“I’m really stressed!” “I’m up the walls!” “My job is very stressful” “It was a stressful journey.”
We spend a lot of time these days telling everyone how stressed we are – whether it’s when we’re stuck in traffic, at work where we feel overloaded and unappreciated, when we’re juggling our home and our work lives, our finances and our relationships, we almost accept that this is the nature of modern life. It can feel like a rollercoaster that we can never get off.
It’s important to recognise that the world around us is not stressful per se – what one person finds stressful, another person may find stimulating! Stress is our reaction to what’s happening. It’s the thoughts that we have about a situation, the endless loop of a story going round in our heads that leads to the rush of adrenalin, the racing thoughts and all those other symptoms of the stress response.
How does stress affect us?
Not only can stress rob us of much of our enjoyment of life, it can actually affect our physical health. Recent research has shown, for example, that it lowers our immune system and makes us more prone to all kinds of illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, back pain and gut problems. It can give us a feeling of “being tired all the time”. Stress can also lead to us feeling quite anxious and depressed or experiencing panic attacks.
Is it possible to lead a stress-free life?
Modern life can be challenging but when you are overwhelmed it’s easy to forget that you have choices – and there are many quite simple things you can do that will lower your stress and make your life easier and more fulfilling.
Some of the best stress busters are:
We tend to breathe in a very shallow fashion which in itself makes us feel stressed – just try doing a few very rapid shallow breaths now and notice how “on edge” it makes you feel! Deliberately slowing our breathing down and breathing right down into our tummy area is one of the most useful stress-beating techniques – take a few deep breaths as you sit in the car at traffic lights or in front of your PC. And repeat regularly throughout the day whenever you notice it’s gone back to being shallow.
- Get physical
Many of us live our lives so much in our heads these days that we forget we have a body at all! We also tend to lead very sedentary lives – some days we just go from bed to car to desk to car to couch to bed! Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. While you’re exercising, the constant racing thoughts will stop and when you stop, you will experience a natural high.
Even if you’re confined to your work desk, from time to time shake your shoulders, circle your head around, even jump up and down a few times if you can get away with it. Try to build some kind of regular exercise into your life. You don’t need to join a gym or purchase fancy equipment (or lycra!) – getting a quick walk in the fresh air can do wonders for your mood and stress levels.
Many people find gentle stretching yoga or tai chi exercises very beneficial – if you don’t fancy joining a class, there are many excellent free “how to” videos on YouTube. Others thrive on aerobic exercise and the social aspect of team sports. And don’t let age be a barrier here – if you feel your playing days are over, most sports clubs are crying out for volunteer coaches. If you’re a couch potato, the Couch to 5k programmes taking place all over the country were made for you
- Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness simply means being present to whatever is happening here and now – nothing weird, nothing involving chanting and zoning out. We tend to spend so much time “in our heads” that whole chunks of time pass when we are on almost on automatic pilot. While a never-ending stream of thoughts goes round in our heads. Thoughts about things that happened earlier, things that might happen later on – and almost guaranteed, these thoughts are going to be worries and anxieties. Human brains have what is called a “negative bias” – we have a natural sensitivity to unpleasant news and events. When we feel stressed, this negative bias leads to catastrophic black and white thinking – “everything in my life is a disaster”, “it’s always going to be like this,” “I’m such a failure.”
Mindfulness is the practise of simply noticing when we are worrying, so that we can give ourselves a choice – to either take action to resolve whatever is bothering us, or to accept that it’s probably something we can’t change. One way to start to introduce mindfulness into your everyday life is to choose a couple of tasks and do them mindfully.
If you are taking a shower, for example, really notice and enjoy the sensation of the warm water and the soapy bubbles on your skin. If you are eating a meal, appreciate the look of the food on the plate and savour each mouthful. If you are walking in the street, notice the air temperature, the sounds of the traffic and how your feet feel on the footpath.
For more information on Mindfulness, go to my Mindful Self Help page
- Take steps to resolve the stressful situation
All the above steps are really useful but having calmed yourself down, you can probably start to see that there are some steps you can take to reduce a stressful situation. Maybe several steps over a long period of time will be needed – so you might need to sit down and write things down in a list. If you set yourself clear goals, it can seem more manageable.
- Get to know your own unique stress response
It can be helpful, with the benefit of hindsight to reflect on exactly what triggered a period of stress. Was it starting a new job? Or losing a job? Dealing with a relationship breakup or a bereavement? Was it simply taking on too much? Was it a relationship with one particular person either in the workplace or at home? See if there is anything that you can learn about your response and how to protect yourself in future.
For more information on stress, go to my Stress Counselling Cork page
A typical story of stressful modern day living!
We tend to feel that our own story is unique and no-one feels stress quite like we do, no-one’s life is quite as challenging as our own life – but actually we are all pretty similar! Margaret’s story shows that sometimes there are a series of challenging events in our lives that all come in close succession. We sail through most of the challenges but our coping resources are being stretched ever more thinly – perhaps feeling vaguely stressed and tired but carrying on regardless. At some point, however, our bodies say “enough is enough” and we start to feel the effects of stress and burnout:
Margaret was a bubbly confident woman who had always enjoyed her job in a small family firm. She was used to having her own office and managing her own workload. After being made redundant (after 10 years in the job) she started work in a much larger organisation where she shared a noisy office with eight others. She struggled to get to grips with her new job, quickly lost confidence in her abilities and dreaded going into work. Her sleep and appetite were affected, she felt exhausted and miserable. By the time she came to see me, she was considering handing in her notice, feeling there was no other option.
When we talked about what else had been going on in her life, it was obvious that a lot of things had happened to her in the space of six months. Her mother had passed away after a long illness during which Margaret had been much involved in caring for her. Her oldest son had recently broken up with his girlfriend and so was back living in the family home while her youngest child had left home to go to college and was having trouble settling. Her husband had had an operation which had left him temporarily unable to walk and to go out to work. In all these situations Margaret had been involved in minding and supporting others to such an extent that she had forgotten to look after herself properly. Acknowledging this was the first step in Margaret’s recovery. While not wanting to be “selfish”, she started to realise that she had gone too far the other way and had become “selfless”.
She took away one of my relaxation CDs to listen to at home and started to be aware of her breathing and any tension in her body at work. She found repeating certain phrases to herself such as “you can do this!” really helped when she felt a drop in confidence. She went out for walks at lunchtime rather than sitting at her desk and found ways to start to make friends with her new work colleagues, sometimes going for drinks after work. She took time out deliberately for herself, going away for a “girls’ weekend” with some friends. Over the course of 4 or 5 weeks, she felt a renewed sense of control over her life and felt that she was almost her old self again. Nothing about her outward situation had changed but she was now well able to cope and even thrive once more.
Need more help?
Sometimes all we need is to chat to someone who can see our situation with a clarity and objectivity that we don’t have – when we can’t see the wood for the trees. If you are feeling stressed, I can help. Call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 0876 9934541.
Book a counselling session today!