Recognise the signs, symptoms, and causes.
What a year eh? Who could have predicted that 2020 would become ‘the year that was’? So many new challenges, uncertainties, worries…the stress! Right?! Life is stressful enough without a global pandemic acting as the shiny glacé cherry on your already overfilled and heavy cake! Did you cope? Are you coping? Is your head buried in the sand somewhere? Or are you bracing the storm head-on? I think John and I are somewhere in the middle, but not because of Covid solely. It’s been a really busy year for many reasons, and we deal with it very differently. I’m the steady one who takes things in my stride more easily, whereas John finds steadiness more challenging and stress creeps up, often unnoticed. Therefore, learning to cope by recognising the signs, symptoms, and causes will help us learn how to cope better.
What is stress?
I think it’s really important to realise that stress is a natural and very normal response. When it is working properly your stress response can be the very thing that saves your life in a dangerous situation or sees you through a particularly challenging task. The release of the stress response keeps you alert and ready for anything, allowing you to cope with the situation at hand. There comes a point, however, where the stress response can become unhelpful, causing symptoms that are destructive and harmful. Damage to your health, mood, relationships, productivity, and quality of life are all in danger of harm if you don’t recognise the signs of stress in your life.
If you’re frequently feeling overwhelmed, stretched in every direction, or just exhausted, then it’s time to take control and find balance in your life. Equally, if you know someone else displaying similar symptoms, then see if you can lighten their load and de-stress.
Effects of stress
Chronic stress is a dangerous thing. It’s dangerous because the more our stress response is activated, the harder it is for our bodies to control. It’s further exacerbated by the fact that our bodies are not adept at recognising the difference between physical and emotional threats. Our bodies can react just as potently to a tense family argument as it would to dealing with a severe physical injury.
If you slip into stress mode easily you may be in an elevated state of stress more frequently than you know. Many people fall into this state because we live in a fast-paced and stressful world that is always making demands of us. This opens you up to a plethora of health issues that affect all aspects of your bodily function. Your immune system can be suppressed, your digestion disrupted, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, interfere with reproduction, and accelerate aging. You also become more vulnerable to depression and anxiety, amongst other mental health problems.
Some other symptoms:
- Sleep problems
- Skin conditions
- Weight issues
- Cognitive and/or memory problems
From experience, some of these symptoms are effects that either John or I have felt from stress. Particularly, disrupted digestion, sleep issues, and in some cases pain or skin problems. Recently John has been feeling rather stressed over his new project Mind, Body and Soul. He is so passionate about it and sees the potential in it, but whilst getting it off the ground, the pressure gets piled on too. And as a result, he has not been sleeping well at all this week. But the crucial thing is, he has learned to recognise when he is getting stressed and therefore take steps to counteract it. It takes time to learn this, but it’s so important! He’s made a point of resting completely, and I mean deliberately creating time to do nothing. This pushes back the stress symptoms and gets him back on track.
Red light, yellow light, green light, Meltdown!
During a break from writing this blog, John and I sat down to chat over a cuppa. He’s come up with a system that he’s been working on to help him recognise what level of stress he is feeling at any given moment, and is an effective way to communicate with me easily. It’s a simple traffic light warning system:
Greenlight – Everything is ok. You are happy and positive and coping well.
Yellow light – You feel slightly stressed, have a bad temper, are irritable, and have slight pain.
Red light – Swearing, angry, frustrated very quickly, negative emotions, interrupted sleep and experiencing more pronounced pain.
Meltdown – Full-on OTT reactions, blinkered vision leading to complete breakdown in communication, not sleeping at all, chronic pain, totally negative outlook, and extreme anger.
This final stage of Meltdown describes what happens when John doesn’t control his stress levels and things get way out of hand. It’s very rare, and let’s face it, we’ve all been that crazy stressed person at some point in our life, but what’s important is recognising that it’s not good for our mental or physical health. That’s where this traffic light warning system comes in handy because if you can recognise your symptoms of stress, you can do something to counteract the downward spiral before you each total meltdown! Create your own traffic light signs, so you have a visual checklist reminding you of your stress signs.
Signs and symptoms of stress
Stress is a sneaky thing. So often we don’t even notice that we are becoming more and more stressed as the symptoms creep up on us. But if we start to pay more attention to our bodies we can begin to notice the signs and therefore take control before stress does.
Here are some signs and symptoms you may notice. It’s not an exhaustive list!
- Poor judgment
- Unable to concentrate
- Being irritable and snappy
- Struggling to make decisions
- Nausea, dizziness
- Eating more or less
- Drinking or smoking more
- Nervous habits (nail biting, foot-tapping, touching your face)
Speak to your GP if you’re worried about any symptoms you may be experiencing caused by stress. Don’t try and deal with them on your own.
What causes stress?
The causes of stress really come down to you personally. What I find invigorating or enjoyable, may be your worst nightmare and induce a stress response. Equally, stress is not always caused by a bad situation. Good things can cause a stress response too, such as getting married or buying a house or car. Furthermore, stress is not always caused by external factors like relationship issues. It can be as a result of internal thoughts if you have a pessimistic view of the world or worry about things that may not have even happened yet. Often this is the battle that John faces. If you’re a born worrier, it’s important to learn to control those thoughts! I tend to get stressed over physical things that I feel like I need to control or if something external overwhelmed me.
What stresses you out?
This year I’ve experienced some of the most common causes of stress in my life. I’m sure you have too! Stress over work and the prospect of unemployment and the financial stress that comes with job insecurity. One of the biggest stressors we will ever experience is the loss of a loved one. Although I have been spared this, this year, I know full well the stress that is induced by this terrible event. I lost my Dad to cancer at 18 and felt the effects of stress and grief long after he had gone. So many people all over the world are in this state this year, and my heart goes out to you all! If you are dealing with grief, there are many people you can turn to for help. You’re not alone!
