By Chas Bray, Head of Health and Safety
In 2018, Mental Health Awareness Week will be focused on stress. Research has shown that 16 million people experience a mental health problem each year and stress is a key factor in this.
How do you define stress?
In brief, stress is a feeling of being under abnormal pressure, whether from an increased workload, an argument with a family member, or financial worries.
What is stress?
Stress affects us in a number of ways, both physically and emotionally, and in varying intensities. Research has shown that stress can sometimes be positive. It makes us more alert and helps us perform better in certain situations. However, stress has only been found to be beneficial if it is short-lived. Excessive or prolonged stress can lead to illness such as heart disease and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
During situations that make you feel threatened or upset, your body creates a stress response. This can cause a variety of physical symptoms, change the way you behave, and lead you to experience more intense emotions.
People react differently to stress. Some common symptoms of stress include: sleeping problems, sweating, or a change in appetite. Symptoms like these are triggered by a rush of stress hormones in your body which, when released, allow you to deal with pressures or threats. This is known as the “fight or flight” response. Hormones called adrenaline and noradrenaline raise your blood pressure, increase your heart rate and increase the rate at which you perspire. This prepares your body for an emergency response. These hormones can also reduce blood flow to your skin and reduce your stomach activity. Cortisol, another stress hormone, releases fat and sugar into your system to boost your energy.
As a result, you may experience headaches, muscle tension, pain, nausea, indigestion and dizziness. You may also breathe more quickly, have palpitations or suffer from various aches and pains. In the long- term, you may be putting yourself at risk from heart attacks and strokes. All these changes are your body’s way of making it easier for you to fight or run away. Once the pressure or threat has passed, your stress hormone levels usually return to normal.
However, if you’re constantly under stress, these hormones remain in your body, leading to the symptoms of stress.
Behavioural and emotional effects
When you are stressed you may experience many different feelings, including anxiety, irritability or low self-esteem, which can lead you to become withdrawn, indecisive or tearful. You may experience periods of constant worry, racing thoughts, or repeatedly go over the same things in your head. Some people experience changes in their behaviour. They may lose their temper more easily, act irrationally or become more verbally or physically aggressive. These feelings can feed on each other and produce physical symptoms, which can make you feel even worse.
What causes stress?
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 arguing with a family member. Sometimes, there are no obvious causes
How can you help yourself?
Stress is a natural reaction to difficult situations in life, such as work, family, relationships and money problems. We mentioned earlier on that a moderate amount of stress can help us perform better in challenging situations, but too much or prolonged stress can lead to physical problems. This can include lower immunity levels, digestive and intestinal difficulties such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or mental health problems such as depression. It is therefore important that we manage our stress and keep it at a healthy level to prevent long-term damage to our bodies and minds.
When you are feeling stressed, try to take these steps:
- Realise when 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.
- Identify the causes. Try to identify the underlying causes. Sort the possible reasons for your stress into those with a practical solution, those that will get better with 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.
- 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 also help protect yourself from stress in a number of ways:
- Eat healthily. A healthy diet will reduce the risks of diet-related diseases. Also, there is a growing amount of evidence showing how food affects our mood. Feelings of wellbeing can be protected by ensuring that our diet provides adequate amounts of brain nutrients such as essential vitamins and minerals, as well as water.
- Be aware of your smoking and drinking. Even though they may seem to reduce tension, this is misleading as they often make problems worse. Exercise. Physical exercise can be very effective in relieving stress. Even going out to get some fresh air and taking some light physical exercise, like walking to the shops, can help.
- Take time out. Take time to relax. Saying ‘I just can’t take the time of’ is no use if you are forced to take time of later through ill health. Striking a balance between responsibility to others and responsibility to yourself is vital in reducing stress levels.
- Be mindful. Mindfulness meditation can be practiced anywhere at any time. Research has suggested that it can reduce the effects of stress, anxiety and other related problems such as insomnia, poor concentration and low moods, in some people. The national ‘Be Mindful’ website features a specially-developed online course in mindfulness.
- Get some restful sleep. Sleeping problems are common when you’re suffering from stress.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. Try to keep things in perspective. After all, we all have bad days.
It is okay to ask for professional help if you feel that you are struggling to manage on your own. 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 give advice 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:
- Anxiety UK: Anxiety UK runs a helpline staffed by volunteers with personal experience of anxiety from 9:30-5:30, Monday to Friday. Call 08444 775 774
- Citizens Advice: Citizens Advice provides free, independent and confidential advice for a range of problems as well as providing information on your rights and responsibilities
- StepChange: StepChange provides help and information for people dealing with a range of debt problems. Freephone (including from mobiles) 0800 138 1111 or visit the website
- Mind Infoline: Mind provides information on a range of mental health topics to support people in their own area from 9.00am to 6.00pm, Monday to Friday. Call 0300 123 3393 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Advice and Information Service: Rethink provide specific solution-based guidance – 0300 5000927 or email: email@example.com