There are times in all our lives when things just get too much. It’s easy to let our responsibilities build up to a point where it feels as if there is no escape and we feel incapable of holding any control over our lives. Stress management is a major factor in maintaining good mental health and learning to cope with stress can vastly improve your overall happiness and help prevent other, more serious mental disorders.
What is Stress?
Stress is a natural response by your body designed to help you when under pressure or your body perceives a threat. When a threat is perceived, whether it is real or invented, your central nervous system releases hormones and chemicals that cause your senses to become sharpened, your heart to beat faster and your breath to become quicker. This can often have beneficial effects such as helping you think on your feet in unexpected situations, giving you an energy boost during a race or focussing your concentration during an exam. However, too much stress can lead to serious health problems; both mental and physical.
Possible Side-Effects of Stress
Experiencing heightened levels of stress for an extended period of time can cause problems such as:
- Raised blood pressure
- Lowered immune system
- Heart disease
- Cause or exacerbate pain
Am I Over-Stressed?
Everyone has a different threshold of how much stress is too much. Some people thrive on stress and perform better when under a certain amount of pressure, for example; could you imagine the stock exchanges being run without any hustle and bustle? It is also very easy for people to get into a cycle of stress where they find themselves thinking that their feelings of nervous tension are how they should be feeling naturally. This can be very dangerous as they fail to notice how much of an effect it is having on them.
Common symptoms of being over-stressed include:
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor memory
- Thinking negatively most of the time
- Poor judgement while making decisions
- Lack of empathy
- Sense of isolation or loneliness
- Inability to relax
- Eating extreme amounts (too much or too little)
- Trouble with sleep (too much or too little)
- Procrastinating or putting things off
- Using alcohol, nicotine or other drugs to relax
- Nervous habits (biting nails, tapping the desk, pacing back and forth etc.)
- Aches and pains
- Inconsistent bowel movements
- Erectile dysfunction
- Chest pain
- Lack of sex drive
- Susceptibility to illnesses such as colds or flu
How can I help lower my stress levels?
If you feel that you are suffering from stress you should visit your G.P. as soon as possible. If they feel it will help they may refer you to a specialist who can asses your situation and recommend treatment customized specifically for you.
However, there are some simple ways you can help lower your stress levels which you might find useful during your day-to-day life and help prevent your stress levels reaching a dangerous level.
Avoid Stressful Situations – if you find yourself becoming particularly stressed in certain situations then think about ways you could avoid them. If, when driving to work, you regularly become frustrated at the rush-hour traffic and spend a lot of the time hitting the steering wheel or punching your car horn then why not try getting the train or travelling at a different time. Sometimes it is certain people who you find antagonising or unpleasant to be around. Try politely making excuses to avoid situations where you come in to contact with them or find someone who can act as an intermediary.
Devise a way to stop things building up – If you constantly dread deadlines and regularly find your responsibilities building up why not take half a day to sit down and make a to-do list. Write down everything you need to do each week and decide exactly when you will do it. This could be in the form of a filofax or diary which you should carry around with you wherever you go; prioritising new tasks that take precedence over older, less important ones.
Start living healthily – Maintaining a balanced diet and keeping well hydrated with help your immune system and make you feel a lot better. Taking regular exercise will also help lower stress levels by giving you an outlet for your frustrations.
Recognise your reactions to stress – Sometimes we have no control over situations that cause us stress. You might get a flat tyre or your alarm may fail to go off causing you to become stressed for the rest of the day. The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation stop and have a look at your reaction. Instead of kicking your car or screaming at your alarm clock stop and asses the situation; it was not caused by you and there was nothing you could have done to avoid the situation. Take a deep breath and accept it as just one of those things, if you are going to be late or it will affect someone else in another way; let them know and then calmly go about addressing the situation.
Take a break – Everybody needs a break from their daily routine at some time. If going on holiday is not feasible then just take some time out to relax during your day. Reading a chapter in a book at lunch time or going for a walk in the evening once a week can do just as much to reduce stress as sitting on a sun-drenched beach. Even taking five minutes to get some fresh air during the day will allow you to lower your stress levels sufficiently to feel much better for the rest of the day.