Stress affects us all at some point or another over our lives and it’s important to recognize when we are feeling a bit overwhelmed. These are some my top tips for helping to cope during difficult times.
Stress and anxiety when presented with new life challenges is a normal, natural and in many ways healthy reaction to dealing with the unknown. What is not healthy is letting it get out of hand, out of proportion and out of control. Think of the stress reaction as your friend, that’s right, your friend that has been passed down from your ancestors to protect you from harm and help you out of sticky situations.
If we did not develop a healthy level of anxiety back in the past we would have probably been eaten. The ability to sense danger and learn to recognize near misses, and be sensitive and reactive, when a similar stressor appeared kept your ancestors alive so they, in turn, passed this trait along the gene line to you.
You descended from a long line of successful survivors who existed in the days when stress was actually a life-threatening event. While modern stress is all around us, in all honesty, we can’t class it as actually life-threatening anymore, but our bodies only have the chemistry and mechanisms to react to stress triggers as if it were. This is known as the fight, fright or flight response.
However, understanding the biology of the stress reaction is all well and good but now it may be time to learn how to diffuse its damaging effects. The following tips may help you self-manage a runaway stress reaction, but you may also need a little one-to-one help in the form of some stress management counselling to get to the root cause or triggers. In some cases natural support aids such as Elthea (L-theanine), magnesium or a course of B-vitamins may be helpful, but this is best discussed on an individual basis.
Don’t underestimate routine
As I explained earlier, generally we don’t like change and this can result in anxious feelings and agitation as our bodies prepare for ‘something’ to happen. Routine can help you feel settled. Simple routines like getting up and going to bed at the same time each day, doing some daily exercise, having breakfast, lunch and dinner at approximately the same time, allows a regularity so the body is not physiologically or emotionally stressed.
Without routine, we can feel overtired, find it difficult to control our sleep, energy levels and our eating patterns. This, in turn affects our mental health often making us fatigued, and agitated which is often accompanied with a feeling of being unable to cope.
Try to build something nice into your routine, a little treat for yourself for getting through another day. Ideally, this should not involve treating yourself to alcohol, junk food or sugary stuff. By a treat I mean something that gives you pleasure but not something that can eventually cause more problems! Re-engage with listening to music, watching a good film and box-set, reading or something creative and crafty.
Sleep: A good night’s sleep is crucial
When stressed, a good night’s sleep can become rare. Remember, in days gone past if you were stressed you were probably in real danger so sleeping would not be wise in such a hostile environment. Modern stresses are not likely to creep up on you and try to eat you, but our bodies have ancient protective mechanisms that simply don’t know this. Hence, what we do in the day can influence our sleep at night. Take a walk in the morning light – this light will block the hormone melatonin (the hormone which helps to control the sleep cycle) and enhance the feel-good hormone serotonin, setting you up for a better day. Conversely, as evening approaches assist the melatonin to rise by dimming the lights at home, avoiding the glare from computer, tablet and phone screens and start winding your body down for the evening.
Keep your bedroom as a bedroom and not an extension of your sitting room. While it may be a lovely idea to watch TV from the comfort of bed it is the last thing your body actually needs. The same goes for checking that social media stream or news feed just when you are settling to sleep as you can bet there will be something to irritate, upset or stress you, just when you need it the least. Remember, there is nothing that can’t really wait until tomorrow to read. In the mood-lifting light of morning things are more often or not easier to handle.
Find space – take time for yourself
When we feel anxious, too much noise and other people can make us feel overwhelmed. Think back to the ancestral origins of the protective stress mechanisms; it was probably wise to isolate yourself and keep away from the masses when your life was in danger. We carry this drive for quiet solitude through into modern life but it can often be hard to find that quiet space so you have to make it for yourself. Even if your household has become busy, there will probably be a corner where you can sit and just breathe quietly, or enjoy a good book, or pop on your headphones and slip into your favourite music or audio book. If the house is heaving with activity, slip off and take a relaxing bath, or, take yourself outside for some air, sunshine and a walk. You will need to create your own safe space, bolt hole or personal retreat sometimes to help reset your internal ‘harmony barometer’; taking 10 minutes out can make all the difference.
