Especially at this time of “lockdown” many of us will be trying to deal with increased levels of stress, whether you are dealing with isolation issues, overcrowding issues where you can’t find time or space for yourself, home schooling the children, bereavement or even just coping with life at the moment.
So what exactly is stress? It is our body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. The hormone Cortisone is released by the adrenal gland into the body in response to stress. This is directly linked to high blood pressure, weight gain and various other symptoms in the body. A certain amount of stress is needed in life to feel motivated and helps us to meet demands at work or at home. But too much stress can have serious effects on our body and mind. Stress can affect our day to day lives, relationships, moods and health especially if we feel out of control.
Sometimes we need to directly deal with a stressful situation that needs addressing rather than avoiding it and allowing it to build into a bigger situation. But you may be surprised by how many stressors in your life you can eliminate.
It is important that we know the signs within ourselves that tell us when we are stressed. Sometimes we are so stressed all the time that we forget what it feels like when our nervous systems are in balance, when we are awake and alert and able to deal comfortably with day to day situations without feeling overwhelmed. I know it’s an old cliché but it is really important to listen to your body. Get into the habit of listening to your body’s cues. What are the signs of stress that your body is telling you:-
- Body or muscles feel tight. Jaw or hands tensing. Stomach aching or again tight.
- Breathing – Is it shallow or do you find yourself holding your breath.
- Heart or thoughts racing and finding it difficult to concentrate.
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Constantly feeling anxious, worried or scared
- Trouble sleeping or feeling tired all the time
- Eating more or less than normal
- Drinking or smoking more than usual.
- Lack of self confidence
- Avoiding certain situations or people you are having issues with.
When you recognise how stress appears in your life you can work out which situations you can control and which you can’t. It is a really good idea to write a list of what is stressing you. Then sort the list into what you can control or influence and what you can’t. The things you can control break down into manageable sections and start to work through them. Don’t try to deal with everything at once. When you deal with one small situation then others can follow. For the situations you have no control over try using some of the following techniques (which are in no particularly important order) to cope with, rather than trying to control.
Journaling is a great way to get thoughts out of our heads. Once written they can often lessen in intensity. Write about anything – feelings, situations, reactions. I also always end by writing 3 things that I am grateful for. It is good to end on a positive note.
Sleep is one of the main things that we do have a certain amount of control over. Sleep is vital to restore and rejuvenate. To grow muscle, repair tissue and synthesize hormones. To solidify and consolidate memories known as “consolidation”
Sleep is a crucial part of dealing with the stresses of life. When you lose sleep you no longer have the necessary drive to engage in activities. A good night’s sleep (between 7 & 9 hours) is what makes the difference between a good day and a ruined one. It is a myth to believe the fact that humans can adjust to sleeping less. The best sleep habits are consistent, healthy routines. The best temperature to sleep at is 18°C, which is far lower than most of us keep bedrooms. Avoid looking at bright screens beginning two to three hours before bed. If you do watch TV before going to bed try to watch an uplifting, quiet programme rather than an action packed or depressing programme. Avoid Caffeine consumption a few hours before trying to sleep as it temporarily makes us feel more alert by blocking sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain and increasing adrenaline production. Alcohol – although it might help you fall asleep it will reduce Rapid eye movement (REM) that happens about 90 minutes after falling asleep. This is the stage when we dream and is thought to be very restorative. Alcohol also supresses breathing. Some gentle stretching or yoga can also help to prepare your body and mind for sleep.
EXERCISE and other physical activity produce endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers—and also improve the ability to sleep. The best way to exercise is to find out what you enjoy doing, whether that’s yoga, dancing, walking, running. Dancing is a great one as that also includes playing music and this in itself can be a powerful pick-me-up. Play your favourite up beat music and just dance around your room.
FOOD and cravings can be the direct result of stress. After a stressful period the human body can go into “recovery mode” where appetite is increased. At the same time, metabolic rates will drop to conserve energy, which means the body is more likely to store fat – particularly around the abdomen. Stress also leads to an increase in cortisol levels which also contributes to weight gain. Alternatively, chronic stress can suppress appetite, which can lead to weight-loss. This may also be linked to nervous movements such as pacing, ticks and leg shaking. While some people completely shut down when they are feeling stressed, others unintentionally move more.
Probably no surprise the following foods can have a negative effect on the body:-
Caffeine. Substituting coffees and teas with herbal varieties can help reduce your caffeine consumption, and it helps to be mindful of caffeine content in foods such as chocolate.
Cravings for processed and sugary foods may be heightened when you are feeling stressed, but it is important to avoid consuming these in high quantities. Not only can they be detrimental to your overall health, but they can also make you feel worse in the long-term. Sugar, for example, will provide a short burst of energy and temporary relief from stressful feelings, but this will be swiftly followed by a ‘low’ period when your blood sugar levels crash. This can lead to irritability and increased food cravings, which can put a strain on the body.
Many people turn to alcohol as a means of dealing with stress. While it may have an instant calming effect on the body, in the long-term alcohol increases the amount of stress in people’s lives. Drinking heavily can lead to complications such as addiction and can take a toll on overall health and well-being. Sleep problems, nervousness and skin irritations are common side effects of drinking because alcohol makes the body release larger amounts of adrenaline and affects blood sugar levels.
Stress-relieving foods to eat more of include fruit and vegetables, healthy snacks, complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids (EFAs) (omega 3 & 6) Oily fish, nuts, seeds and calcium-rich foods (such as low-fat milk, yoghurt, sesame seeds, kelp, cheese, leafy greens and broccoli)
For many of us, relaxation means flopping on the couch and zoning out in front of the TV at the end of a stressful day. But this does little to reduce the damaging effects of stress. Rather, you need to activate your body’s natural relaxation response, a state of deep rest that puts the brakes on stress, slows your breathing and heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and brings your body and mind back into balance. To do this you could try yoga, breathing exercises and meditation. These can help prepare the body for sleep and can also be used at any time to help keep your stress levels in check.
If you can bring one or more of these ideas into your life then hopefully you can start to recognise and deal with stress in a balanced way not only during lockdown but when this pandemic passes which, as everything in life, it will.