What is stress?
Stress is difficult to define or measure. Some people thrive on a busy lifestyle and are able to cope well with daily stresses. Other people feel tensed or stressed by the slightest change from their set daily routine. Most people fall somewhere in between, but may have periods when levels of stress increase.
You can try making a stress list. Try keeping a diary over a few weeks and list the times, places, and people that aggravate your stress levels. A pattern may emerge. Is it always the traffic on the way to work that sets things off to a bad start for the day? Perhaps it’s the supermarket check-out, next door’s dog, a work colleague, or something similar that may occur regularly and cause you stress.
Once you have identified any typical or regular causes of stress, two things may then help:
If you discuss this with a close friend or family member, it may help them and you to be aware of the reasons why you are feeling stressed. Simply talking it through may help.
Secondly, these situations can be used as cues to relax. You can use simple relaxation techniques (see below) when a stressful situation occurs or is anticipated. For example, try doing neck stretching exercises when you are in that traffic jam rather than getting tense and stressed.
Symptoms Of Stress
Stress can affect all aspects of your life, including your emotions, behaviors, thinking ability, and physical health. No part of the body is immune. But, because people handle stress differently, symptoms of stress can vary. Symptoms can be vague and may be the same as those caused by medical conditions. So it is important to discuss them with your doctor. You may experience any of the following symptoms of stress.
Emotional symptoms of stress include:
Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed
Physical symptoms of stress include:
Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
Aches, pains, and tense muscles
Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
Frequent colds and infections
Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Cognitive symptoms of stress include:
Forgetfulness and disorganization
Inability to focus
Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side
Behavioral symptoms of stress include:
Changes in appetite — either not eating or eating too much
Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing
Not being able to sleep properly with worries going through your mind.
Being impatient or irritable at minor problems.
Not being able to concentrate due to many things going through your mind.
Being unable to make decisions.
Drinking or smoking more.
Not enjoying food so much.
Being unable to relax, and always feeling that something needs to be done.
Feeling tense. Sometimes ‘fight or flight’ hormones are released causing physical symptoms. These include:
Feeling sick (nauseated).
A ‘knot’ in the stomach.
Feeling sweaty with a dry mouth.
A thumping heart.
Headaches and muscle tension in the neck and shoulders.
How You Handle Stress
It’s important to learn how to recognize when your stress levels are out of control. The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar, even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll.
The signs and symptoms of stress overload can be almost anything. Stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways, and everyone experiences stress differently. Not only can overwhelming stress lead to serious mental and physical health problems, it can also take a toll on your relationships at home, work, and school.
The following are 10 things that are commonly done by people under stress that make things worse; stop these things, and you will have a much greater handle on your stress.
If you have a stress-related problem, physical activity can get you in the right state of mind to be able to identify the causes of your stress and find a solution. “To deal with stress effectively, you need to feel robust and you need to feel strong mentally. Exercise does that,” says Cooper.
Exercise won’t make your stress disappear, but it will reduce some of the emotional intensity that you’re feeling, clearing your thoughts and enabling you to deal with your problems more calmly.
There’s a solution to any problem. “If you remain passive, thinking, ‘I can’t do anything about my problem’, your stress will get worse,” says Professor Cooper. “That feeling of loss of control is one of the main causes of stress and lack of wellbeing.”
The act of taking control is in itself empowering, and it’s a crucial part of finding a solution that satisfies you and not someone else. Read tips about how to manage your time.
Connect with people
A problem shared is a problem halved. A good support network of colleagues, friends and family can ease your work troubles and help you see things in a different way.
“If you don’t connect with people, you won’t have support to turn to when you need help,” says Professor Cooper. The activities we do with friends help us relax and we often have a good laugh with them, which is an excellent stress reliever.
“Talking things through with a friend will also help you find solutions to your problems,” says Professor Cooper.
