Time to take stress seriously (notes to a stressed self)

I meant to write this blog a few months ago but I was too stressed to write it. 

Stress is gradually becoming mainstream, as in becoming accepted as a real inhibitor to our wellbeing and mental health, so much so it was the theme for charity Mind in Mental Health Awareness Week. 

How many times have you heard someone say “I feel really stressed” or “I’m stressed out” and within a minute the conversation moves on? If someone says “I feel depressed” or “I’m mentally ill”, the reaction is often different. Yes, stress, anxiety, and depression differ in their own ways, but the culmination of excessive stress undoubtedly fuels all of these fires.

Work to live, not live to work

Stress is like fire. With the right fuel and conditions it intensifies. The way many of us work fuels the furnace as we regimentally wake up at an hour where we should be in a deep sleep and follow the expectation to earn more, do more, and be more. Although several workplaces have introduced wellbeing initiatives and offer aids such as sleep pods and mindfulness classes, many of us are exposed to bullying, overwhelm, the pursuit of perfectionism, and overall burnout. This isn’t the case for everyone and I applaud those who are truly doing a job they love, but in the struggle to keep up, rarely do we stop to think about what’s really good for us. 

Then there’s the long lasting physical damage if, like me, you sit at a desk all day. Yes, sitting is the new smoking. And exacerbated by long hours…recent studies have shown we can get more done by working less rather than cramming intense four hour blocks of work around a 10 minute lunch break. What are we actually doing to ourselves to earn the bonus, or pay for the holiday or car? 

 Photo: Victoria Matthews.

Photo: Victoria Matthews.

So what to do? Can you have walking meetings or request a standing desk? When stress bites, don’t be afraid to confide in a colleague, friend, or HR or wellbeing advisor. My notes to self are: Take that lunch break without fail…every single day. The desk is not a dining table, fridge, or larder, it never will be. Decorate your desk with things that make you happy, embarrassing photos, kittens, sunsets...anything that makes you smile. Call time on work when it’s the end of the working day, not when your to-do-list halves (it will never ever happen). When I die my closest friends and family will not remember me for the excessive hours of work I did in my workplace.

Sleep is king

Sleep is massively underrated. All too often we laugh off a lack of sleep to some “bad nights”, too much studying, “drunken sleep”, or having a busy mind — often blinded to the fact it can cause long lasting mental and physical damage. Put simply, a buildup of stress from work or other sources inhibits our ability to sleep and every major system, tissue, and organ of our bodies suffer when sleep becomes short. Find out more in Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep”…a truly mind blowing read. The future is sleep apps and bonuses offered by workplaces for sleep. About time too.

Beat the stress eating and drinking

Many of us may be unaware that despite our best efforts to follow a healthy diet and exercise, something else is at play. A hormone called cortisol is released by our adrenal glands when we’re stressed, increasing appetite and the motivation to eat. If stress is sustained, so is cortisol and the cycle of emotional eating. Stressed people also tend to lose sleep and drink more alcohol, both contributing to excess weight. Alcohol may help to deal with stress in the short term, but in the longer term contributes to feelings of anxiety and makes stress harder to deal with (read my blog “Binge drinking: Beyond the hangover”). 

Remember to breathe

Yes. The first thing you ever did when you arrived on this world. It’s amazing how many of us (me included) have lost all connection with our breath. And more amazing is the relief deep breathing offers in times of stress…or just generally. By breathing slowly, we send messages to our brain to activate its relaxation response. My mind is often “full” rather than feeling “mindful”. So trying to master some basic meditation and breathing techniques, along with stretching is my self-care commitment…amazing how stress gets in the way of self-care though.

Secure your own stress mask first

All too often we forget to look after ourselves. We battle through our busy days and let our stress bubble, then start all over again the next day, and the next. It’s important to stop and become aware of our stress triggers and symptoms and watch them. Don’t fight them or they’ll fight back, observe and explore. For me, my anxiety rises, I bite my nails, I lose sleep, I over eat, I drink excessive alcohol, become hooked to my phone, and over-exercise. 

Unplug from the unreal world

We live in a world of smartphone addiction, which can have huge consequences on our mental health, family lives, friendships and work and leisure time. We no longer look inside ourselves for inspiration or information. The scrolling and likes embedded in the world of social media may make you feel good, but it can be a dangerous path to feeling worthless in an age where posts are filtered and packaged to present an unreal level of achievement or image (read my blog “Lost time: Unplugging from the unreal world”). Technology isn’t all bad and is here to stay, but if like me, you’re stressed and hooked, look at positive ways of using it. For me, this is it…writing words. Sadly I’ve not managed a social media detox yet, but am working on phone breaks (as in conveniently leaving it switched off in my car).  

Slow down

Many of us are tired, deflated, and stressed. Life isn’t simple anymore. We all want to slow down but quickly. Our attention spans are severely compromised by multi tasking on an epic scale...not just at work but in our leisure time too. We’re stuck in fast forward mode where we want things (money, cars, muscles, better jobs to name but a few) quickly. We want happiness but make ourselves unhappy by pushing ourselves to find it. What if we were to just slow down? As in not commit to that social event or not go to the gym every night? What if we were to take a walk outside in our own company instead? 

Is there a good side of stress?

Yes! When we feel excited in the absence of fear or threat. I liken this to going on rollercoasters or seeing someone special after a long time, or the feelings I had at Christmas as a child. There’s also views that without stress we wouldn’t build resilience or become wiser or stronger. In small doses, stress can help us overcome daily challenges, and motivates us to complete tasks. 

I know writing this down has helped me to reflect on my own stress as all of the above are affecting me right now, yes every single day. I hope it helps you too. We live in a world where nothing we do seems quite good enough, a sentiment reflected in Matt Haig’s wonderful “Notes on a Nervous Planet”. Buy or borrow a copy, it’s a wonderful take on the pressures of the modern world. In the meantime, I’m going to try my very best to slow down, breathe and look after myself. It's time to take stress seriously.