Wouldn't it be great if we all lived our lives completely stress free? Well, no, not really. We need a certain amount of stress in our lives to keep us on our toes for when emergencies happen and we need that boost of energy to deal with them effectively. This kind of stress can be good for us in small doses and is referred to as acute stress.
What we don't need is chronic stress. The kind that results from repeated exposures to the same stressors. The kind that is a silent killer. The kind that most of us do not pay enough attention to or deal with appropriately. Yet we allow it to manifest itself in so many ways that we become physically and mentally ill from it.
If you have a pain in your chest or you break your leg you go to the doctor and they give you medication or a cast that will make you better. If you are stressed what do you do? Nothing usually. Maybe you wait for the moment to pass or try to distract yourself with something else, but usually you do nothing.
What most people don't realise is the damage they are doing to themselves by not relieving the stress effectively. The physical and mental disorders linked to stress are growing at a rapid rate and we need to wake up and start taking them seriously. When we don't deal with stress effectively a whole list of things develop and we ignorantly presume they were caused by something else.
Stress doesn't necessarily cause any of these conditions or diseases but it has been proven to increase and multiply the symptoms. I would be here all day if I were to list the disorders and conditions linked to stress but they range from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, heart attacks, auto immune diseases, insomnia, increased susceptibility to infections like common colds, herpes, AIDS, certain cancers, skin conditions, gastrointestinal diseases, neurological disorders and so many more. It's actually hard to find a disease or condition that stress does not aggravate.
Some of the signs and symptoms of stress are obvious but some are put down to a whole host of other things which is why stress gets ignored. Quite often people don't recognise the following symptoms as being caused by stress:
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Racing thoughts causing insomnia at night
- Frequent crying spells
- Telling small lies to cover up things
- Feelings of loneliness or worthlessness
- Little interest in appearance or being on time
- Excessive defensiveness of everything
- Increased suspiciousness of others
- Weight gain or loss without change in diet
- Excessive gambling or impulse buying
- Neck ache, back pain, muscle spasms
- Light headedness or dizzy spells
- Being prone to frequent colds or infections
- Changes in bowel movements
- Frequent urination
- Loss in sexual libido
- Frequent nightmares or disturbing dreams
Most of us are aware that when we are stressed it effects our emotions and how we behave. We assume that stress is linked to our minds and our thoughts. What we don't see is the physical damage it is doing to our bodies internally.
I don't want to go into too much detail about what happens to our bodies when stressed but I think it's important to cover the basics. When we get stressed our bodies produce hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. These are also known as the "fight or flight" hormones because our bodies are getting ready to fight off a perceived threat or emergency. These hormones make the heart beat faster and increase blood pressure. They also cause our muscles to tense up which in turn can cause headaches or migraines.
We start breathing faster and harder which sometimes results in hyperventilation or panic attacks. The body also starts producing other stress hormones which result in the liver producing a blood sugar called glucose to provide energy to fight the emergency. If the glucose is not used up effectively it turns to fat in the body and we end up gaining weight without even eating anything!
Our stomachs and gastrointestinal systems are effected by stress too. This can result in us having an increased or decreased appetite as well as changes in our bowel movements or painful spasms in our intestines.
For men, excessive amounts of stress produces cortisol which has been known to impair the production of testosterone and sperm. In very bad cases it can cause impotence. For females stress can cause irregular menstrual cycles and reduce sexual libido. (That sucks!)
This all sounds like something that happens to people who are seriously highly strung and need to take a chill pill. The reality of it is that this is what happens in all of our bodies once we start to feel stressed regularly. Just because we stress about some things more than others doesn't mean our bodies are not reacting internally to stress in the same way. We've become so used to being stressed that we no longer feel the symptoms or recognise them as being stress symptoms.
In another post I will go into more detail on how to recognise the different types of stress and the ways in which you can manage it. For now I wanted to give you some basic tips of how you can take steps to reduce stress in your life today.
