April is Stress Awareness Month, and so I wanted to talk all about stress: what it is, how it affects us, why we get stressed, and how we can prevent it…
What is Stress (really)?
In one word, I would link stress to overwhelm. It is when you’re doing too much or thinking about too much or you’re overcome with emotions and feelings that are harming you.
Stress has a bad rep, but in small doses, it is important for healthy functioning. That is, as I say, in small doses. It helps keep you on your toes, be alerted to dangers, face difficulties, and so on. Adrenaline is linked with stress (just as it is with anxiety), giving us a Fight or Flight response. It helps us tackle things head on or run to save ourselves (simply put).
Stress becomes unhealthy when it is too much. When it piles on and spills over. Stress can affect us on an emotional, physical, mental, and behavioural level in many ways.
High levels of stress can cause:
- Lack of sleep
- Lack of concentration or focus
- Racing heart
- Strained relationships and communication
- Constant worrying
- Tension and pain
- Acne or spot breakouts
- Bad stomach and digestion
- Lowered immune system and sickness
- Over or under eating (appetite changes)
- Turning to bad habits or vices
- Low sex drive
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Fertility problems
- Risk of heart attack
- High blood sugar or blood pressure
- Missed periods
- Breathing problems
How to spot unhealthy levels of stress:
Fatigue and loss of energy
This is perhaps the first thing one thinks of when considering stress. Our bodies and our minds become tired. Overworked and drained. We suddenly feel much weaker. Tension grows in our bodies and our minds, causing pain and irritation and vulnerability.
Disinterest in your usual interests
If you find yourself not wanting to do what you usually do, it might be a sign of high levels of unhealthy stress. It may be that you’re overwhelmed to the point of tiredness and fatigue. So much so, you’d rather do nothing. Or so much so, you lack interest or enjoyment in most things.
If you find yourself panicking more than you used to, and in unnecessary situations, then it could be that you are highly stressed. Stress and overwhelm is linked to anxiety and panic. Our minds and our bodies are so high-strung that they see dangers all around that aren’t really there.
This is due to the Adrenaline I mentioned earlier. If we are stressed too often (or constantly) then our Adrenaline doesn’t settle. Our bodies are filled with the Fight or Flight response, meaning our bodies are geared up to tackle dangers. But when dangers aren’t there, this causes a negative effect. The rigid muscles aren’t being used and the sharpened mind isn’t focused on anything dangerous, and so it panics instead.
Avoiding tasks, responsibilities, people, or places can be a sign of stress, too. Procrastination comes when a person has too much to do or too much to think about. When our to-do lists are too long, day in day out, we can become so stressed that we just avoid it altogether.
Being snappy or irritable
Stress means being high-strung. You become tense or tired, which leads to being snappy, quick to anger, and irritable. Your emotions run higher, meaning you feel things more deeply and things that wouldn’t usually bother you, quickly do.
Headaches and pains
If you’ve been experiencing frequent headaches and pains in your body, it could be the stress. It causes our muscles to become tense or weak. Our brains become tired and aggravated, leading to headaches and lack of concentration.
Why do we get stressed?
But why do we get stressed? Where does it come from? What should we avoid to ensure stress remains low? Here are some ideas:
I’ve felt very stressed when I’ve had decisions to make. Big decisions. There is such a thing as Decision Fatigue, where we’ve made so many decisions that our minds become tired and stressed out by them. Or, when we have a decision to make that is hard or involves too many options, it can also stress us out.
This is not to say that you must avoid making decisions to avoid stress; that’s impossible! But you could avoid unnecessary decisions, or become better at decision-making.
Overworked and Burnt-Out
Of course, this is an obvious one. If you are taking on too much work, or you’re doing more than you can handle, then you may become stressed. A long to-do list does not a happy person make. We’re not supposed to be switched on to GO, GO, GO all the time.
Similar to being overworked, we can get overwhelmed which leads to stress. Overwhelmed by people, places, work, projects, tasks, decisions, problems, or other. Having too much going on around us, or when the world (and ourselves) expects too much from us, we can get stressed.