Stay in the moment
Our mind can feel so busy sometimes and we just need an off-switch, otherwise we end up with the thoughts coming thick and fast and it feels a bit ‘like a hamster in a wheel’. Such thoughts are known as intrusive thoughts as, they are just that; intrusive. These thoughts force their way into our conscious mind often elbowing other more pleasant and rational thoughts out. Intrusive thoughts are negative or worrying thoughts and they can, if not unchecked, occupy much of our waking day. Again, these thoughts owe their origin to days gone past when it was probably wise to have a reoccurring thought of that thing with big teeth as it almost got you last time! Amplifying such thoughts is nature’s way of keeping you alive by making you super vigilant to previous hazardous experiences. Remember, nature does not care how you feel so long as you are alive, safe and able to care for your offspring or reproduce… that’s just how it is in nature. Now, fast forward to 2020 and you can see that we are bombarded with worrying news and stressful events each of which our bodies interpret as a life-threatening event when in modern reality they are not. Intrusive thoughts become the normal and we wind ourselves up into a real tizzy. I like to think of intrusive thoughts as ‘mind-worms’ as they burrow deeper and deeper into our minds and become intertwined with our daily existence. Unless you learn to turn the soil and bring these worms to the surface they will happily live deep down there in our deep subconscious periodically popping up for air before diving back down. Working to ‘live in the moment’ helps to deprive these mind-worms of an environment conducive with their existence. Keep the here and now thoughts active… think of these thoughts as the Robins or Blackbirds pecking the mind-worms out of the ground as they pop up for air. As soon as you feel a mind-worm stirring and rising for air, summon your Robin or Blackbird in the form of here and now thoughts and it will pluck that negative worm up and out. Try it next time; I am sitting and think about what you are sitting on, is it comfy? I am drinking my tea and think about the tea; is it nice, too hot, too cold… should I try a different blend and if so which one..? I am walking, think about where you are and what is around you… if you spot a Robin or Blackbird give it a wink and say thanks for helping me battle those mind-worms as they are a real pest!
Kindness – it helps you to help others
Interestingly, it is a proven fact that giving produces significantly more positive brain activity and chemistry than receiving. This has been shown to be the case in studies involving what happens to our brains when we participate in charitable activities. This also extends to acts of simple kindness that is known to activate the pleasure centres in the brain that also react to other pleasurable activities. This process is thought to revolve around dopamine release. Dopamine is one of our key pleasure hormones, its our "happy hormone" and is needed for us to actually experience happiness. The interesting thing about dopamine is the fact that it also drives us to seek further pleasure, so, enhancing dopamine helps us to be kind to others giving that part of our brain a positive tickle and in so doing, further drives us to repeat that activity.
In this day and age, what a great way to make yourself feel better.
Recognise we are individual
If you recall, I talked about acceptance right at the start. This also has to extend to an acceptance of individuality that we all have to embrace. Depending upon your personality, some find it helpful to talk to their friends where others are more relaxed taking a long walk on their own. All too often we take on the views from well-meaning friends and when we are feeling low, we lose the sense of what is best for ourselves. If you feel you are starting to follow the flock remember to respect your own view and take on life, embrace the gift of being an individual with free-will and free-thinking. If you end up following the flock you may find yourself doing what others feel you should do or need to do rather than what you actually need. You have to be comfortable with yourself to ever achieve inner harmony and peace of mind. Take time to get to know yourself, enjoy the fact that your views and take on life may be different to those around you while respecting the right to individuality for all.
Finally, always remember you are not alone and there is always someone to talk with and it can be very rewarding to explore and challenge your old ways of thinking. Change can be negative in many ways but it can also be a very positive release from the shackles of personal stagnation.
Maria Webb runs the Stress Management and Counselling services at Hadley Wood Healthcare, click here for more details.
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