April is Stress Awareness Month, when healthcare professionals and other health experts aim to increase our awareness of stress and what effects it can have on our minds and body.
We all experience stress, often on a daily basis. Everything from no milk for our morning coffee followed by a cancelled train to that infuriating work colleague or losing unsaved work all adds to our stress levels. They can build throughout the day, and mean we reach for the bottle of wine when we get home.
We might laugh it off, or feel better after a large glass, but this cycle of stress can be a real health concern for many of us.
According to Stress.org.uk, 74% of UK adults have experienced stress so bad in the past year, that they’ve felt overwhelmed with life or felt unable to cope.
How Stress Works
Not all stress is bad. In fact, without stress, the human race wouldn’t have got this far. Our innate ‘fight or flight’ stress mechanisms meant that when faced with a dangerous situation, such as a large, man-eating animal in the area, our ancestors knew to either stay and fight, or, more sensibly, take flight.
A little bit of stress is also good for us. If we get excited, with a racing heart, raised pulse and sweaty palms – this is stress. When we feel like this, it’s because the body has released hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which gives us a rush of energy, makes us breathe faster and our heartrate shoot up.
It’s the same when we’re scared or overwhelmed. But it’s when this kind of stress builds up and becomes chronic, that we run into problems.
The Effects of Chronic Stress
Chronic stress can lead to physical and mental problems. We might find it difficult to concentrate, retain information or make decisions. This can lead to problems at work, only leading to more stress, or issues communicating with loved ones or socialising with friends.
High cortisol levels can lead to an inability to manage blood sugar levels, causing type 2 diabetes and obesity, or lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. Chronic stress can also cause a loss of libido or mean that we simply don’t get enjoyment out of the things we love.
Tips for Dealing with Stress
Perhaps one of the biggest helps, is talking about what’s causing your stress. Talk to colleagues, friends or family and you may find they’re suffering in the same way. Together, you could find ways that could help your situation.
Being kind to yourself is important too. Don’t berate yourself for feeling overwhelmed, you’re feeling that way for good reason. This can also mean treating yourself regularly, either by a night out with friends, having a manicure or massage, taking a night off cooking and having a takeaway or simply enjoying a bubble bath. Taking up a new (or old) hobby also works wonders for self esteem and stress.
Mindfulness helps too, and whilst it takes a bit of practice, it forces you to take time out to focus on the here and now. There are plenty of free apps available in app stores.
The NHS also has a list of stress busters, and one may be just the thing you need.
Diet and Stress
Although reaching for the chocolate is tempting when you feel stressed, eating a healthy diet and taking regular exercise is a mood booster that shouldn’t be underestimated. There’s also various vitamin supplements that can make you better able to deal with stress. For example, valerian root and Ashwagandha supplements can help to naturally calm anxiety.
L-theanine is an amino acid present in green tea which has a calming effect on the brain and helps lower blood pressure. Vitamin B helps stabilise your mood. Magnesium also helps to regulate blood pressure, and also helps to maintain normal heart beat. It’s present in green, leafy veg, beans, nuts and seeds so if you lack these foods in your diet, you could benefit from a magnesium supplement.
If you’re experiencing high levels of stress, it’s important to speak to your GP. Don’t suffer in silence or think it’s ‘weak’ to suffer stress. We all suffer it, and the more we talk about it, the better.