Headaches, aching jaw, grinding teeth, eating too much, eating too little, can’t sleep, can’t wake up, can’t concentrate, can’t relax…
Stress can manifest in a wide variety of ways, none of which are particularly enjoyable. The working population are predisposed to stress, secondary to heavy, busy workloads and high powered jobs with critical decision making. Yet stress and anxiety do not necessarily require an obvious cause.
People with more conservative lifestyle choices can still find their minds busily occupied with strain, obsessing about small details of their day and panicking about minor errands or chores. This is when stress – ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’– can culminate in a perpetual state of unwarranted anxiety.
Stress in the short term is part of our ‘fight or flight’ nervous system. It provides the required adrenaline before an exam or presentation to act at our best and helps us flee when we perceive a dangerous situation. It isn’t just useful – it is mandatory to our survival.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a burden to our health. It causes a prolonged rise in cortisol levels (our stress hormone) which eat away at our immune systems, depresses our moods, raises our blood pressure and therefore puts us at further risk of heart disease, strokes and bleeding.
Some do not realise they are stressed. Instead, they notice symptoms such as muscle aches and pains, fatigue, abdominal discomfort, diarrhoea and/or constipation, without realising that stress is what is underlying their symptoms. This is particularly common in men.
Sadly we cannot always manage the situation we are in or the factors that initially encourage us to become stressed, but we can manage how well we cope with stress.
Coping with Stress
Most importantly, go and see your healthcare provider, especially if you feel you are using drugs or alcohol to cope and even more so if you no longer feel like you can cope at all. Suicidal idealisations can be common when under extreme stress.
- Make lists of what you need to achieve each day – realistic lists. When each task is complete, cross it off the list. Even just making the list itself can help people structure their thoughts as well as providing a sense of relief as each item is crossed off.
- Use friends and family as a means of emotional support. Airing your concerns helps deposit part of the anxiety. Keeping anxieties within your own thoughts allows them to circle and escalate uncontrollably. A problem shared is a problem halved.
- Recognise signs of your body’s own stress response. Are you easily angered, easily weepy, very fatigued or reaching for a glass of wine at the end of the day? Have a low threshold for seeking help and addressing how you can reduce your workload.
- Set priorities – decide what must be done and what can actually wait. The ability to say ‘no’ is a vital life skill. People should respect you for recognising your own limitations. It will also allow you to accomplish things to a higher calibre without them being rushed or ill thought through.
- Exercising will give your mind space to think logically and increase endorphins for a mental boost. Exercise is proven time and again as one of the best aids for stress.
- Relaxation time is important – and not a waste of time. Take a massage, go for a swim, take a bath or read a book. However, you like to relax, do it.
- Participate in coping with stress programmes or learn relaxation techniques. Some like meditation, yoga, tai chi or breathing exercises. Find which suits you. Gone are the images of a beach loving hippies breathing deeply in the sunset. Many people meditate for relaxation purposes and boast of its health benefits.
Stress is sadly common and consuming. Many feel there is no way out and result in alcoholism, self-harm or even suicidal attempts. The most common side effect of chronic stress is the development of an anxiety disorder. This is when someone feels anxious for a period of 6 months or more with no stimulus for their feelings.
If you can identify with feelings of stress and anxiety, make an appointment with your GP or a psychology expert. Minor changes to your life today could result in a much more relaxed and fulfilling future.
This post was written by Dr Jenna Burton, a Pall Mall Medical expert.