April is Stress Awareness Month; the aim is to raise awareness of the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic. The last two years have been most challenging times for everyone, and people are struggling and seeking support. This year the theme for the campaign is ‘Community.’
In this blog we discuss what stress is and how to try and manage our stress, plus how we can use our community to help us manage our stress.
Lack of support can cause loneliness and isolation, which in turn lowers people’s wellbeing, impacts mental health and can over a prolonged period contribute to moderate or severe mental health diagnosis such as depression. Social isolation is an important risk factor for both deteriorating mental health and suicide. As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s vital that the community support experienced by many people during this challenging time continues. Although restrictions have mainly been lifted, people need support now more than ever as they adjust to a new way of living.
The pandemic has had a hugely detrimental effect on the nation’s mental health and sense of community. Disrupted social lives, the cancellation of large gatherings, travel restrictions and working from home have kept us in one place for long periods of time. However, one of the positives to emerge from this unparalleled situation has been the community spirit and support shown by so many to so many.
We probably have all experienced stress in our lives from time to time – occasionally being under pressure or worried is a normal part of day-to-day life.
“I’m Stressed” is a common phrase we often hear nowadays. If we want to deal with our ‘stress’ first, we need to know what it really means and how it affects us. Our stress response can be helpful at times and at other times become emotionally and physically overwhelming. If we experience it for prolonged periods it can lead to mental and physical health problems.
So, what does it really mean?
Stress is initially a sudden physical reaction to something happening around us, or beliefs about ourselves, others, or the world around us. If our body thinks it’s under attack, then it releases a mix of hormones and chemicals to prepare our body to ‘fight or flight’. Just like our ancestors did when they had to fight ‘saber tooth tigers’ to protect their ‘cave’ or feed their family. They often needed a huge rush of adrenalin to survive.
Today we don’t face ‘saber tooth tigers’ anymore but we can still experience danger at times which means we still need that ‘fight or flight’ response and adrenaline rush to enable us to quickly e.g. jump out of the way of a speeding car or something threatening.
However, at times in our life, it can seem as if there is one ‘danger’ after another. Currently we are living in particularly stressful times. The Covid 19 global pandemic then the more recent news of war has thrown us into previously unimaginably stressful situations and life changes.
Living in uncertain times for long periods is stressful. There is a lot of uncertainty around with increase in household bills, some industries are really struggling since the pandemic and consequent impact of the war, which in turn may impact on employment opportunities.
People who are physically vulnerable may still be feeling very stressed with the lifting of restrictions they may be feeling it is still dangerous to venture out and about with the virus rates still at a high.
It is understandable that we will be feeling more pressure than normal and while some people cope with stress better than others, it can severely impact not just your mental health, but also your physical health and long term may impact on our relationships.
Our module ‘Why Do I feel So Bad’ explains in a user-friendly way how stress builds and effects how you feel and what you do. This module helps you to learn a way of understanding why you feel as you do to deal with situations in a more helpful way. Perhaps we cannot change what is going on around us, but it will help us to change how we respond to stressful situations.
Different situations we face in life can leave us feeling stressed. Arguments with people, losing our job, dealing with difficult neighbours, noise, family issues, money worries; the list is endless. Challenges like these can make us feel low and affect how we also feel physically. We can start thinking we are useless, and then can’t have the energy or be bothered doing anything, and before you know it you are caught up in a vicious cycle of worrying thoughts and unhelpful behaviours.
The Vicious Cycle
The vicious cycle is a way of understanding how the worse we feel the less we do and the less we do the worse we feel. The good news is it can also spin the other way and become a virtuous cycle.
Have you wondered how a vicious circle works? Let’s say for example you have been made redundant- how does this life event affect how you think about things? Some of the thoughts that might go through your head could be “I have let people down”, I’m worried about not having enough money for the mortgage, you might feel useless and rejected… and a whole host of other unhelpful negative thoughts.
When we are stressed, we often don’t see life in a balanced way, and we focus on negative things. Bad thoughts go round and around in our head- this is called ‘altered thinking.’
Altered Feelings & Altered Behaviour
When we are upset and stressed we experience all sorts of emotions and feelings- low mood, worry, guilt, shame, anger, irritation- these feelings are known as ‘altered feelings’- the cycle starts to spin and we are thinking and feeling unhelpful things. Then you may start to feel physically ill, you might experience symptoms like the shakes, butterflies, you may have trouble sleeping, be tired, have no appetite, lose your sex drive and be more prone to catching colds and coughs- this is called ‘altered physical symptoms’.
Altered physical symptoms leave you feeling bad mentally as well as physically- you might not bother getting up some days. You stop paying bills, meeting friends, you may be too tired to clean the house or go out. This is known as ‘altered behaviour.’
