Recently I was asked to present a workshop on stress and anxiety in Quigleys Pharmacy Blackrock. From the counseling room to the local pharmacy we often hear about people struggling with stress and anxiety. As someone who knows too well what it is like to feel overwhelmed, I decided to use this opportunity to share what works for me when I need to feel more balanced. Stress, and it’s ugly sister Anxiety is a serious issue. And something we not only need to talk about but something we need to understand better.
Most of us experience some stress and anxiety in our lives at one stage or another. Sometimes we are so used to living with stress, we don’t know how to identify it. Let me explain. Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand and it can be caused by both good and bad experiences. When people feel stressed by something going on around them, their bodies react by releasing chemicals into the blood. These chemicals give people more energy and strength, which can be a good thing. Without positive stress you wouldn’t feel motivated to make changes in your life. You would take risks without regard for the consequences and make decisions that affect the course of your life without any critical thinking.
For most people though stress can be a bad thing, especially if their stress is in response to something emotional and they have no outlet to release the energy that has been built up. There are two main kinds of stress — acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. Once the threat has passed, your levels of stress hormones return to normal with no long-lasting effects.
Chronic stress however increases the stress hormone cortisol, which streams through your system all day long making it dangerous for the body and affects many brain functions. Because of this activity, the prefrontal cortex is suppressed, which impairs our short-term memory, concentration and rational thinking. Being exposed to this sort of stress may increase your risk of developing conditions like anxiety and depression.
So how can you tell the difference between anxiety and stress? Well anxiety and stress are not entirely different conditions. Anxiety is stress that continues after that stressor is gone. When we are stressed we know what we are stressed about but when we are anxious we are less aware of what is making us anxious. This in itself can make us even more anxious so it is a vicious cycle.
Examples of short term stress effects:
- Your heartbeat and breath become faster
- You may produce more sweat
- Your hands and feet may become cold
- Feeling tense especially in the neck and shoulders
Some signs of long-term stress and anxiety include:
- Worrying and feeling panic (anxiety disorder and anxiety attacks – difficulty breathing, Feeling weak, faint, Feeling a loss of control).
- Feeling overwhelmed, confused, having no control and/or unable to make decisions
- Experiencing mood changes such as depression, frustration, anger, helplessness, irritability
- Neglecting important things in life such as work, school, and even personal appearance
You may feel there’s nothing you can do about stress. The bills won’t stop coming, there will never be more hours in the day, and your work and family responsibilities will always be demanding. But you have a lot more control over your stress and anxiety than you might think. Stress management is all about taking charge of your lifestyle, thoughts, emotions, and the way you deal with problems. No matter how stressful your life seems there are steps you can take to relieve the pressure and regain control. Finding healthy and positive ways to deal with stress reduces many of the negative health consequences both physically and emotionally. And the first step in helping yourself is awareness. Awareness is key in helping you understand how you may be exacerbating your anxiety and stress by your thinking and behaviour.
I believe that the goal of dealing with stress more effectively is to live a balanced life. By this I mean a life that can include work, relaxation, spending time with family and friends but making time for yourself too. We all have some idea of what we should do in order to feel less stressed. They range from:
- Getting Proper Sleep (7-8 hours a night)
- Eating a Healthy Diet
- Reducing Caffeine and Sugar intake
All of these things are useful and do help but change is hard and not everyone can embrace it easily. The goal of managing your anxiety and stress is to take the pressure off you and not to give out to yourself. As mentioned earlier everyone has their own way of dealing with stress, so instead of me telling you that you should eat healthy organic food, practice yoga and go on silent meditation retreats, I’m only going to give you three suggestions. I’m not suggesting that you apply them all to your life but one small change can make a big difference.
