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What is stress?


We all need some stress in life in order to thrive; life would be so dull without a few challenges. Ongoing, continual stress however, can result in ill-health.

We all react individually to different stresses, and what appears to be a positive challenge for one person could be a 'nightmare' for another. This can be based on factors such as how we handle situations, our personality, genetics or past experiences. The secret with stress is balance; too much and we may feel unable to cope, too little and we become bored. Two systems in our body control this balance, the sympathetic system gives us our 'get up and go' and releases stress hormones like adrenaline to give us the energy to deal with challenges and our parasympathetic system is responsible for keeping us relaxed. When these work together in harmony, we have the ideal situation, however this is a rare occurrence.

We tend to suffer the ill effects of stress as a result of too many life challenges or ongoing situations which maybe out of our control. Problems at work, coupled with difficulties at home, as well as dealing with the everyday issues and it is not surprising that so many of us become harassed, frustrated or even a little depressed. Stress then takes its toll physically and mentally, concentration span slips, irritability sets in, sleeping problems increase and headaches become a regular complaint. However, before we can deal with any of these slowly increasing symptoms, we have to realise, and accept, that it could be due to stress and then, it is up to us to do something about it. It is important to remember that stress does not always need to be the negative experience that its name implies - it’s how we handle it!

Finding the cause

It may seem obvious what the cause of stress is - but, all too often we blame others for the everyday issues in order to avoid facing and addressing the real cause. The daily grind of life can often overshadow and cover up what is the real root of the problem. Take some quiet time and write down all the things in your life that make you happy. Then make another list of all the things that upset you. The list should include daily anxieties as well as the more long term problems. Once the list is complete separate your 'problems' into minor and major categories. In order to help you can number your problems on a scale of 1-10; one being not much of a worry and ten being major problems.

Addressing the Issue

Then, it is time to deal with your list. First look at the small worries. Can you confront them, or plan and anticipate how to deal with them, perhaps you may even be able to remove them. Once the small issues are separated from the larger problems they are often easily dealt with and by doing this, the more serious problems often start to break down into more minor or manageable challenges.

You can also try using some of the following strategies to help ease the day to day challenges, leaving more time and energy to manage your larger worries.

“List your most achievable and immediate goals. Then set about thinking of ways of achieving them.”

Goal Setting

Write down all the short and long term goals you would like to achieve. For instance, losing weight, gaining a qualification or spending more time with your family. List your most achievable and immediate goals. Then set about thinking of ways of achieving them.

Time Management

Organising your life to gain time is paramount to feeling less stressed. It is worth taking five minutes at the start of each day to plan ahead. When booking appointments always add a little extra time in case of transport difficulties or being held up. Make a list of the important 'jobs' and prioritise these each day. Add a weekly and monthly list of things to be done.

Positive Self Talk

Self talk is what you are thinking and telling yourself. So eradicate the words, 'I can't', immediately. One of the most effective methods of turning negative self talk into positive messages is to mentally say 'stop' when you have a negative thought. This will act as a command and also a distractor while you come up with a positive response.

Write down all your positive attributes and realistic negative traits. Take one negative trait at a time and work on changing it to a positive one.

Dealing with Incoming stress

Fortunately, our response to stress lies within our control. The key is to be aware of our responses to stressful situations and be prepared. There are only a few options to respond to stress and controlling your response can alleviate some of the physical and mental anguish. Anticipation of what is going to happen and making a plan of action allows you to control your response ahead. Confronting stress head-on can be useful especially when dealing with another person or perhaps you can simply remove or change the way you deal with the stressors.

“The simplest method to correct shallow breathing is over-exaggeration of abdominal breathing.”

Physical Effects

Physically, too much stress over a period of time can take its toll. The breathing pattern tends to be affected first. It changes to become shallower and quicker coming mostly from the upper chest instead of the slow steady diaphragmatic breathing seen in a relaxed person. This alters the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood which can lead to hyperventilation and panic attacks. The simplest method to correct shallow breathing is over-exaggeration of abdominal breathing. Lie flat on your back and place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your abdomen. Slowly breathe in through your nose and imagine the breath by-passing the top hand and reaching the bottom hand on your abdomen. Feel the abdomen slowly rising and hold the breath for a few seconds and then slowly breathe out through your nose. It may take some time to perfect this simple technique and it should be practised at first for short periods of time to avoid dizziness. This is also a great technique if you have difficulties falling asleep or waking in the night. It is a real help before common stressful situations, exams, interviews or flying. You can simply adapt the technique to a sitting position. After some practice you will naturally be able to do the technique without placing the hands and just quietly breathe.

“Exercise provides its own mood enhancers and also allows you to take a mental break from your worries.”

Diet and Exercise

Unfortunately, when stressed our nutritional habits decline and exercise tends to be put on the 'back burner'. But, both are so important. During stress our immune system is under immense pressure and requires good nutrition to avoid becoming ill. Exercise provides its own mood enhancers and also allows you to take a mental break from your worries. Racquet sports such as tennis and squash are ideal to ‘thrash out’ your worries and walking, especially in quiet locations, provides the perfect switch off.

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