Stress is a natural part of living, it was designed to save our lives when we were hairy cave people being chased by toothy monsters. In fact some people find it motivating and exhilarating, while others can find any stress very difficult to cope with.
Stress can have many effects on the body, both physical and mental. Symptoms may include headaches, chest pain, increased heart rate, difficulty concentrating and feelings of constant worry.
When experienced for short periods of time, these symptoms are generally harmless. But when experienced over prolonged periods, effects can begin to be more serious.
Physical effects of stress
When you perceive something as stressful your adrenal glands produce a hormone called cortisol, a steroid synthesised from cholesterol and is from a group of hormones called glucocorticoids.
Glucocorticoid receptors are present in almost all tissues in the body. Therefore, cortisol is able to affect nearly every organ system:
Integumentary (skin, hair and nails)
Stress also switches on your sympathetic nervous system, known as the fight or flight response, in turn this both activates and suppresses certain reactions in the body. For example heart rate and blood pressure increases, as well as perspiration and breathing rate, but digestion is inhibited because of decreased movement in the intestines. Now this is all good stuff if you are running a way from a toothy monster, as once you get away, you can relax, switching the parasympathetic response back on (think of this as your rest and digest mode). But if that toothy monster is constant deadlines, a bad relationship or the worry of COVID 19, then switching it off is hard.
At the moment life is particularly stressful for everyone, whether you are worrying about finances, work, health or family members, everyone's stress levels have risen.
It is now especially important for us to look after our mental health by applying strategies to reduce the impact of stress, even if we can't take the things we are worrying about away.
You can take these simple steps to help yourself;
Sleep allows your body and mind to heal, so staying up late playing on your phone is not the best way to look after your wellbeing. If you find falling asleep an issue, try reading a book in bed. No gadgets or digital books, just good old paper and ink. If sleep still evades you, try relaxation and distraction methods to stop your mind from working overtime. This is where counting sheep comes in! It is also helpful to tell your body it's asleep, starting from your feet, repeating several times, my feet are asleep, while letting the part of the body your are concentrating on relax and sink into the mattress. If all else fails, get up and do something mundane until you feel tired. Don't lay in bed getting stressed about not falling asleep and worrying about how long you have left before you need to get up.
You have probably heard that exercise is good for you, but do you know that it's not just good for physical health, but mental health and, in fact brain health. Exercise reduces levels of the bodies stress hormones, such as adrenaline. It also increases production of endorphins, these chemicals act as natural painkillers and also increases the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress levels.
Fight the toothy monster
Sometimes, some of the things that cause you stress are out of your control, but mostly there are things you can do to help. Standing up to your toothy monster can seem scary at first, but usually it's not as bad as it seems. Breaking down what you have to do in order to reduce the stress can make it easier to undertake and a bite sized list that you can tick off, can give you a sense of achievement that will also contribute to reduced stress levels.
Giving time to yourself for relaxation will do wonders for your stress levels. Meditation and mindfulness are great for this, but there are other ways you can relax if this doesn't float your boat. Being out in nature, in sunshine or even walking in the rain. Taking up a new hobby like drawing, photography or writing lets your mind shift focus from the things that are worrying you. Don't worry if you've never attempted your new hobby before, there are plenty of free videos on you tube explaining how to do almost anything. Having treatments like massage, reflexology and to a degree osteopathy, can also have a de-stressing and calming effect on the body. Physical touch therapies have been documented as able to reduce stress levels and pain for thousands of years.
Make a change
If work is a factor in your life that is constantly causing you stress, change it. You will spend a significant amount of your life working, but if it's something you love doing it won't seem like work. I know it's not as easy as that, but even making steps towards your dream career can change you whole perspective. Now is a great time to work towards that shift with a lot of the world moving online and education establishments recognising the need for people to be flexible with their training. If you are worried about cost then there is help out there. If you are under 19 all further education (that's education from a college) is free. If you are under 25 and do not have a full level 2 (that's the equivalent of 5 GCSE's at C/4 and above) or a full level 3 (that's the equivalent to three full A level's) then you can get equivalents of these funded by the government. If you are over 25 then there is income related government funding for level 2 and level 3 and 4 can be funded by a government loan, very similar to a higher education student loan. There are also lots of part time university level courses that can fit around your current employment, so there really is nothing stopping you.
No-one has all the answers and doing these things will certainly not take stress away, but the key is focussing on resilience and strategies to help you cope with it.
By Gayle Jordan M.Ost Cert.Ed
Gayle is a principal osteopath and educator working from her clinic Align Osteopathy, in Totton, Southampton. She has worked as a complementary therapist for over 22 years and is passionate about helping the total wellness of her patients.