Strategies to help relieve your stress

Are you prone to high levels of stress and need some simple coping strategies to help relieve it? Yes? Okay, let’s take a look at ‘what stress means’, what causes it, signs and symptoms and finally, some evidence-based simple techniques to alleviate some of your stress.

Stress can be defined as the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable. 

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At the most basic level, stress is our body’s response to pressures from a situation or life event. What contributes to stress can vary hugely from person to person and differs according to our social and economic circumstances, the environment we live in and our genetic makeup (www.mentalhealth.org.uk).

Stress isn’t always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price.

If you frequently find yourself feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, it’s time to take action to bring your nervous system back into balance. You can protect yourself—and improve how you think and feel—by learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms of chronic stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects (Helpguide.org).

With the festive period upon us, no doubt many of us will experience some kind of stress; who to buy gifts for, what to buy them, how much will I spend, Christmas food shopping, writing cards and wrapping gifts……….

Understanding what causes us stress and taking action to manage our stress levels is a key part of looking after our wellbeing.

The Stress Container can help us understand how we experience stress and how to address our stress levels. Use this fantastic interactive tool to explore it (MHFA England)

Click to access stress-container-resource-download.pdf

Some people (me included) are unlucky and have a high vulnerability to stress. Is it ‘nature’ (genetic) or ‘nurture’ (learnt behaviours) that causes stress? To be honest, it doesn’t really matter where it came from, it’s knowing what to do about it that’s important.

If our stress bucket gets too full we can suffer from mental ill health. Certain life events such as unemployment, divorce or separation, bereavement, mental or physical illness etc. can cause our buckets to overflow quite quickly but sometimes small life stressors (having to write out 50+ Christmas cards and empty my suitcase, put a wash on………), can build and accumulate also causing our buckets to fill.

Looking at the diagram above – Vulnerability is shown by the size of the bucket so, for me with high vulnerability to stress, my bucket will be smaller, it will fill up and will overflow quite quickly – unless I use some coping techniques.

The large bucket would be used by someone who has low vulnerability to stress, you know – that person who never flaps, always remains calm and tells you to “chill out” or “relax”. Their bucket will never overflow.

Signs and symptoms of stress overload

The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar, even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress overload.

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying

Emotional symptoms:

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  • Depression or general unhappiness
  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Moodiness, irritability, or anger
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Other mental or emotional health problems

Physical symptoms:

  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, rapid heart rate
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds or flu

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing). (Helpguide.org)

I often have to remind myself to use some evidence-based coping strategies I used to teach patients:

  • let my shoulders drop (I’ve just realised right now, they’re up around my ears and they ache like hell)
  • unclench my teeth and relax my jaw
  • stop frowning (I do that when I’m concentrating)
  • unclench my hands (my balled fists look ready to punch someone)
  • get up, away from my laptop, stretch and pace the floor for a bit to loosen my limbs and knotted muscles
  • breathe (I hold my breath when I concentrating too) slowly – out then in for about 30 seconds
  • do some mindfulness for anything between 3 minutes (for a quick de-stressor) and 15 minutes (totally de-stressed). I get it; some people just aren’t into mindfulness, and that’s okay. Perhaps you can simply ‘be’.
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I’ve just done all the above – I didn’t realise how tight my neck and shoulders were -and I really do feel better. If you’re prone to stress, you could try all or some of these coping strategies. The body can’t possibly be tense and relaxed at the same time so, it makes sense that if you’re relaxed – your stress levels will lessen.

You can use these strategies anytime, anywhere; say in your GP surgery, on public transport etc. Sit (if possible) on a chair with a back on it, place your feet flat on the floor (no crossed legs – this creates tension in your muscles), rest your palms on your thighs, let your shoulders drop and ……………. de-stress.

What’s in your stress bucket right now? How ill you cope over the festive period? I’d love to know how you de-stress too. Any hints or tips?