What is stress?We all sometimes talk about stress, and feeling stressed, usually when we feel we have too much to do and too much on our minds, or other people are making unreasonable demands on us, or we are dealing with situations that we do not have control over.
Stress is not a medical diagnosis, but severe stress that continues for a long time may lead to a diagnosis of depression or anxiety, or more severe mental health problems.
You can reduce the effects of stress by being more conscious of the things that cause it, and learning to handle them better, using relaxation techniques as well as other lifestyle changes.
Some of the most stressful events are:
- moving house
- getting married
- having a baby
- serious illness in yourself or a friend or family member.
- relationship problems
- caring for a disabled family member or friend
- difficulties at work
- bad housing
- noisy neighbours.
Is stress harmful?Stress can have a positive side. A certain level of stress may be necessary and enjoyable in order to help you prepare for something or to actually do it – e.g. if you are taking part in a performance, taking an exam or you have to do an important piece of work for a deadline – it will be stressful even if you enjoy it, and the stress itself will keep you alert and focussed.
Our physical reactions to stress are determined by our biological history and the need to respond to sudden dangers that threatened us when we were still hunters and gatherers. In this situation, the response to danger was ‘fight or flight’. Our bodies still respond in this way, releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
The release of adrenaline causes rapid changes to your blood flow and increases your breathing and heart rate, to get you ready to defend yourself (fight) or to run away (flight). You become pale, sweat more and your mouth becomes dry.
Your body responds in this way to all types of stress as if it were a physical threat. You may merely be having an argument with someone, but your body may react as though you were facing a wolf. If the threat is physical, you use the effects of the adrenaline appropriately – to fight or to run, and when the danger is passed your body recovers. But if the stress is emotional, the effects of adrenaline subside more slowly, and you may go on feeling agitated for a long time. If the causes of stress are long-term, you may always be tensed up to deal with them and never relaxed. This is very bad for both your physical and your mental health.
The other stress hormone, cortisol, is present in your body all the time, but levels increase in response to danger and stress. In the short-term, its effects are positive, to help you deal with an immediate crisis, but long-term stress means that cortisol builds up and creates a number of stress-related health problems.
Short-term positive effects:
- a quick burst of energy
- decreased sensitivity to pain
- increase in immunity
- heightened memory.
- imbalances of blood sugar
- increase in abdominal fat storage
- suppressed thyroid activity
- decreased bone density
- decreased muscle mass
- high blood pressure
- lowered immunity
- less able to think clearly.
The important point is that you can learn to recognise your own responses to stress and develop skills to deal with it well.
What's the best way to handle pressure?If your stress is caused by the pressure of being too busy and trying to fit too much into the day, you will need to plan each day, with time for work and other tasks, and time for relaxation. Making time for leisure, exercise and holidays is just as essential as spending time on business or home worries.
Remember that a little stress is good for the body and alerts the mind. But it needs to be short-term and to be followed by a period of relaxation.
Manage your time
- Identify your best time of day (you may be a morning person or an evening person) and do the important tasks that need the most energy and concentration at that time.
- Make a list of things you have to do. Arrange them in order of importance, and try to do the most urgent ones first.
- Try to vary your tasks in a day. Vary dull jobs with interesting ones, tiring jobs with easier ones.
- Try not to do too many things at once. You could try to start something else if you have to wait for the next stage in a previous task, but if you have too many things going on at the same time, you will start to make mistakes.
- Once you've finished a task, take a few moments to pause and relax. Maybe have a healthy snack, spend a few minutes looking at the sky, or try a relaxation exercise.
- Have a change of scene. A short walk can make a big difference to how you feel, even if it’s a simple walk round the block. Try to focus on what is happening around you, rather than thinking about your worries.
- At the end of each day, sit back and reflect on what you've achieved, rather than spending time worrying about what still needs to be done.
- Try to get away every so often, if you can, even if it’s only for a day out.
- Develop an absorbing hobby or interest – an activity that uses your brain in a completely different way from your everyday work can be a great release. It can also be a great way to make new friends. This is sometimes easier when you are focussing on a shared activity with others, and not on yourself.
- Make time for your friends. Talking to them about your day and the things you find difficult can help you keep things in perspective – and you can do the same for them. Smiling and laughing with them will also produce hormones which help you to relax.
- Practise being straightforward and assertive in communicating with others. If other people are making unrealistic or unreasonable demands on you, be prepared to tell them how you feel and to say no.
- If you find yourself in conflict with another person, try to find solutions which are positive for them as well as for you. Try to find the real cause of the problem and deal with it.
Try to accept things you can’t changeIt isn’t always possible to change the things you don’t like or find difficult, but you can try and change your own attitude to them so that you don’t build up feelings of resentment or start taking your feelings out on others.
How can I learn to relax?Relaxation is the natural answer to stress. Everyone should make time in the day to relax, whether we feel under stress, or not.
