The theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018 is coping with stress, so I thought what better way to kick off this mini-series, than by discussing this year’s main focus.
Everyone will have experienced some degree of stress at some point in their life- it is, unfortunately, inevitable and unavoidable. Stress is the feeling of being under abnormal pressure, in reaction to a real or a perceived threat, known as a stressor. These stressors could be financial worries, moving house, increased workload, bereavement, illness…the list goes on! When our brain detects one of these stressors, our stress response is triggered. This is our evolutionary survival strategy, which gave our ancestors the ability to either stand and fight or run away when they encountered danger. The stress response is the same today, as it was back then, but the problem is, that these days, stress is more a result of our way of life and less to do with physical threats. And, unfortunately, our brain can’t distinguish between physical and emotional stressors, so the physiological response is the same for both.
While a moderate amount of life stress can actually help us to perform better under challenging circumstances, it becomes a problem when these stressors occur more frequently or start piling up on top of one another, as we are repeatedly triggering this stress response on a daily basis. This results in chronic stress which end up taking its toll on both our physical and mental wellbeing. It leaves us feeling overwhelmed, overloaded and unable to cope and even puts us at a higher risk for developing a mental illness.
I, for one, am a massive stress head. I literally stress about absolutely bloody everything! It is ridiculous how much I stress. I stress about how stressed I am. And when I’m not stressed, I even stress about that, BECAUSE OF COURSE THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING TO STRESS ABOUT! So I thought I’d take the stress test over on the Mental Health Foundation’s website, to see where I fell on their stress gauge (you can take this test here). The highest stress result you can reach is 40, and this might come as a shock to you, but I ended up scoring 36- pretty fucking high. (Probably worth me taking their suggested mindfulness course…)
But I am not alone. The Mental Health Foundation undertook a study of stress levels in the UK and over this past year, they found that a staggering 74% of people have felt so stressed, they feel overwhelmed or unable to cope. That’s nearly three out of every four people in the UK at risk! This is a really worrying statistic, especially when you consider that one in four already experience a mental health problem each year.
But how can we support our mental health, to help us cope better with life stresses and stop us from becoming too overwhelmed and burning out?
Well, these used to be my go-to ways of dealing with my problems, worries and stress, aka, the worst possible coping mechanisms imaginable (don’t know what I was thinking, they definitely didn’t work). I would go out every weekend and get absolutely wasted, as a way to de-stress and forget about my problems. I would overeat on chocolate, biscuits, cake, sweets…anything and everything unhealthy, to try and make me feel better. Or if I was too stressed out and worried, I felt I didn’t even have the time to stop and eat. And who has time to sleep, when you’ve got so much to do and worry about!? There were also days when personal hygiene went out the window. I barely ever exercised. I stopped doing all the things that made me happy. Basically, anything I felt wasn’t a necessity, I simply did not have the time for and so, it was scratched from my routine. Also, when I experience emotional stresses- like when my Grandma passed away, when I felt really homesick and lonely on my year abroad, when I hit problems in my relationship- I bottle up my feelings, as I have never known how to deal with them, and repress them deeply into the darkest corners of my subconscious. I thought that by doing this, I could lock the stress of it away in a little box in my mind, forget about it and move on with life.
None of these worked out well for me AT ALL. I had basically made more room in my life for the things that stressed me, which, in turn, gave the stress more control over my body and mind. I took on too much, kept up too fast a pace and didn’t learn to deal with my problems, so eventually, I completely burnt myself out. Stress really took its toll on my mental health and by not dealing with things properly or sooner, my mental state deteriorated to the point where I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
These days, with the weight of this mental illness on my shoulders, any stressful circumstance seems to hit me ten times harder and sets off a ripple effect throughout my mind and body. Although I am very much still a work in progress, I have been working hard at recognising when I am overwhelmed, pressing pause and putting into practice one of the alternative techniques I have read about, to be able to deal with the stressor better and limit the increased repercussions on my wellbeing. By using books on anxiety and information from the websites of mental health charities, I have been able to develop a self-help toolkit of better, healthier ways to cope with stress.
Be assertive. I still struggle with this one at times as I am an incessant people pleaser, but I’m beginning to learn that it’s ok to say no sometimes. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve ended up with a jam-packed schedule, all because I can’t say no to people. I’ve ended up doing things I don’t enjoy, going to places that make me uncomfortable, spending time with negative influences and this has put an insane amount of pressure on me in the past. I now try to pick what I want to and feel comfortable with going to only, to try and lower my stress levels and make sure I’m not taking on too much in one go.
Be present. A lot of my time is spent worrying and overthinking about the past and the future. I can spend hours ruminating at a time; I start off thinking about one little thing and before I know it, I’ve snowballed and my head is full of worries, stressing me out. But now, when I notice this is happening, I ground myself in the present, by focusing on my surroundings. I start with five things I can see and I tend to include touch in this as well. Then two or three things I can hear. If I can smell and taste anything, then I will do these two senses too, but these ones prove to be more difficult. As I go through, I don’t just list them off, I have to describe them in detail. So if I can see a table, what colour? What material? Is it big or small? What type of table? Are there any marks? Anytime my mind starts stressing again, I bring my attention back to my surroundings. I do still struggle to notice when I’m overthinking too much and to implement the technique before it’s too late, but I know this will come easier, the more I practise.
