Sometimes it’s hard to remember that life doesn’t have to be quite so stressful. We can take action: find help to deal with stressful issues, pay attention to our health, slow down and make time to relax. We’ll be adding more content and links as we talk to local experts over the coming months.
There is a lot known about the biology of stress and anxiety. Many people now know that adrenaline and noradrenaline are released when threats are perceived, which can lead to alarming panic reactions. In extreme situations, people can feel as if they are having a heart attack. Anxiety also stimulates release of the hormone cortisol that has wide-ranging effects in the body, including on the immune system.
Obviously, our ‘flight-or-fight’ response is very useful in terms of survival in life and death situations, but increasingly our modern lifestyles can cause us to live in a high state of alertness all the time. This is extremely debilitating. Some people even develop panic responses to irrational things (eg spider phobias).
It seems that learned stress responses start in early childhood, particularly if we have had a stressful early life. Anxiety-related psychological problems can be exacerbated in the teenage years, where over-worrying (eg about social relationships) can lead to diminished self-esteem. We continue to develop these responses through our lives, particularly in response to negative things that happen, and we can sometimes acquire self-defeating behaviours as a result. Stress can lead to illness, absenteeism, poor performance and the breakdown of relationships. Extreme stress can also lead to mental health issues, such as depression.
See your doctor
Frequent headaches, muscle tension and poor digestion are some of the first signs of stress. If you are feeling stressed or experiencing any pains or on-going discomfort, your GP should be your first port of call for a health check and possible referral.
Other beneficial therapies
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been proved to be helpful in identifying and changing habitual responses. Many learned stress responses start in childhood and can be very long-standing, so you may want to work with a counsellor or psychotherapist. For shorter-term, goal-orientated help (eg when changing jobs) you can also try working with a life-coach. Many practices and therapies can also be useful for promoting relaxation such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, massage, reflexology etc. Many of these therapies and practices have been shown help 'retrain' our brains in a positive way.
Here are some tips to reduce stress levels and help build resilience:
- Exercise – moderate exercise can really help as it stimulates the release of chemicals such as endorphins which help reduce stress.
- Good nutrition and low alcohol intake – it is important to eat well and not to drink too much as alcohol can make you feel more depressed.
- Supportive relationships – it is important to avoid social isolation and keep up relationships with people who support you.
- Making time for yourself – whether it's a following a hobby or just taking time out without any commitments, it's important to make time to relax.
- Get enough sleep – sleep-deprivation has a serious effect on our state of mind (just ask any new mother)
The ability to deeply relax is an important antidote to daily stress and a great health-booster. The technique you choose should be practised daily for 10-30 minutes. Best-known practices include:
- 'belly' breathing – where you breathe slowly and steadily, so that your abdomen moves in and out.
- mindfulness meditation – you can watch your thoughts move in and out of your awareness, like clouds across a sky, without engaging in them; or you can 'mind the gap' by being aware of the spaces between your thoughts; or you can walk very slowly concentrating on every sensation of the ground against your feet.
- Body relaxation – starting with your feet, you can concentrate on relaxing each part of your body as you move your attention up your body to the head and scalp.
- Guided visualisation – there are many cds and downloadable resources available to take you on a journey of relaxation and away from your habitual thoughts.
What are you thinking?
Apparently, we have about 50,000 thoughts a day – many of which are negative, fearful and concerned with worrying about our uncertain futures. Learning to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings, and to manage them by making active choices about feeling more peaceful can be extremely helpful. Our minds can sometimes seem like computer ‘in-boxes’ where thoughts just keep arriving like unsolicited emails but we need not ‘open’ or dwell on each one, particularly if it is self-critical and negative.
Phobias are said to be learned stress responses which have been wrongly associated in our minds with something that is not actually a threat, eg spider phobias or fear of flying. Hypnotherapy can be helpful in these cases. There is also a local phobia support group: Triumph over Phobia (TOP) – see listings.
Other calming activities
There are many ways to enter a calmer, more meditative state, which also relaxes your body and helps to improve your health. Find some that work for you and do them regularly. Here are some ideas:
- Meditation groups
- Yoga, qigong and similar
- Singing and chanting groups
- Knitting groups
- Therapeutic dance classes
- Art and craft activities
- Walking in nature
- Swimming, running and other exercises
- Massage and other body therapies