Getting to grips with stress

Evert 1st  of April sees the start of our national month of awareness of this very 21st problem but it is far from a joke. It is a massive problem in the UK with millions of working days lost every year, and damaging our physical and mental health.

Stress is massively misunderstood. It is not a mental illness. Nor is all stress bad. In fact, we need a certain amount of stress to motivate us and get us out of bed in the mornings. Good stress inspires us, because good stress comes with rewards. When we become depressed, it is when we cut off from the world and become de-motivated by any stress. Unhealthy stress comes from areas there are no rewards, for example if you lose someone dear to you, or owing too much money. Even the good, motivational stress can become too much. The importance of the correct balance is what we see in S.M.A.R.T goal setting, when the motivation is enough to inspire and push us, but not so much we feel they are hopeless and impossible to achieve.

Stress becomes a problem when it affects our ability to function normally and our capability to cope with life and our quality of life. Everyone should take it seriously. It causes psychosomatic illness – not, as many people interpret it, invented illness, but very real illness. The hyperactivity of the nerve impulses sent from the brain to the other parts of the body can cause the secretion of adrenaline into the blood, leading to a state of anxiousness and we get a stimulation of the autonomic nervous system that regulates our internal organs which can lead to impairment of the functional organs. The effects of stress can stay with us for years.

The next total illusion about stress is that it can be cured. We can do things to help us with stress, but “managing stress” is only a short term solution at best. If it was that simple, we wouldn’t have the epidemic of stress and stress related illnesses that we have in the UK. We can do a lot about it, but by changing the causes of bad or excessive stress, not learning to live with the effects.

It is absolutely up to us to take responsibility for our own stress levels. The first thing to do is to work out in which ways stress gets to you. Some of us have sleep problems, too much or too little. Some of us shout and swear. Some of us shake with fear. Some of us have memory lapses or get confused. Others have panic attacks. Some of us lose confidence. Some of us suffer all those things. I certainly did when things were at their worst in my life.

Everyone has different triggers that set them off. The dentist can be a huge looming horror for some and others will pass through their routine appointments with a shrug and a smile. Traffic jams are a place to unwind for some, but for others an immediate pressure, where all those things that they “should be” doing and can’t feel like the end of the world. It can be continually triggered by a job you hate or a relationship that has gone toxic.There is no such thing as too small a stress, because if it has an effect on you, then it still deserves being recognized and taken seriously. Look at exactly what in that situation is doing the damage.

Going back to the dentist analogy, sitting in a chair with your mouth open doesn’t sound that scary on its own. Add the looming face of the dentist, the surgical tray of implements lying handy, the sound of a drill from the next door surgery, the smell of latex gloves – all or any of those things could be the actual issue that trips your stress button. You can then look to see if changing the face of your dentist would help you, or finding a soundproofed surgery and so on. You can also look at the rewards of going through that stress and reminding yourself that it is your choice if you want them or not. My dentist has a sign up saying “You don’t have to brush all your teeth, only the ones you want to keep”, which focuses neatly on this. You might well decide the benefit of keeping your teeth is worth dealing with the stress of going to the dentist, but decide to do some work on bringing the stress level down.

Various facets of our personalities make us more prone to stress. If we are insecure, we tend to worry about what other people think of us. We may not feel attractive enough and that can make us feel insecure socially. We may push ourselves too hard and be constantly trying to prove we are “good enough” in some way. We may be a worrier by nature, continually imaging the worst will happen and creating our own stress. We may feel that we are not good enough, which can have all sorts of different results, from passively accepting every bad thing that happens to us, or allowing ourselves to be bullied. When we allow our lives too be affected by this sort of thing, to the point the stress is making you ill, it is definitely time to make changes.

If your job is too stressful, it can be a huge help talking to your boss and together you may be able to work out some adjustments that make a huge difference. However, equally, it may just not be the right job for you, and therefore time to call it a day. It is the same thing if you have your own business. If you can make adjustments, do so, but if it has got to the stage of making you ill, no business is worth that. The same goes for relationships. If they have become toxic, talk to the other person and see if you can work something out, or decide to call time.

Balance is important. Time in work and time off work, time on your own, time with your friends and family, balance in all areas of your life is a necessary step in keeping stress levels low. Check what you are putting into your body too. You could have a vitamin deficiency, or a reaction to medications from your doctor. Equally, we all know how easy it is to turn to endless cups of coffee, extra booze or cigarettes claiming they will help us de-stress, when in reality they are stimulants that exacerbate stress instead.  Being realistic about your own strengths and weaknesses, and setting yourself attainable goals within a lifestyle you are truly happy with is going to make you a lot less stressed. That starts with cultivating the ability to look at yourself honestly and see that the responsibility to make those choices is yours.

I know that when I was at my most stressed, someone telling me to think positive thoughts cultivated an instinctive desire to slap them. However, it is absolutely true that only we chose what our mind focuses on and if our focus goes on negative things, the outcomes are usually negative – and vice versa. If we let our stress levels get too high, we give up that power as it then becomes impossible for us to think clearly, leave alone positively.  Instead, we can do everything within our power to help ourselves be positive in life, by reducing pointless negative stress wherever possible, and keeping levels of good stress at a concentration that suits us. Every single one of us is different, our stress tolerance is different, so there is no right and wrong in this, but simply a question of finding our own happy levels.

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