I was delighted to answer the call from Express Medicals Limited looking for specialist input as part of ‘Stress Awareness Week’. One of their clients, Dragados, had asked for a speaker to help everyone understand the subject of stress, what it does and how to tackle it.
It was an early start at Bank underground station: the talks started at 7.30am. Their questions and interaction were fascinating – here I’m revisiting some of the key points I made, so that you can read what I covered too.
Stress is a natural and normal reaction to life. We all experience it just being alive because living in a modern world surrounds us with demands and the need to react. Many of these demands have become so ‘normal’ to us we forget (or possibly do not realise), how much influence they have over our health, so it can be important to recognise when things have become tough and watch for symptoms.
Adrenaline is amazing stuff though, and many people say they thrive on it, but it’s a complicated hormone that speeds up your system, revving your body into a state that makes you ready for action.
There is only one reason for this; your brain must be able to get your body out of danger whenever it is necessary. In some cases, the danger is an on-coming car which only just manages to stop as you cross the road, or it can be the sudden threat of insufficient cash just when you need it!
These ‘demands’ are potentially manageable and may be short-lived, but when you think about things, those thoughts can get in a mess and add to the stress. Thinking negatively or feeling the need to respond to all of the situations that are asked of us, can make us very tense for long periods of time.
Typical examples for rising stress levels
A mum who fights the traffic to drop her children off at school as she has had a tough start to the day and its only just begun! Mobile phones are great, but pressures of everyday life make us feel we must look at them just to stay in touch, and often emails and texts contain something vital, immediate, or demanding which plays on our minds even when we can’t do anything about it.
Other examples are: you may not get on with someone at work, find the job hard, or the hours long. You may be under financial pressure or have a few debts which feel overwhelming. All these situations are normal but might seem enormous at the time.
There are three points to make though:
First, we are often not under physical threat, but we may be under mental or emotional pressure. Our brains cannot tell the difference because our thoughts trigger exactly the same reaction as the actual physical threat.
Second, we are experiencing this tension far more than we may need or than can be good for us. We can under-estimate the impact of it and assume that the adrenal glands have an infinite ability to respond. This process is very automatic and natural, and not everyone feels it to the same intensity, but they may just be very lucky and be born laid back!
Third, just because you experience it doesn’t make it bad!
Your body is designed to cope well but modern day living places demands on us that mean we may not be equipped to cope well, unless we can influence how we view the demands or allow for them somehow. Research shows that it is not the situation that is the issue but our belief, attitude, and reaction to it that matters. This is what we have real control over.
We’re just like an elastic band: if you pull it a bit tight then it recovers quickly. We can take pressure but not for very long periods. A rubber band would eventually snap and that’s a bit the same for us. We either get frustrated and angry or we struggle to cope.
Stress management is most beneficial then when it includes both the management of adrenaline and the management of our thoughts. That way, we take control. Otherwise, you can live on these stress chemicals for long periods of time, and they do have a few side effects.
You will know when you are living on cortisol because when you wake up every day your muscles (particularly your shoulder and neck muscles), will be taught and tense, making you feel as if you’ve done ten rounds in a boxing ring!
Consistent stress management techniques can help dissipate this tension, but it would be better to include habits that help prevent it from being there in the first place.
What does the Stress Response do?
We have a natural reaction to stress that hits us quickly and we feel it in five parts of our body. These five are the same for all of us although we may experience individual responses too.
HEART Your heart rate increases thus pumping more blood around the body. This blood not only contains adrenaline, but the oxygen needed to supply vital organs and blood sugar which helps feed those same organs with essential nutrients to cope with working faster and harder
LUNGS Your lungs increase their capacity to take in air. The increased rate of oxygen uptake is now being pumped faster out of the heart
MUSCLES Your muscles contract ready for action. A supply of easily absorbed sugar is contained within the muscle already and the newly oxygenated blood refreshes this. Your muscles are now capable of making you move as fast as your physical fitness and build will allow. Muscles need practice at moving to do this well – that’s one of the reasons we recommend that you exercise regularly
BRAIN Your brain now transmits billions of signals across the cells. These signals trigger an increased speed of response to the threat to get you out of danger.