Have some ‘me time’
The UK workforce works the longest hours in Europe. The extra hours in the workplace mean that people aren’t spending enough time doing things that they really enjoy. “We all need to take some time for socialising, relaxation or exercise,” says Professor Cooper.
He recommends setting aside a couple of nights a week for some quality “me time” away from work. “By earmarking those two days, it means you won’t be tempted to work overtime on those days,” he says.
Setting yourself goals and challenges, whether at work or outside, such as learning a new language or a new sport, helps to build confidence. That in turn will help you deal with stress.
“By constantly challenging yourself you’re being proactive and taking charge of your life,” says Professor Cooper. “By continuing to learn, you become more emotionally resilient as a person. It arms you with knowledge and makes you want to do things rather than be passive, such as watching TV all the time.”
Avoid unhealthy habits
Don’t rely on alcohol, smoking and caffeine as your ways of coping. “Men more than women are likely to do this. We call this avoidance behaviour,” says Professor Cooper. “Women are better at seeking support from their social circle.”
Over the long term, these crutches won’t solve your problems. They’ll just create new ones. “It’s like putting your head in the sand,” says Professor Cooper. “It might provide temporary relief but it won’t make the problems disappear. You need to tackle the cause of your stress.”
Do volunteer work
Cooper says evidence shows that people who help others, through activities such as volunteering or community work, become more resilient. “Helping people who are often in situations worse than yours will help you put your problems into perspective,” says Professor Cooper. “The more you give, the more resilient and happy you feel.”
On a more basic level, do someone a favour every day. It can be something as small as helping someone to cross the road or going on a coffee run for colleagues. Favours cost nothing to do, and you’ll feel better.
Work smarter, not harder
Good time management means quality work rather than quantity. Our long-hours culture is a well-known cause of workplace illness. “You have to get a work-life balance that suits you,” says Professor Cooper.
Working smarter means prioritising your work, concentrating on the tasks that will make a real difference to your work. “Leave the least important tasks to last,” says Cooper. “Accept that your in-tray will always be full. Don’t expect it to be empty at the end of the day.”
Look for the positives in life, and things for which you’re grateful. Write down three things at the end of every day which went well or for which you’re grateful.
“People don’t always appreciate what they have,” says Professor Cooper. “Try to be glass half full instead of glass half empty,” he says.
This requires a shift in perspective for those who are more naturally pessimistic.
“It can be done,” he says. “By making a conscious effort you can train yourself to be more positive about life. Problems are often a question of perspective. If you change your perspective, you may see your situation from a more positive point of view.”
Accept the things you can’t change
Changing a difficult situation isn’t always possible. If this proves to be the case, recognise and accept things as they are and concentrate on everything that you do have control over.
“If your company is going under and is making redundancies, there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Professor Cooper. “There’s no point fighting it. In such a situation, you need to focus on the things that you can control, such as looking for a new job.”
Self soothing techniques that reduce the stress response:
One of the most effective ways to activate the relaxation response is by decreasing the heart rate. Since we can’t voluntarily alter our pulse, more tangible measures are needed. Luckily, a rapid heart rate can be lowered with deep breathing techniques. The most commonly utilized strategy is breathing by contracting the diaphragm, a horizontal muscle in the chest located just above the stomach cavity.
If a small child told you he was nervous about going to school the next day, what would you say? Unless you’re an abusive lunatic, phrases like “you’re such a dumb little kid” or “you should be nervous because no one will like you” would never leave your mouth. This is because we intuitively know how to help others combat stress sometimes better than ourselves. To increase emotional comfort, it’s imperative to practice reassuring and realistic self-talk. When anxious, practice self-talk phrases such as:
“This feeling will pass.”
“I will get through this.”
“I am safe right now.”
“I am feeling anxious now, but I have the power make myself calm.”
“I can feel my heart rate slowing down.”
Stress causes our muscles to tighten and become tense. To increase a relaxed state and physical comfort, tighten and release muscles beginning with the largest muscle group. Watch this video to learn progressive muscle relaxation exercises.
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