People often confuse relaxation with recreation. However, if hobbies or other activities – including exercise – become excessive, and make you feel even more driven or pressurised, they cease to be relaxing. If you are already exhausted in daily life, trying to relax by doing even more is not the answer.
The first thing is to become more relaxed in daily life and not to waste energy on things that don't require it; such as fidgeting impatiently while you wait for the kettle to boil, or getting impatient with the photocopier. Instead take the opportunity for a few moments of calm.
The second is to learn some breathing and relaxation techniques.
BreathingRelaxation starts with breathing. Many people – especially those who are under stress – have a tendency to take shallow breaths, using only the top part of their chest to breathe, and not their stomach muscles. Learning to breathe more deeply can make you feel a lot calmer and increase your sense of wellbeing. Making your out-breath longer than your in-breath is especially calming.
To improve the way you breathe, try this simple exercise:
- Sit down, or lie down on your back. Make sure you are comfortable, and loosen any tight clothing.
- Notice how you are breathing, how fast, how deeply, and how regularly.
- Put one hand on your upper chest and one on your stomach, just below your belly button.
- Slowly breathe out (count to 11)
- Gently breathe in (count to 7), so that you feel your stomach rise slowly under your hand.
- Breathe out again (count to 11), feeling your stomach fall.
- Pause for a few moments and then repeat the process again.
Relaxation techniquesThere are three important parts to relaxation techniques:
- Preparation – this means making time for relaxation, choosing a suitable position and making sure you are comfortable.
- Method – this should follow a logical sequence, and it will be more effective if you stick to the suggested order.
- Recovery – this should be part of any exercise you do. Make sure you include time for this part in your plans.
PreparationWith regular practice and repetition, relaxation will become second nature.
- If possible, plan to set aside a specific time each day
- If you can, choose a quiet place. It's easier to learn if you are not interrupted.
- If you have young children, see if they will join in doing the exercises and then snuggle up to enjoy the peace and stillness.
- It's impossible to relax if you are cold, so make sure you are comfortably warm.
- Avoid practising relaxation when you are hungry or just after eating a meal.
- If you use a CD or MP3 player have it close by so that you can operate it without difficulty.
Whichever relaxation technique you use, how you position your body is crucial to it working effectively.
Effective positions for relaxation
Based on drawings by Michael Atherton, previously used in the now discontinued The Mind guide to relaxation
Try this every now and again, especially when you feel under pressure. It should take you no more than five to ten minutes.
- Have a stretch. Then let your shoulders and arms relax into a comfortable position.
- Notice any tension in your feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs, chest, arms, shoulders and neck.
- If you are sitting in a chair, or on the floor, allow yourself to feel as if the chair or the floor is supporting your whole weight.
- Try to be peaceful; loosen your jaw and face.
- Follow the breathing technique described above.
- Close your eyes and imagine a peaceful scene, then imagine that you are really there.
Simple muscle relaxation exercise
- Once in a comfortable relaxation position, close your eyes and listen to your breathing.
- Try to slow down your breathing and make it deeper, following the suggestions above.
- With each out-breath, relax each part of your body, in turn, from your feet to the top of your head.
- As you focus on each part of your body, think of warmth, heaviness and relaxation.
- When you have reached your head, just listen to your breathing and enjoy being still and comfortable.
- After 20 minutes, take some deep breaths and stretch your body.
You may relax so completely that you fall asleep. This is fine, so long as you don’t sleep for too long and cause yourself problems. If there is a risk of this happening, you might want to consider setting an alarm, though you want it to be a gentle one and not a startling noise.
Imagery is about imagining. This could be in the form of taking yourself in your mind to a place where you feel relaxed. This can be anywhere you like: a warm beach, a green meadow, a building or room you like and feel comfortable in. The more immersed you become in this place in your mind, the more relaxed you will feel.
Imagery can also take the form of imagining your worries being locked up in a box and put away somewhere, or imagining that the tension is flowing out of your body.
Relaxation leaves muscles softened, and it's important to be gentle when bringing them back into action. Remove any cushions that are giving you support. If lying down, don't pull yourself up using your stomach muscles, but roll on to your side and push yourself into a sitting position, using your arms. Then stand up slowly.
What if relaxation doesn't work for me?If you have tried relaxation and find it isn’t helping, it may be because:
- You are trying too hard, and in pressurising yourself you are losing the opportunity to relax.
- You haven’t found the right relaxation method for you.
- You are so tense or in crisis, that letting go, even for a little bit, is impossible for you at the moment.
- You haven't been through the three stages – preparation, relaxation and recovery – in full.
- You are taking up a poor physical position for relaxation.
- You are uncomfortable; for example, feeling hungry.
- You can’t concentrate during practice: just listening to a teacher or CD will have no benefit, if your mind is elsewhere.
We hope this guide helps.....