National Stress Awareness Day

3rd Jan, 20

National Stress Awareness Day

For National Stress Awareness day on 6th November 2019 I was interviewed by Learn Live about stress and how we can learn to manage stress. National Stress Awareness day aims to raise awareness of stress, its impact, reduce the stigma surrounding talking about stress, as well as promoting the importance of wellbeing and stress reduction strategies for individuals and organisations.

To watch the full interview please follow this link https://vimeo.com/371174602

However, the following are some examples of questions I was asked on the day alongside a brief summary of my answers:

Define stress and how it plays a part in peoples mental health?

Stress is the body’s reaction to any changes in life that require an adjustment or a response. Stress is a normal part of life and we all experience stress at some points in our lives. It is often when we feel overwhelmed and doubt our ability to cope with situations that we feel stressed (we can think we lack the resources or ability to cope). 

Stress is something we all experience, but if it is not managed well then it can lead to the development of mental health conditions or make existing problems worse (by stress building up or feeling stressed for prolonged periods of time). 

What would you say to someone you think is struggling to cope?

I would always recommend asking someone twice if they are okay. I suggest doing this because often when we only ask the once, people are simply in the habit of replying “yeah I’m fine”. However, by asking someone twice if they are okay then you are showing them that you are interested and providing them with a safe space to talk. I would also reassure them that we all feel stressed at times and that it is okay to ask for help during times of difficulty.

What can cause stress and why does it affect us so badly?

Numerous things can cause someone to feel stressed, such as problems at work, relationship or health issues, financial difficulties, loss and bereavement etc. When we are stressed we continue to do the things we have to do (what we label as ‘depleting activities’, such as work, looking after the house, children etc.), but often we don’t find time to do the ‘nourishing activities’. Regularly we tell ourselves that we don’t have time to do these activities which make us feel good and which we need in our lives. However, the more stressed we feel the more periods of recover we need, and it is even more essential to carry out these nourishing activities (for example, planning time for ourselves or practising self-care). 

Stress affects us physically as well as emotionally and feeling stressed triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which results in the fight, flight or freeze response (people feeling hypervigilant, on-edge, restless, unable to relax, irritable, anxious etc.). To counteract the effect of cortisol we need to introduce more calming activities into our lives, more specifically those that help to release oxytocin (spending time with people we care about, sharing a meal, stroking a pet etc.). 

When we are feeling stressed and emotional our ‘thinking’ part of the brain turns off and we cannot think straight or concentrate on things. We often react emotionally to things and can be irritable with those around us. Learning ways to slow down our breathing helps to manage those physical symptoms of stress, resulting in us feeling calmer and allowing the thinking part of our brain to switch back on again. 

What problems can stress lead too?

There are many problems which can be caused by feeling stressed for too long, including physical complaints (IBS, headaches, feeling tired and no energy, feeling run down, sleeping difficulties, feeling sick, issues with appetite etc.) and emotional problems (feeling irritable, low, anxious, frequent mood swings etc.). These can then all cause problems in other life areas, such as in terms of relationships with family and friendships, socially or at work. We need to try to recognise the signs of stress early on, rather than waiting until we become physically unwell before realising that we are feeling stressed. As we know feeling stressed can lead to mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. It can also make existing problems mental health difficulties worse.

How can you eliminate stressful situations?

I don’t think you can eliminate stressful situations as these are part of life: remember ‘We cannot control the waves of live, but what we can do is learn to surf’. There are many things in life which are outside of our control, therefore we need to be able to recognise those things which we have some control over and those we do not.

What tips and advice would you suggest that can help someone feel less stressed?

It is essential for people to balance their stressful lives with periods of recovery. We all need to find ways to self-soothe and feel calm following periods of stress, learning ways to relax and ‘switch off’. There are many different things we could do to soothe ourselves, however what is important is for people to find ways which are good for them. Examples include exercise, being in nature, listening to music or playing a musical instrument, going for a walk, having a hot bath, dancing, yoga or meditation, stroking a pet, singing, expressive writing and fun activities which involve laughter and subsequently will produce the feel-good chemical serotonin.  

Self-awareness is key as people need to be able to recognise in themselves when they are feeling stressed. Often we only notice when we are run down and physically unwell, however we need to try and recognise the signs early so we can do something about it before things become too much and the stress builds up. Being self-aware also involves knowing what helps to calm you and feel less stressed, as well as being aware of those unhealthy coping strategies which often make things worse. 

It is important for people to be kinder and more compassionate towards themselves, treating themselves as they would do a close friend or family member. When we are feeling stressed, we regularly have more negative thoughts about ourselves, which includes doubting our ability to cope with things.

Is there a stigma around stress health, is it a sort of ‘get on with it’ reaction from others?

I often find there can be a ‘get on with it attitude’ as people often put pressure on themselves, telling themselves they should be coping with things. Similarly, people are often reluctant to not only ask for help, but in accepting that they need it. People can feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit they are feeling stressed as they often put pressure on themselves and tell themselves they should be coping and getting on with things. However, it is important to remember that life is stressful, and that everyone needs help sometimes.

What do you want to see happen in schools and the workplace with training in stress related issues?

I think it would be beneficial for all staff in schools to receive training on stress awareness and how to manage stress, something we are not currently taught at school. The PHSE guidance coming out in September 2020 will help students learn about mental health and healthy ways of coping. Similarly, it would be helpful for all workplaces to receive information, guidance and training around stress awareness alongside the Mental Health First Aid training currently being offered.

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