- Maintain a balanced, healthy lifestyle - Take a look at what you eat and drink when you feel stressed. Do you reach for a box of doughnuts and bottle of wine? Do you drink three cups of coffee? Maybe you go outside for a "break" and smoke a cigarette. All of these are negative reactions which stress thrives on. Teach yourself to replace unhealthy coping strategies with healthier ones. Next time pour yourself a glass of water. Go outside for a five minute stroll and clear your head.
- Identify the sources of stress - Try to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes you stressed without looking for excuses. Have you taken enough breaks? Have you been using your time effectively when given a deadline or did you procrastinate and put things off resulting in you being stressed now? Do you tell yourself "I just have a million things to do this week but it'll be fine"? You don't have to do everything yourself. Can any of those things be done by someone else so the pressure is halved? Don't take on more than you have the time for and let other parts of your life suffer.
- Connect with family and friends - When was the last time you went for coffee with a friend and had a catch up without complaining about work or how busy you are? Make time to connect with the people you love face to face and not just a quick online message or comment on their photo on Instagram. Meeting with friends and family makes us feel good about ourselves as we naturally become more relaxed in the presence of people we know and love. Try to laugh more also. It releases happy endorphins in our bodies that reduce symptoms of pain and stress. It's the cheapest form of therapy there is!
- Get your body moving - Just like laughing, exercising releases happy endorphins (chemicals in your body) that make you feel good about yourself. You can read more on the benefits of getting outdoors here in a post Sarah wrote last week. If it's raining or you can't go outdoors try blasting some music and dance around your kitchen instead. Just 20 minutes of exercising will get your blood pumping and feeling great! Listen to your body and give it what it needs! There are 24 hours in every day. If you're asleep for eight hours that leaves you 16 hours to fit in just 20 minutes of exercise. Now you can't say you don't have 20 minutes to spare!
- Practice the "Four A's" - Avoid, Alter, Adapt and Accept - These four A's are vitally important in learning to manage your stress. So much so that they will be getting their own post soon but for now you just need to know the basics and when to use each one.
Avoid - people who stress you out, situations you don't need to be involved in (e.g. family arguments that are nothing to do with you), taking on too many tasks. Learn to say no!
Alter - how you express your feelings to others (don't bottle them up until you almost explode), how you balance your work-life schedule, how you communicate what you want
Adapt - your ideas of what is perfect, your perception of the stressful situation (will it be as big a deal in a month's time?), your expectations and attitudes towards the stressful event (if you are stuck in traffic make it into a positive so you have time to practice your mindfulness)
Accept - you can't control some things like death, illness etc., people make mistakes and learn to forgive them, this time will pass and things will get easier
- Manage your time better - We are all "busy". But being busy doesn't make you good at your job and it doesn't make you more important than anyone else. It certainly doesn't allow you to get time back when you've missed out on important occasions with loved ones. Learn to manage your time better and prioritise tasks that need to get done. Start time blocking so that you don't procrastinate and you get things done without allowing tasks to build up and cause unnecessary stress. As I said before, there are 24 hours in every day, if you sleep for eight hours that gives you 16 hours every single day to get shit done. Stop making excuses and start making things happen!
- Make time for fun and relaxation - Have you ever heard the quote "Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life"? Make time to be there for your friends and family. Make time for fun in your life. You're getting older every day and you will never get this time back. Don't have regrets that you didn't have fun in your twenties or thirties cause you were busy working or "being an adult". Think about what you like to do for fun. Go make a plan right now to do that later on or in the next two days. Call your friend that always makes you laugh. Run a bath with extra bubbles and sit there reading a book with your phone turned off. You deserve to relax and have fun!
Stress comes in different forms (acute stress, chronic stress, episodic stress) and they are treated very differently so it's important to know what kind of stress you are suffering from in order to be able to treat it quickly and effectively. Remember that when you are stressed it affects others around you too. Try to recognise when you feel like you are becoming stressed and use the techniques listed above to reduce that stress so you don't take it out on others.
Acute stress is natural and sometimes necessary but chronic stress is not. Don't allow stress to take over your life and define who you are. It's not easy but it is possible. Take control today!