Lack of trust or self-esteem
Facing problems in life is inevitable. We will all encounter things that are troublesome or downright awful. But I think the stress only comes when we don’t trust ourselves to solve the problem or get through the bad circumstance.
This is overly simple, I know, but trust in oneself and one’s abilities means you needn’t ever get too stressed by problems or difficult situations.
When things happen that we’re not ready for or don’t expect, we can get stressed. All of a sudden, there’s this change or new thing we must deal with, and it knocks us sideways. The unknown, change, and the unexpected can all lead to feeling stressed, worried, and overwhelmed.
The last big cause of stress is fear. Being afraid is linked with anxiety, but I think it’s also linked with stress. With fear, the Adrenaline comes (the Fight or Flight response). And so, the reaction for stress is the same as it is for fear.
If we are afraid for a long time, we can become stressed because the Adrenaline remains high, rather than reducing and sending the body back into a normal, relaxed state. If the Central Nervous System is constantly on high alert, due to fear or other, then the body will become stressed, tense, anxious, and weak.
What to do to prevent unhealthy levels of stress:
The first tip to prevent stress is to always prioritise tasks, responsibilities, and people. None of us are capable of doing it all, so stop trying to! Have a general rule that you stick to which helps you to prioritise.
What matters most? What is important right now? What are you capable of doing right now?
Have priorities and you shouldn’t overwhelm yourself. Then once your priorities are set, stick to them and make peace with whatever doesn’t get done.
Similar to prioritising, you must become better at managing your time. Some people find themselves stressed and overwhelmed because they procrastinate or have a poor idea of how long things take.
Good time management includes:
- Knowing which tasks are best done at what points for you personally (e.g. you work best in the morning and so you do high-priority tasks in the morning)
- Organisation: to-do lists, time blocking, batching tasks, etc.
- Knowing yourself and how you operate day-to-day
As I say, discipline is a key part of getting things done effectively. If you can get things done effectively, you shouldn’t get too stressed too often. So, wake up at an appropriate time. Use your time wisely. Don’t watch that YouTube video when you know you should be doing something else!
Be self-motivated; be the boss of your schedule.
It’s simple, if you say No more often, you will have fewer things that you have to do. I know it’s hard, but NO is a complete sentence. As an adult, you shouldn’t have to explain yourself. If you don’t want to do something, or you can’t, just say No. Don’t give yourself added stress.
Of course, if you look after yourself, then you will be stressed less even when life gets tougher.
- Having time for breaks and downtime
- Looking after your body and mind: good hygiene, look good, read, be mindful, exercise etc.
- Having quiet, peaceful time
- Ensuring tasks are completed so they don’t weigh on you
- Have a structure or routine that feels good to you
- Speaking about your problems
- Making time for yourself
- Doing more of what makes you feel good
There is a certain amount of compartmentalisation that goes along with a good Work-Life balance. You need to be able to leave work at work and have home stay at home. This means no bringing stresses from work home with you into your personal relationships. And vice versa.
It’s a really tricky thing to do, but if you can keep parts of your life separate, it should help reduce stress.
When we are fully present in the present moment, we are calmer. Stress comes when thinking about tasks you need to do, or responsibilities, or the future, generally. So, bring yourself into the Now. Be present. Be intentional about what you are doing and why.
How to be mindful:
- Intentional breathing; keen attention paid to breathing
- Use your five senses in the moment: what can you see, smell, hear, feel, and taste?
- Wherever you are, or whatever you’re doing, do it with your full attention
- Mindfulness is quite simply: Attention and awareness in the present moment
Lastly, don’t be afraid to get help when you need it. Speak up when things are too much, share tasks, and get emotional support. Allow others to support you.
As they say, “a problem shared is a problem halved.”
So, this Stress Awareness Month (and every day!), be aware of your stress and the stress of others. Don’t brush it aside as normal. Don’t ignore the signs. You can help yourself and others, so do! There’s no need to suffer.