Friday, 16 March 2012

Of course I'm bloody stressed, what do you expect?

What's your rating? Ignore the signs of stress at your peril.
Picture Stuart Miles (see link below)
People often refer to stress as the scourge of modern-day living, as if we, and only we, own the right to feeling stressed-out all the time.

 Well, imagine how stressed you might feel if you were living through the Blitz during the Second World War, and your son had been reported Missing in Action.  Think what it might have been like having to make ends meet during the general strike of 1926 or the 1930s’ depression, when state welfare didn’t exist. Picture yourself as a poor Victorian living in damp, filthy conditions seeing one baby die after another, and sending your nine-year-old off to work a 16-hour day, six days a week.

 Flash back still further to the late Middle Ages. You’ve just endured the Great Famine, and what happens next? The Black Death, that’s what. And all this suffering is set against the backdrop of England and France locking swords in the Hundred Years’ War. You might have been forgiven for thinking someone up there had it in for you.

 So, no matter how much we think we have a monopoly on stress, it’s really nothing new. How we deal with it, is another matter.

I won’t bore you with a list of potential sources of stress, we all react differently, anyway. Some people love Christmas, others agonise about it from August onwards; retirement could be a release from a hated job for one person, or a life event that another might dread.
The one common factor is that too much stress  is harmful to your physical and mental well-being and is potentially life-threatening.

Types of stress
So what causes stress? Well there are two sources, stress from within and stress from outside.

Inside stress is very much down to our personality type and how we react to events. Some people can manufacture stress from the slightest of problems. I worked with someone who blew a gasket if his computer took longer than usual to boot up; another person might use that time to flick through the paper, and resume work when the computer was ready.
Outside stress is something that is imposed on us, often beyond our control, such as being stuck in a traffic jam when you’re already late for work;  waiting at the supermarket checkout with one item, while the person in front brings out “the vouchers”;  dealing with a demanding toddler; being bullied at work.

These daily stresses don’t go away at the end of the day, they stay with us and build up over time. And it  is this daily accumulation of stress – chronic stress – that does the most damage.
One of the main threats that stress poses to our physical health is over-production of the hormone cortisol. During periods of prolonged stress, the body produces high levels of cortisol over long periods of time. The brain resets itself to treat these levels of cortisol as normal when, in fact, they are causing great long-term harm to the body.  

Remaining in this state for a long time is likely to jeopardise health and lead to lifestyle diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, lowered immunity and some cancers.

Cortisol, which is also released in small amounts every time you drink a cup of coffee, interferes with the body’s metabolism. This is why being stressed can also lead to weight gain. Apart from stress-induced cravings for sweet and fatty foods, higher levels of stress are linked to greater levels of abdominal fat, which is believed to have greater health risks than fat stored in other parts of the body.

Effects of stress
Most people suffering from stress are affected in four different areas. These include:

Feelings:  Irritability, anxiety, fear, feeling worried, miserable or tearful, apathy or agitation, lowered self-esteem.

Thoughts:  Becoming forgetful, indecisive, confused, unable to plan the future; using up energy in worrying rather than tackling problems; being convinced something awful is going to happen; inflexibility, desire to stay in control.

Behaviour:  Poor time management, headless chicken syndrome; taking on too much at work and allowing this to spill over into personal time; cutting down on enjoyable pursuits, such as going to the theatre; losing touch with friends, blaming others; turning to drink, drugs, sleeping pills or tranquillisers to curb anxiety.

Sensations:  Aches and pains, especially headache and stomach aches; tension (neck and shoulder); minor niggles occurring regularly; disturbed sleep; changes in appetite for food or sex; ulcer; flare-up of stress-related psoriasis, asthma and eczema.
If you can tick symptoms in all four boxes, you are definitely suffering from stress.

Tackling stress
So what’s next? Well the first thing I would suggest, before starting to unravel what’s going on in your head, is to make three small changes until you start to feel better:

  1. Cut out alcohol. The only exception to this is if you can stop drinking after one glass. If like most of us you can’t, too much alcohol will make things worse and disrupt your sleep patterns.  One 250ml glass of 12pc wine is three units. The recommended safe level in the UK  for women is 14 units per week, and for men it’s 21 units. If you can stick to this, carry on. If not, give up for now. 
  2. Cut out white carbs. White bread, pasta, rice, refined sugar, even mashed potato all cause your blood sugar levels to soar, which is swiftly followed by a slump, making it harder to stay on top of things. It will help you if you  give them up for now.
  3. Get some fresh air every day. Putting some distance between yourself and the problem by getting out of the house, away from your desk, out of the building, is soothing for the mind and body. The extra bonus is a dose of vitamin D which, in turn, helps your body to absorb calcium.

 The next task is to root out the causes of stress so you can begin to tackle them.  People who are stressed often feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start to sort out their lives. Prioritising, making lists and using a diary, all help to make life more manageable and less confusing. The simple act of making a start to unravel the confusion helps to lighten the load and lower stress.

So, make a list of all the things you regard as stressful in your life, no matter how small, and write them down.  Seeing it all down in black and white gives you an overview of what is happening in your own particular here and now.

Your list will probably reveal that you are reacting to everyday problems  in unhelpful ways, which needs to change. So, instead of screaming at the car in front when you get stuck in a traffic jam, think of it as a chance to have a bit of time to yourself, maybe to plan your weekend.  Remember, how you think about something  will inevitably change how you feel about it.

Be honest with yourself
Sit down with your list and, item by item, ask yourself the following questions and answer them honestly:
What is actually happening to me now? “I hate my job and my boss is an idiot”.
What is not happening? (Highlight the good things, as well as the bad). “I’m not drinking”, but “I’m not taking enough care of my diet.”
What are other people doing or not doing? This highlights the fact that other people are responsible for their actions NOT you.
What are you thinking? “I’m always treated like a doormat by my family.”
What are you feeling? “I feel sad and resentful.”
What are you doing? You should dig deep and give an honest appraisal of your behaviour. “I bite my tongue and reward myself with cakes and biscuits as a treat.”
What would you prefer to be happening? This is the crunch question and should help you clarify what changes need to be made. “I want more help around the house”; “I would like to eat more healthily”.

Feeling they have no control over their lives is one of the biggest sources of stress for most people. By answering these questions honestly, you can begin to take stock of all aspects of your life. Use your answers as a guide to the changes you must make in your thinking and behaviour.

 Another helpful tip is to try learning the language of self-responsibility. This can put you firmly in the driving seat when it comes to making choices. Substituting words or phrases such as ‘I choose to’  for ‘I have to’, puts you in touch with the hidden choices you have in any situation. So, “I have to do this job” becomes “I choose to do this job”, which puts a completely different perspective on the situation.

Do what you can for your physical health. Bring some order into your life.  Accept that  you can’t control some events, but you can change how you feel about them. Put all this together and you are well on the way to effective stress management.

Too much stress leads to burnout – a highly dangerous situation. I will deal with recognising burnout in a later post.
Image link: Stuart Miles' portfolio

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