Breathe. This is such a simple technique, but it is so effective. I have recently started to use public transport again and this is something I find really stressful. I have ended up having quite a few panic attacks on buses in the past, so it has become a bit of a learnt behaviour pattern. But if I start getting too panicked, I close my eyes and focus my attention on my breathing. I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, noticing the sensations in my chest, until I have established a steady rhythm. Then I start to count the breaths. One breath = one inhale and exhale. I do this up to ten, and then if I still feel stressed, I start counting again. Then I just keep repeating until I’m feeling calmer. Your brain can’t focus on both your breathing and your thoughts at the same time, so this is a great way of clearing and calming the mind.
Ask for help. When I go through stressful periods, I still tend to shut myself away from the world, as I don’t want to burden my friends and family with my problems. I am trying more and more though, to reach out to my support network and ask for help when things all start getting a bit too much. In the past, my friends have helped me solve problems, offered to physically help me with all or parts of a task to lighten my load and helped to put things in perspective. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved! If you don’t feel like you have anyone close you can talk to though, charitable organisations such as the Samaritans have a free helpline, which offers support around the clock. There is always help out there.
Write it down. Writing has become a sort of therapy for me, as I’m not the best at talking things through. I began blogging at the end of last year, as a way to get things off my chest and have recently purchased a bundle of notebooks (I bloody love stationery!), so I can start journaling. One is for my morning pages, which is just a way of me clearing out my mind, onto the page, ready for the day ahead. Another is for my actual journal, where I document events, thoughts and feelings from the day, so that I can track any patterns in relation to my mood. The last one, however, is for as when I need. If my head starts getting too loud and I’m stressing about too much, I open this notebook and write down everything that I am worrying about. I place them in order of priority and starting with the most important, I list all the possible solutions I can think of and then circle the one I think is best. By doing this, I have taken the worries out of my head, made sense of the noise and sorted through the problems one by one, thus rationalising my stressors.
Exercise. Whenever I get stressed, I feel really hyper-aware and pretty amped up. This is because our body is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, giving us a burst of energy to be able to deal with the situation; the fight or flight response is activated. However, my stress triggers aren’t physical, so these hormones don’t end up being utilised. Exercise is a great alternative to make use of these stress hormones and relax your body and mind. It doesn’t even need to be strenuous exercise; a brisk walk around the block can get you back into a calmer state.
Make time for you. Self-care is so important, but it’s always the first thing to go when I feel stressed. I’m making sure though, that I make the time for at least one thing each day that makes me happy, feel nourished and relaxes me. Self-care looks completely different for everyone, but these are just some of the things I do, to look after myself: I really enjoy getting lost in a good book; I feel super relaxed after a nice, long, hot bath; I feel nourished after I meditate; I am happier when I’m surrounded by nature and especially when I take a walk along the coast. Whatever it might be for you, just make sure you schedule in some ‘me-time’ everyday, to restore your settings and recharge your battery.
Be grateful. I was really dubious when I read about this, but it actually has helped me to focus less on the stresses in my life. Every evening before bed, I write down three things that I am grateful for and at least one positive that has happened that day. This helps to pull my attention away from any negative thoughts and feelings and instead shines a light on things that have gone or are going right for me. By making a note of these as well, I am then also able to look back at all the positivity in my life when I hit another stressful period, which helps to put those new stressors in perspective.
Limit caffeine. I have had to cut way back on my caffeine intake, as it aggravates my anxiety, but if I am feeling particularly nervy, I won’t drink it at all. Caffeine is a stimulant and adding this to the excessive amounts of stress hormones already in my system, will only serve to heighten my already anxious state. I really struggled with this at first as I bloody love tea, but I have now managed to limit myself to one cup of normal tea first thing in the morning, before I switch over to either a decaf or herbal option, for the rest of the day.
Get a good night’s sleep. My sleep has improved drastically in recent weeks (more to do with my new meds, but at least I’m getting 8+ hours), but before this, I really struggled with my sleep. It would take me ages to finally nod off and even then, I always had a restless and fitful night’s sleep. I’ve worked really hard over the years to improve my sleep pattern and quality, by establishing a bedtime routine using sleep hygiene: I have a bath in the evening; I drink chamomile tea: I write in my journals to clear my mind of any thoughts or worries; I stop using electronics an hour before my bedtime; I read a book which helps my mind wind down and tire my eyes; I try to fit in a guided sleep meditation, as this relaxes my whole body and helps me to drift off peacefully. Your routine can use anything that relaxes your body and calms your mind, as this will be different for everybody. The key to cracking this though, is consistency- you need to keep it up and make sure to be in bed by roughly the same time each night, so that your brain gets used to a predictable bedtime routine.
So there you have it! Just some of the ways I now try to manage my stress levels, to cope better with those lemon pelting days. Are there any other stress-busting tips you would add to this list? What activities or techniques help you to relax most? Be sure to add them in a comment below for others to check out- they might find them just as useful!