Stress means different things to different people. It tends to result from one of 3 things:
Strain – a deadline to meet, a lot of things to do, being under a lot of pressure, needing to make use of every ounce of your capability to make something happen
Anxiety – fretting about something or someone, being afraid of something happening, being jittery, full of butterflies, unable to sit still
Frustration – unexpressed anger, inability to accept something, anger towards a person or a situation, feeling powerless to express yourself, full of pent up emotion
All of these happen to all of us at points in our life, but it doesn’t mean we suffer from stress. It’s all about our ability to bounce back. What should happen is we go through a period of strain, anxiety or frustration, which can feel like we’re in a tunnel, but we get out the other side, to a place where we can relax and everything feels back to normal. In stress we don’t have that ability to get through the tunnel. The tunnel seems to just go on and on. It could be that the thing that causes strain, anxiety or frustration lasts a long time, or it could also be that our normal response has been lost and we give an exaggerated response to any pressure of work, any form of even the slightest anxiety and we get angry at the smallest thing.
I remember when I was moving house and looking for a job in a new location at the same time. This was a while ago, back in the days when they’d give you a mortgage you really couldn’t afford. If I hadn’t managed to get a job then after the mortgage had been paid we’d be living on £25 a month. Of course I worried about finding a job, but I remember being totally stressed about buying a duvet cover. I stood in the shop for ages, being completely unable to make a decision. It was because my stress response was exaggerated that what was really of no consequence seemed like a huge problem. Fortunately for us, I got a job, and so this particular tunnel wasn’t a long one.
Addressing the effects of long term stress is no easy thing. What we can do is respond appropriately to short term stress and if we do that then we could fend off a long term problem.
Step 1: Water
Stress causes dehydration. This is why we get stress headaches, and sometimes these can last for days. Keep drinking water during times of stress. Then rehydrate by constantly sipping on warm water (boiled water topped up with cold). Avoid anything that further dehydrates – alcohol, salty or very sweet food. Coffee and tea are diuretics so they add to the problem. Pain killers might help in the short term but they have a dehydrating effect too.
Step 2: Exercise
Exercise and rest are very important in coping with stressful situations. The exercise stimulates the happy hormones that keep us feeling balanced. We need to work off the excess adrenaline we produce in response to stress. Tiredness in a stressful situation is emotional tiredness, not physical tiredness or mental tiredness. If we can get some physical tiredness we should improve our sleep.
Step 3: Eat healthily
When we’re in a period of stress our bodies go into a ‘fight or flight’ response, stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, which causes the body to produce adrenaline, increases our heart rate and so on. When the sympathetic nervous system is at the helm, attention is diverted away from digestion, so food that’s stodgy and acid-forming will sit undigested and make itself known to us by way of pain and discomfort when the immediate threat has passed. Bad food puts strain on our bodies at the best of times, in a period of stress it can compound a problem.
Step 4: Rest
Get some rest by way of doing something that diverts the mind. Resting and stepping back from a problem allows us to take a fresh look when we go back to it. And of course, things can look much less bleak after a good night’s sleep.
Step 5: Talk
A problem shared and all that. When we vocalise a problem it often doesn’t sound quite as bad as it does in our head. We can’t make time, we can only define priorities. Talking through priorities with someone can help to keep us focused on what’s the most important thing for right now.
If we can adapt our response to what happens around us then we can make ourselves happier and healthier. In the words of W Mitchell “it’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do about it”.