Know your limits.
Like I said above, John and I are really different when it comes to stress. I seem to be able to take things in my stride better, adapting to change more readily. Whereas John is less able to cope with change and feels the effects of stress more readily than me. Your ability to cope with stress is reliant on a number of factors:
If you have confidence in yourself, you will be able to cope with stress more effectively.
If you have a positive outlook, if you’re a hopeful person, you will be less vulnerable to stress. Accepting change and challenge as part of your life will make you stronger and more able to deal with stress.
Being able to recognise and deal with your emotions is a sure way to be able to reduce stress in your life. Allowing them to take control will only sink you faster into stress.
If you know you’re heading for a stressful situation, please prepare yourself by arming yourself with information. If you go in blindly, you’re more likely to have false expectations and therefore not recover as quickly as you might.
The way forward in coping with stress
It’s all fine and well me rabbiting on about stress and how it’s not good for your physical and mental wellbeing. Of course, it’s not! You already knew that! It’s something that John and I have been getting to grips with for a long while and there are many things you can do to head off stress in your life. It’s about learning to read your body and respond in time before you get to the meltdown stage.
Practical Remedies to cope with stress
It may sound cliché, but of course, getting up and moving about can be a real boost and get you out of your stressful thought processes. Now if you’re anything like me, you may have limitations or just get stressed at the mention of the word ‘exercise’. It’s not necessarily something that comes naturally to me, especially in the traditional sense of running, swimming, cycling, football, etc. I get into a cold sweat at the mention of these things. However, I do know that I love a walk in the fresh air, or a gentle hike into the hills, a bit of aerobics, or Zumba. It’s important to find a physical activity that you can sustain. Gets those endorphins flooding your body and blowing away the stressors! Put on some music and have a jig around the kitchen! Whatever! Just move!
The antithesis of this is also important in coping with stress. You must learn when to stop and rest. This is something that I am good at, but John finds a challenge. He’s constantly thinking, moving and working, and needs reminding to take a rest. If not, he will invariably find himself on the downward spiral towards an extreme stress situation. By making sure that you take regular rest, you will get into a rhythm and keep stress at bay more easily.
This goes in hand with developing ways to help you relax. By incorporating activities like yoga, meditation, mindfulness, or just a relaxing activity like playing an instrument, or painting, you can relax more effectively. You need to figure out what you enjoy and what works for you in your life and schedule. Sometimes you just don’t have time to sit down and devote an hour or so to an activity, so some short focused meditation or mindfulness may work. It takes practice, but John will attest that it works! Sitting on his bum and watching a film is one of his favourite ways to relax. Mine too!
Finally, the most common-sense way to be rested is of course to get enough sleep! This is one of those cyclical things; if you don’t get enough sleep, you are more easily stressed, which then affects your sleep, and so the cycle keeps turning. Get a good night’s sleep! Be as disciplined as you can and get to bed at a decent hour. I know sometimes that just won’t happen, but by developing a bedtime routine, our bodies learn to get into ‘sleep mode’ and are therefore more likely to be better rested after sleep.
Eat, but eat well. Our bodies are wonderful machines that require specific care to function well. If we feed it rubbish all the time, then it will be functioning on reduced capacity and less able to deal with stressful times. If we have a healthy immune system and we’re feeding ourselves with good nutrients we’ll have a better chance of coping with life’s stressors. When we feel healthy and well, our mental attitude is also healthier. Treat yourself, yes. But everything in moderation is important for balance in your life.
A problem shared is a problem halved. So the saying goes, right? It’s a saying because it’s generally true. I say generally because it’s important that you have someone in your life that you can unload with. Someone that you trust and where you will not have any judgment, but who will be constructive and help guide you. If you shut out people from your life, you will feel so isolated and alone, and you will be dealing with whatever life throws at you on your own. Please don’t be that person. Start small. A few words to break the silence will get the conversation going. Just the act of conversing with someone will relieve stress and help you build trust with people. Be discerning in who you trust, for sure, but make time to be around people.
Stress can be managed
As I’ve said, our lives are fast-paced and stressful a lot of the time. The media, our work, family, and the expectations put upon us can lead us onto that stressful path whether we meant it or not. The main thing is to be aware of your body, your mind, and how you are feeling each day so that you can learn to manage it better and keep yourself well. I really hope that this had all been useful to you and that you will share it with those you love so that you can all enjoy a more stress-free life. John and I are certainly trying to be more stress-free in our lives! You only get one shot at life, so why should it be more difficult than it needs to be?!
For an in-depth and day-to-day approach to dealing with life and the difficulties we face each day, please visit the website and get your copy of John’s book, The battles we all face, hope in times of uncertainty. It’s a wonderful book that seeks to encourage you with words of experience, hope, and a few hard truths, to help you become more confident in dealing with life. You’ll also be inspired by his beautiful artwork that accompanies each chapter, to help you be mindful and reflective as you read.
Here are some links to websites that you may find useful if you or someone you know is dealing with stress, bereavement, or their mental health in general. Don’t suffer in silence! There is so much support out there!
Samaritans are always there to listen, at any time, no matter what you’re going through.
Mind provides advice and support for anyone dealing with their mental health.
Mental Wellbeing audio guides from the NHS to help boost your mood.
Men’s Health Forum is specifically targeted at supporting men in their mental health.
Cruse Bereavement Care is a bereavement website helping you through the grief process.