It’s National Stress Awareness Day on the first Wednesday in November. Now, I know we’re all very much aware of stress – we all experience it, to the extent that it’s almost considered normal. This makes people reluctant to speak up if they are struggling with stress. But there is less awareness about the wider impacts of stress, and what we can do to support ourselves and others to deal with stress in healthy ways. So here are my key pointers for how to spot stress and what to do about it.
What is stress?
Stress is a reaction to the things going on around us that we find difficult. That’s an important thing to remember – stress is a reaction, it starts in our mind. But the fact that it starts in the mind doesn’t make it easy to deal with. Our stress response is a primitive survival mechanism that evolved so that we could prepare for ‘fight or flight’ in response to life-threatening dangers.
In modern life, our causes of stress tend to be much more psychological in nature. But our bodies respond in the same way to a difficult meeting at work as they would if we were in mortal danger: by increasing the activity of our sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight or flight reaction that we experience as a racing heart beat, sweaty palms, or shallow breath).
Why is stress such a bad thing?
Common sources of stress are our work, commute, money or time pressures, health concerns, constant stimulation from technology, the use of caffeine, alcohol and other stimulants, the expectation that we should be ‘switched on’ and available at all times, and our fear of missing out. As a result, the fight or flight response can become our default way of being rather than a response to a short-term danger.
When the fight or flight response is constantly over-activated, this can lead to several physical and mental health problems including burn-out, chronic exhaustion, auto-immune diseases, susceptibility to illness, insomnia, digestive problems, weight gain, aches and pains, overwhelm, irritability and unhappiness. These effects can have far-reaching consequences for our health and wellbeing, work, and relationships.
When stress becomes a ‘badge of honour’ in a workplace or circle of friends it can breed a culture of stress where prioritising wellbeing is seen as a sign of weakness. But although stress is becoming an accepted way of being in modern life, the significant potential impacts on our health and wellbeing tell us we should not take it lightly.
Practical tips for dealing with stress
The good news is that there are some simple things you can do to help reduce the stress response and its impact. The key is to change how we think and respond to a stressful situation. It might feel easier said than done, but next time you feel stressed and overwhelmed, try some of these ideas:
- Notice how your body and breath feel. Try not to judge, just notice.
- Take slow, deep breaths, focusing on extending the exhale. This activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system, to balance out the activity of the fight or flight response. Try counting your breaths if this helps you to focus on slowing and deepening your breathing.
- Take a break, ideally outside. Leave your phone behind, go for walk, and spend even just 5 minutes noticing the sights, smells and sounds around you. Give yourself permission to leave the source of your stress behind for those few moments and come back with a fresh perspective.
- Bring to mind something in your life that makes you feel happy or grateful. Notice what happens to your body and breath.
- Check out “how to find calm when anxiety strikes” for more ideas.
And to help you deal with stress in the longer term:
- Practise the ideas above as often as possible. When they become habits, your resilience and wellbeing will increase.
- Create your own self care rituals and habits – read this post to find out more.
- Develop a ‘happiness toolkit’ – a collection of things that make you feel happy and calm. They could be things to do, people to spend time with, things to think about, places to go, books to read, music to listen to – anything that makes you feel happy, relaxed and alert. You could create a Pinterest board or even a physical box to collect your ideas. Whatever works for you. Use it to inspire you to do something that makes you feel well as often as possible.
- When you have some headspace, think about whether there are any more significant changes you want to make in your life to reduce your stress levels. If so, start taking small steps to help you move in that direction. Part of being resilient is knowing when to step away, not just about bouncing back from difficulties.
- If you are struggling with stress, please reach out and speak to someone: your GP, employer, a counsellor, friend, or family member.
How yoga can help
Although the steps above are simple to do, they are less easy to initiate. Our minds are so used to reacting that it can be hard to notice, let alone stop, the stress response. Yoga can help on many levels – mentally, emotionally, physically; in the moment and in the long term.
While we practise yoga, we bring our attention to the breath, and keep the breath calm, slow, and smooth while we move our bodies. In the moment, this calms us down and reconnects the body and mind, activates the soothing parasympathetic nervous system, encourages tense muscles to relax, and releases endorphins (‘happy hormones’).
Over time, a regular yoga practice trains our nervous system to deal with stress and to be more resilient, through strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system; reconnecting with our natural intuition; and making us more aware of our body and breath rather than letting our thoughts and emotions control our behaviour.
How you can help others
- If you liked reading this article, share it with others.
- Offer your support to friends and family who may struggle with stress.
- Talk to your employer about things that could reduce workplace stress.
- Watch this great animation on the Ted-Ed website that explains how stress affects your body.