Altered behaviour completes the vicious circle- now you feel really low- physically tired and may have stopped doing things and can’t be bothered going out. Now our negative thinking gets worse, and we get further down and less able to cheer up.
Overcoming Stress and Low Mood
The good news is no matter how stressed you feel you can spin the vicious cycle the other way. By changing one thing in the vicious cycle we can stop it spinning and control it. It’s not the actual event that affects how we feel, but how we react to the event. We can control how we deal with events in our lives. It’s how we react to life events that matter.
Unhelpful Thoughts Can Spoil Your Life
After you have tried these, you may notice that you sometimes have unhelpful thought patterns that are with you most of the time? These thought patterns can affect how we feel and what we do.
So, what do you do when you’re stressed? Quite often when we are stressed, we reach for things which are unhelpful to us, like smoking or drinking more, impulsive shopping, driving too fast or other risky behaviours which backfire on us in the long term. In our module and ebook ‘The Things You Do That Mess You Up’ we talk about why we do things when they are bad for us and how we can do more helpful things to make us feel better.
Things like smoking and drinking when we are stressed may make us feel better even for a short time. Much like the vicious cycle- they make us feel better in the short run, but actually make us feel worse I the long term and may even lead to bigger problems. It’s a short-term gain for a longer -term pain.
The Things You Do That Mess You Up
Our ‘Stop Smoking in 5 Minutes’ book is available in hardcopy or ebook on our website and will guide you through stopping smoking 5 minutes at a time. Why 5 minutes? Did you know that each craving lasts 5 minutes? So, if you start tackling one craving at a time, you will get through each 5 minutes until the cravings go away entirely. This book will talk you through the ‘Simple Stopping System,’ (SSS). It is good to remember that if you slip up when trying our SSS, you can only slip up for 5 minutes, so don’t beat yourself up, but simply start again.
The key to good stress management is building problem solving skills and emotional wellbeing using some of the techniques we have just talked about to make you feel you are more in control of your situation, but also it is important to make sure that you have a good social network around you, and as positive an outlook as you can.
If you are dealing with a lot of stress in your life, deal with it like you would any BIG problem- you can break your stress down into manageable chunks.
Breaking things down into Manageable Chunks
Think about taking small manageable steps. Don’t be too ambitious, go easy on yourself. Setting yourself achievable targets, or plans can help you to better achieve what you want to do.
Use our Easy 4 Step Plan to break a problem or task into achievable chunks:
Step 1 Break your problem into pieces
Step 2 Brainstorm ways how to do the very first piece
Step 3 Choose an idea, make a plan and do it!
Step 4 Check your plan and put it into practice as we mentioned above.
Taking small steps to achieve positive things will make you feel better, and the more you do this- the better you feel, and then the more you will do. You will have slowly, but effectively started to spin your cycle around in the other way, breaking free of your vicious cycle and creating a virtuous cycle instead.
Use Stress Busters
As well as trying the above techniques for managing your stress we advise trying some good old-fashioned stress busters. Some of the best ways to combat stress can be as simple as going for a walk in the fresh air and staying active. Exercising produces happy hormones. So, when you do it, your body says ‘thanks’ by sending happy chemicals to your brain. Climbing stairs is one of the best ways there is to get fitter and get that happy stuff in your head. Take the stairs next time you’re out then decide to keep on doing it and always take the stairs. Get out when the weather is nice, go out even if the weather is bad- just wrap up warm and you’ll feel the benefit of the fresh air anyway.
Stay Connected to People
The best remedy when you are feeling unhappy and stressed is simply being connected to other people. Having a cup of tea with a friend or relative and talking over some of your worries can make your worries suddenly seem not quite so daunting, and other people often provide a perspective on life that we might not be applying to our own. Being with people or our pets also entertains us, quite often laughter is all we need, and spending time with people/animals who we care about can be just the tonic. Perhaps there are other reasons that make it difficult for you to go out just now look at ways to connect with people from inside your home on Zoom calls for example.
Give Yourself a Break
Remember if you are feeling really stressed out, be kind to yourself, treat yourself to a hot bath with essential oils, take a break- relax, read a book, watch a movie. Enjoy some quality time away from your work or situation to do something that is good for you. Keep on top with a regular sleep pattern, have a set time for bed and time to get up. Be good to your body- eat healthily and try and create food from fresh ingredients.
Lastly- remember we are all in this together, we might not all be in the same boat, but we are in the same storm. It’s important that we look out for each other and check on those in our families and communities who might need help. Help with some shopping, a friendly phone call or a simple smile on the way past can change someone’s day. With a simple smile a glum mood can be lifted, an apology is accepted, that shaky self-confidence gets a boost, and the smile is simply infectious- so go on, give it a go.
The Living Life to the Full Team.