1. SELF CARE
My friends are blue in the face listening to me go on about this. It’s a serious issue so STOP SAYING YES TO STUFF YOU DON’T WANT TO DO. It is OK to say no. We imagine that by saying no our colleagues will think we’re lazy, our friends will hate us and think we’re boring, our families will give out to us for not making an effort. You don’t have to feel guilty for saying no. The first thing in stress and anxiety management is looking after ‘you’ first. How much time do you devote to yourself each day? Each week? I’m not talking about running around doing chores by yourself, or doing the weekly food shop, or the bus to work. I’m talking about spending QUALITY TIME on your own. What are the things you enjoy doing? Is it working on your favourite hobby or exercising? Its is staying in pyjamas all day watching Game of Thrones? Or sitting in a coffee shop drinking watching the world go by?
Think about it for a minute. WHAT ARE THE THINGS THAT MAKE YOU HAPPY? It’s important to be specific so you’ll know exactly what you can do to refresh yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. Self-care is so important and we constantly need to remind ourselves that putting ‘me’ first isn’t selfish. That can be your new mantra. You have my permission to give yourself permission to say no.
2. WRITE IT DOWN
I almost always recommend writing it down to my clients. Research has shown that journaling about our feelings and thoughts are one of the most effective ways to reduce stress. These thoughts can be related to stressful events, memories of the past that keep coming up, a list of the things you need to get done or things we are grateful for. See it as your blank canvas, a place to clear your mind. Journaling is excellent for helping you connect with yourself better, to understand how you feel, and it allows you to work out a problem more easily. One of my favourite things about journaling is that you get to see how much you’ve changed as you read over past entries. It is very empowering to see how much you’ve changed. Even if it’s just for the next week I challenge you to try it. Write it down. Whatever it is get it off your chest.
3. DIGITAL DETOXING
Do you check their phone first thing in the morning? Or lie in bed wasting valuable sleeping time scrolling down Instagram or Snap Chat feeling lousy because you’re constantly comparing yourself to others? Well you’re not alone. Although technology has helped make our lives easier in so many ways, now we can’t seem to cope without it. There is a ton of research out there that has shown there is a direct link between technology (phones, ipad’s, computers) with depression and anxiety. Aside from symptoms of anxiety and depression, being constantly connected to the online world makes us less productive, sleep less and encourages lots of health problems. So a digital detox is a great way of clearing your mind. I’m not suggesting that you stop using your phone altogether but implementing a few changes can get you back to living a more balanced life.
At night before you go to bed leave your phone in another room. I know the idea of this can create anxiety but I’m not buying the ‘I use my phone as an alarm clock’ excuse. Get an alarm clock and try it for 7 days. With this one small change you’ll be less likely to check your notifications when you wake up in the middle of the night. You might even get back into reading more books or start journaling instead of stalking your ex on Facebook. And for those of you who struggle with sleep it might help you get into a better sleeping pattern.
If you’re constantly on your phone throughout the day and have difficulty concentrating on the job in hand, turn off incoming pings and alerts or leave your phone in your bag or pocket. If you’re involved in a million whatsapp groups like I am, turn them to mute. You’ll find yourself being way more productive throughout the day. Not only that, when you’re less obsessed with your phone you’re more likely to engage and interact with those around you. Most importantly, you’ll have more time for yourself. There are plenty of things you could be doing with your time (see point 1) rather than comparing yourself to others on Instagram or Facebook.
There are many things you can do to help alleviate your stress and anxiety. I suggest you try and find one thing that works for you. You don’t need to change everything in your life all at once, by doing that you’re setting yourself up to fail. Whether it’s deciding that you need some time out for yourself, exercising regularly, eating healthy, writing out what’s going on in your mind or just disconnecting from the digital world, the choice is yours. Try it out for a week and see if it has helped reduce your stress and anxiety.
Remember – You have more control over your life than you think. As time goes on you’ll see that change can be less scary. And if you are feeling very overwhelmed by life help is always available – reach out and contact a professional counsellor or psychotherapist. The first step in the right direction may end up being your biggest.