What you need to know about stress
As April is Stress Awareness Month, we break down the signs and symptoms and uncover some helpful tips to combat stress.
Stress is a well-used word these days.
Feeling “stressed out”. “Stop stressing about it”. “They stress so easily about stuff”.
That’s what we hear every day. But what about: “the stress is too much”. “I feel so stressed I’m unwell”. “I can’t cope with this stress anymore.”
Modernity and its pressures have given rise to a stress epidemic, where all of us are feeling its effects in some way, shape or form.
April is Stress Awareness Month and provides organisations and charities with an opportunity to bring attention to the negative impact of stress. It’s important to remove the guilt, shame and stigma many of us feel when “confessing” to feeling overwhelmed or anxious and empower ourselves to start talking more about stress and its effects.
Can stress affect our health? Is it productive to have stress in the workplace? How do we know when feeling stressed becomes something more?
We find out…
WHAT IS STRESS?
Mental health charity Mind defines stress as:
“how we react when we feel under pressure or threatened. It usually happens when we are in a situation that we don’t feel we can manage or control.”
Because life is never predictable and rarely fair, being able to successfully manage some level of stress is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle.
A small amount of stress can often help us to complete tasks and feel more energised.
But it’s also important to recognise when fleeting feelings of stress are sticking around for longer, or when these feelings are impacting our bodies, minds, careers and relationships.
WHEN IS STRESS A PROBLEM?
Stress can become a problem when it either lasts for a long time or the feelings of stress are very intense.
In some cases, such stress can lead to other mental and physical health problems.
Healthcare professionals often refer to stress as either “acute” or “chronic”:
- Acute stress happens within a few minutes to a few hours of an event. It lasts for a short period of time, usually less than a few weeks, and is very intense. It can often happen after an upsetting or unexpected event, such as a sudden bereavement, assault or natural disaster.
- Chronic stress lasts for a long period of time or keeps coming back. You might experience this if you are under lots of pressure a lot of the time. You may also feel chronic stress if your personal life is difficult – for example, if you are a carer or if you live in poverty.
STRESS AND OUR MENTAL HEALTH
To make sure we’re not feeling unable to manage the stress we feel in our lives, we’ve first got to become more aware of what “stress” actually looks like to us.
How stress can make you feel:
- Irritable, angry, impatient or wound up
- Over-burdened or overwhelmed
- Anxious, nervous or afraid
- Like your thoughts are racing and you can’t switch off
- Unable to enjoy yourself
- Uninterested in life
- Lost your sense of humour
- A sense of dread
- Worried or tense
- Neglected or lonely
- Existing mental health problems getting worse
Some people who go through severe stress may experience suicidal feelings. If you feel unable to keep yourself safe, get emergency advice from Mind.
Stress not only affects our mental health in terms of how we feel but also how we act. Noticing changes in our behaviour or relationships can help us to recognise when we’re not fully managing our feelings of stress.
How stress can make you behave:
- Find it hard to make decisions
- Unable to concentrate
- Unable to remember things, or feel memory is slower than usual
- Constantly worrying or feeling dread
- Snapping at people
- Bite your nails
- Pick at or itch your skin
- Grind your teeth or clench your jaw
- Experience sexual problems – losing interest in sex or being unable to enjoy sex
- Eat too much or too little
- Smoke, use recreational drugs or drink alcohol more than you usually would
- Restless, like you can’t sit still
- Cry or feel tearful
- Spend or shop too much
- Not exercise as much as usual, or exercise too much
- Withdraw from people around you
STRESS AND OUR PHYSICAL HEALTH
Stress doesn’t just manifest itself within our minds – it can develop physical symptoms, too.
The hormones our bodies produce to respond to stressful situations can have visible effects on our bodies.
Not only that, stress can lead to more serious health problems.
Physical signs of stress:
- Difficulty breathing
- Panic attacks
- Blurred eyesight or sore eyes
- Sleep problems
- Muscle aches and headaches
- Chest pains
- High blood pressure
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Feeling sick, dizzy or fainting
- Sudden weight gain or weight loss
- Developing rashes or itchy skin
- Changes to your menstrual cycle
- Existing physical health problems getting worse
If we experience high levels of stress, these physical symptoms can get worse. This can also happen if we experience stress over a long period of time.
In some cases, stress may cause more severe or long-term physical health problems. This may include:
- Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (“broken heart syndrome”) – this can feel similar to a heart attack. The British Heart Foundation has more information.
- Secondary amenorrhoea – this is when you don’t get your period for three months or more. The NHS has more information.
STRESS AND OUR CAREERS
Stress is one of the most common causes of long-term work absence in the UK – and it’s no coincidence.
While some stress can make us more productive, too much stress over a long period of time can negatively impact how we feel and perform at work.
Ironically enough, it can often be career-related issues – an overburdened workload, tight deadlines or difficult colleagues, for example – that can give rise to excess feelings of stress.
It can feel like a vicious cycle. This is why supporting employees to successfully manage stress should be a priority for all employers.
For all business owners and line managers reading this, Bupa has compiled a handy list of expert-approved tools and online resources you can share to raise awareness about the importance of effective stress management.
HOW TO MANAGE STRESS
Recognising that we’re stressed is half the battle. Now, we need to do something about it.
Through this year’s chosen Stress Awareness Month hashtag #choosehope, The Stress Management Societyhas acknowledged that feeling hopeful is imperative to find a way through and beyond the challenges of stress.
Hope isn’t just a feeling – it’s the inspiration for us to take action.
It’s a conscious decision to perceive things differently and create a plan to combat stress for good. To empower ourselves with the ability to change our own narrative around stress and how it affects us.
The Society’s 30-Day Challenge encourages us to choose one action for our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing to carry out every day.
It takes 30 days to turn actions into habits, which is why this month-long programme has been designed to maximise our chances of turning useful knowledge and techniques into positive, long-term changes.
Explore their free resources to support your own 30-Day Challenge.
And for those of us looking for specific changes to make right now to better manage our stress, the NHS has the following stress-busting suggestions:
- Be active. Exercise won’t eliminate your stress, but it can reduce the emotional intensity and will help clear your thoughts.
- Take control. If you think you can’t do anything about your stress, it will get worse. The act of taking control is, in itself, empowering and is a crucial part of finding a solution to managing your stress.
- Connect with people. A good support network of family, friends and colleagues can help you see things differently. The activities we do with friends can help us relax, while talking through our problems may help us find some solutions.
- Have some “me time”. Many of us don’t spend enough time doing things we actually enjoy. It’s important to take some time for socialising, relaxation and exercise.
- Challenge yourself. Setting yourself goals whether inside or outside of work can help build our confidence which, in turn, improves our ability to deal with stress.
- Avoid unhealthy habits. Don’t rely on alcohol, smoking or caffeine to cope. These might provide temporary relief, but won’t solve your problems.
- Help other people. Evidence shows that people who help others through volunteering or community work often become more resilient. If you don’t have time to volunteer, try doing someone a favour every day.
- Work smarter, not harder. Prioritise your work and concentrate on the tasks that will make a real difference. Accept that you won’t have time for everything.
- Try to be positive. Actively look for the positives in life and acknowledge everything you are grateful for. Try writing three things down at the end of every day.
- Accept the things you can’t change. Try to concentrate instead on the things you do have control over.
Thank you to Mind for the expert information included in this article