reasons why pets make us so happy.
- Consider supplements: Some supplements have been found to reduce stress and anxiety, including: Lemon balm, Omega-3 fatty acids, Ashwagandha, Green tea, and Valerian root, a popular sleep aid due to its tranquillising effect.You can buy supplements for stress-relief at Amazon. Please note that some supplements can interact with medications or can have side effects, so it’s a good idea to consult a doctor before taking them if you have a medical condition.
If you’re constantly feeling stressed and often feel overwhelmed, make sure you contact your GP or a healthcare professional. It’s important to manage any kind of anxiety and get it under control as soon as possible, and often just talking to someone can make you feel like a weight has been lifted. Most importantly, don’t ever suffer in silence as there is lots of help available.
Lloyds Online Doctor Service may also be another source of help