10 Things to Know About Stress and Anxiety
By Dr Jessamy Hibberd, BSc, MSc, DClinPsy, PgDip
Chartered Clinical Psychologist
Struggling to cope with stress?
It’s normal to feel stressed sometimes, but when you’re struggling to cope and stress becomes a problem, it can make your life feel out of control, leaving you feeling overwhelmed, anxious, irritable or low.
It can also affect your sleep, work and relationships.
Fight or flight
When you say you “feel stressed”, it’s generally because we experience stress both mentally and physically. We have an automatic inborn reaction to stress and anxiety called the ‘fight or flight response’ triggered by a perception of threat or danger.
When we feel ‘threatened’ our body goes into attack mode, pumping cortisol and adrenaline into our system so we feel a strong physical response.
Fight or flight used to be integral to human survival. The trouble is, thousands of years later we’re still programmed exactly the same - wired to look for danger. When threats were life threatening it was better to be safe than sorry, but now that we’re not hunting or hunted this very primitive part of the brain can cause us problems as we react to daily stressors, worries and negative thoughts in the same way - despite them being thoughts, rather than dangerous animals!
Why do we get stressed?
Our mind is a bit like a measuring jug that gets filled up with the stresses and strains of life. It has a limited capacity and when it’s near to full, the smallest extra thing can tip you over the edge. You have less patience and are more easily upset, as you simply don’t have the mental space to deal with everything.
Stress can be categorised into two types:
External demands: These are the stresses that are put upon you (work, family etc.)
Internal demands: the pressure you put on yourself - your own personal standards and expectations (your definition of what is or isn’t acceptable).
External demands can be a big cause of stress, but it’s your internal demands - your own personal standards - that can often cause the most problems. When you’ve got a lot on, if you put yourself under lots of pressure and set high standards in every area, it soon leads to self-criticism and things can start to feel overwhelming.
How to de-stress
Whilst it can be easy to put off dealing with stress (I’ll just get through this week, when I’m on holiday, after this project etc) The reality is it’s what you do every day that makes a difference.
The good news is that there are simple proactive steps you can take to look after yourself, so you feel calmer, more confident and back in control. Making life become more manageable again.
Make a plan
Working out a plan and becoming more aware of the pressure you’re putting on yourself can help you create some extra space so you feel back in control. Write things down so you can get your thoughts on paper, look at the different demands and make a plan.
- Can you delegate anything on the list?
- For the more difficult tasks, can you ask anyone for help?
Finally, put them in order of priority and decide which to focus on first.
Watch out for internal demands
Look at your internal demands (you’re in charge of these):
- Listen out for self-criticism and try to step back from it
- Watch out for unrealistically high standards - there’s no such thing as perfect!
- Be kind to yourself
Change how your body feels
Our mind and body are intimately linked. What we think has an impact on how we feel physically, but it’s not just one way. How we feel physically also affects how we think and feel emotionally so you can use your body as a route to feeling less stressed. Choose whatever feels the best fit for you, be it body relaxation, exercise, meditation, deep breathing or yoga!
Focus on today
Today is the only day you can directly impact so it should get most of your attention! Try to slow down and switch out of autopilot. This will help you become more practiced at noticing what’s going on, right now in the present. Being in the life you’re actually living rather than a past that’s gone or a future that’s yet to arrive.
Mindfulness practice doesn’t have to be 10 minutes on your own each day it’s being present and engaged with the things you’re doing that you care about. Just for small pockets of time each day. I often think of it as simply doing one thing at a time. Today for 5-10 mins, try to become more aware of what is happening around you in the present moment.
Let your attention get lost in the outside world. Use all of your senses: sight, sound, taste, touch and smell to take it in.
Reach out to a friend or family member
Relationships are just about the biggest boost you can get when it comes to our happiness and well-being - there’s a reason for the saying “a problem shared is a problem halved”. Make sure they don’t take a back seat when life is too busy - whether it's a friend, your partner, family, or work colleagues. They can impact on every part of our life in a positive way.
Sign up to Dr Jessamy’s free Five Day Happiness Challenge here.