STOMACH Your digestion process turns OFF. This is a non-essential activity in terms of survival. Your brain believes that you do not need to digest food in your stomach nor do you have the capacity to digest it. This suggests that the adrenaline reaction was only ever meant to be a short-term action
Because we all experience stress as a matter of everyday living, it is likely we will experience some symptoms of stress too.
Symptoms are quite normal if they are mild, short lived, or easily treatable. So, if you are sleeping well, have regular moods rather than mood swings, cope well with most situations, and you can laugh regularly, the chances are you’re doing well. Stay aware of these in case anything new comes up or life gets more intense, but otherwise this mild amount of stress is pretty good for us.
Examples of typical symptoms:
- Feeling tired
- Fed up
- Tense, irritable or impatient
- Often frustrated
- Mild anxiety or worry
- Sometimes ‘down’ but not for long
Easy ideas for typical symptoms
Here the main point is to try and change your mood and break the tension. Use whatever works for you but here are some simple suggestions.
- Exercise or walk around. It always helps because it works off the adrenaline
- Have a laugh with a friend or socialise over lunch to ease the tension
- Talk about it (for a while), because it helps to get it off your mind
- Plan how to influence the situation, change it or make it better
- Ask for advice from friends or even search the internet in case someone else has written about it
- Plan something nice to look forward to
- Speak to your Manager if you feel they can help
Then decide to do something if you can, even if it’s only to park the problem until later when you have time to think
When life gets tougher though, other symptoms may show up:
Examples of significant symptoms that may need help to improve:
- Feeling persistently unhappy
- Not taking holidays
- Working every weekend
- Working long hours because you believe you must
- Finding your social life hard work and wanting to avoid people
- Confusion, distress or feeling overwhelmed
- Persistently making mistakes
- High blood pressure
- An increase in physical, emotional, or psychological symptoms – e.g. a cold becomes persistent, a one-off upset remains a problem for a long time, or you start personalizing events believing you are at fault or to blame for everything
Easy ideas for severe symptoms
The best thing you can do when you’re very stressed is get advice, help, or support, but if you feel you can manage a situation yourself then try a few of these ideas too. They can ease the tension of your situation even if they won’t change the situation itself. Watch your symptoms though, and if they grow worse please consider the option to seek help.
All of us talk to ourselves but few of us recognize how often. You can’t find the answers to a problem if you criticize yourself.
When this happens, it is as if there are two versions of you inside your head – the good, and the bad. They’ll feel different and that might be because this chat is from what other people have said in your past e.g. teachers, parents and friends who were angry with you.
Think of 3 things that you know are good about you. These become your repeated statements you say to yourself.
- I can manage this
- I will find a way to solve this situation
- I am doing my best
- Sit still and breathe well
In any one day there are benefits in being able to find a few short moments where you can simply sit still and just breathe. Spending even 5 to 10 minutes doing this a couple of times a day (particularly without your phone), is very important.
To learn the breathing technique is quite simple: all you do is breathe out for a count of five, pause for two, and breathe in for a count of five.
We call this:
5 : 2 : 5
What you are doing is also a form of
and this too is good. When you totally focus on one thing at once your body cannot multitask and you are less stressed as a result.
Children are totally focused when they are doing anything they really enjoy, from building Lego to making a model plane they sometimes seem in their own world. So, think about doing this as it helps slow your heart rate and gives you time to think.
- Get enough sleep
Often we don’t sleep well when we’re unhappy and this affects our mood. Buy an over-the-counter herbal remedy such as Sleepeze from Boots and major chemists for a short-term fix. Use for 3 nights then try without again.
Make sure your bedroom is dark, without any light, as this disturbs your sleep. Don’t be too warm and avoid looking at your phone too late in the evening.
- Eat well
Serotonin helps your mood. We make it in our guts even though our brains use a lot of it. Foods that are needed include chicken, turkey, nuts, dark chocolate, bananas. Aim to eat these regularly if you can.
- Let someone know
If you don’t want help but you’re going through a tough patch try talking to your family. Let them know life is rough right now, or if they would become anxious, consider your Supervisor. If you feel uncomfortable about that try an Occupational Health Nurse. They can offer advice, guidance, or ideas particularly if you don’t know what to do for the best. There’s a lot of help available especially on the internet; try my site www.suefirthltd.com or phone the NHS on their helpline 03444 774 774. They have useful information on mood, anxiety, parenting, relationships and support.