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It’s National Stress Awareness Day! Are you stressed?

5 November 2014
Self-help books and stressball

Yes, it’s National Stress Awareness Day today, and so I thought we would take a look at the different aspects of stress: symptoms; coping with stress; prevention; causes and a definition of stress, mostly within the context of stress at work.

The everyday running of normal life can be a stressful process, juggling work, family and even your social life can cause you to feel stressed. A certain amount of stress is necessary to motivate us to do things and mostly we thrive on stress. However, too much stress over a prolonged period of time can become a real problem.

Please remember! You do not have to be ill to access the Staff Counselling Service; we are here to help prevent illness caused by stress. So if you feel under pressure we are here to support you. Or look out for one of our stress prevention workshops, or book a bespoke session for your team/department.

Symptoms of stress – are you stressed? Or just under a bit of pressure?

Stress is a physical reaction to a perceived threatening situation. We are hard wired to react to perceived threats to our survival, these reactions usually involve a fight or flight response which was historically critical to our survival. So physically our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate can increase. We perspire more and muscles tense up, ready to fight or flee.

In the short-term, stress can increase energy levels, but in the long-term we can become exhausted and lose weight. When we feel stress we don’t do anything physically like run away from a situation to use up the energy and hormones such as adrenalin which would release this response and allow us to relax again. This means we can stay in a hyper-alert state for long periods of time. This is tiring and can lead to a prolonged feeling of stress, difficulty relaxing and ultimately physical illnesses such as heart disease, strokes, kidney damage and disturbance of blood sugar levels.

For most people, extreme stress can be mentally and emotionally debilitating too, and prevents them from functioning to their full potential. They can become:

  • Nervous and embarrassed.
  • Unable to think clearly and preoccupied with negative thoughts.
  • Unable to make decisions.
  • Unable to concentrate and forgetful.
  • Difficult to live with, short tempered or withdrawn.
  • Overly sensitive to criticism.
  • Pessimistic.
  • Unable to wind down and relax.

If action is not taken there is a risk of serious depression and/or physical illness.

Coping with stress

Coping with stress day to day involves us taking the time to be aware of how we are feeling. A regular Mindfulness practice can really help with this, and it doesn’t have to be a long exercise, even taking 10 minutes a day to practise can make a real difference.

If you already feel stressed and are experiencing some of the above symptoms, then you need to take some immediate steps to get yourself back in balance before you become unwell. Start with the basics, diet, exercise, and relaxation. Minimise caffeine, sugar, alcohol and all stimulants, as these make your body speed up (we’ll be blogging on food and mood in the near future). Make sure you take some exercise at least 5 times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes. This helps get rid of adrenalin and releases the feel good hormones endorphins. Try to find a type of exercise you enjoy, you will be far more likely to keep it up. Take time to relax, make time to do things you really enjoy and which make you feel good, for me this would be gardening on my allotment, spending time with my chickens (how Mindful and ‘in the moment’ are they!), or walking in the mountains.  It can make a real difference just spending 10 or 20 minutes doing something you enjoy, which is just for you every day, and can be a really simple activity like reading a good book.

Stress prevention

The best way of dealing with stress is by preventing it building up! Here are some tips for stress prevention:

  • Good forward planning often prevents stressful situations occurring.
  • Have realistic long and short-term goals.
  • Plan rest and relaxation into your life.
  • Plan and Prepare.
  • Think about your day before it begins.
  • Remember we can’t keep everyone happy all the time.
  • Learn to delegate.
  • Learn to say ‘No.’
  • Ask others for help.
  • Identify your own particular stressors.
  • Find out how to relieve it.
  • Organise your life to minimise stress.
  • Remember stress is different for every individual.
  • Lack of control can cause the greatest stress, think about what you CAN control.
  • Stress can be physically debilitating.
  • Stress is a negative physical reaction to a threatening situation.
  • Research shows that stress can cause illness.
  • By increasing stress we decrease brainpower.
  • Stress can cause low self-esteem.
  • Accept that stress is an important part of life.
  • Take positive action to minimise stress.
  • Overcome your negative feelings. Focus on the positive things in your life.
  • Consider whether the problem causing you stress, belongs to someone else.

Causes of stress

There are countless causes of stress which usually involve significant life events; however stress can also be caused by a build-up of smaller concerns which may lead us to feel overwhelmed. Here’s a list of a few of the common work related stressors:

  • Work overload or underload (yes being bored is as big a stressor as being overstretched!).
  • Difficult relationships with colleagues or managers.
  • Long hours culture.
  • Constant change and uncertainty.
  • Job insecurity.
  • Lack of communication.
  • Lack of autonomy.
  • Isolation.
  • Fear of the consequences of taking sick leave when needed.
  • Gaps in recruitment.
  • Lack of opportunity for progression and career development.
  • Physical environment does not suit you-some people thrive in open plan offices, others hate it.
  • Difficulty maintaining a work life balance.

Unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others are a common cause of stress. This is especially true if you have a tendency towards being a perfectionist  (something that is practically epidemic in academic institutions!). Remember it is not possible to have everything just right. If we expect perfection from ourselves or others we will be disappointed!

Defining Stress

The Health and Safety Commission defines Stress at Work as follows:-

“Stress is the reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed upon them”.

When this happens you start showing signs or symptoms of stress. The heavier and more prolonged the load or demands the less you feel you can deal with them, the more serious your symptoms are likely to be. However, by thinking about stress management, you can readjust the balance. This reduces the signs and symptoms of stress, and results in better management of stress.

Stress can be focused on a particular event or crisis, or can build up gradually, and various factors can contribute to the build-up of stress and our resilience to stress – such as recent bereavement, relationship issues, moving house, starting a new job etc. If you have other contributing factors your ability to deal with a stressful event is compromised and you will not be able to deal with it in your normal way.

So take some time today to take stock of your stress levels and evaluate your self-care.