At different stages of my life I’ve experienced varying amounts and types of stress; exam stress, relationship stress, career stress, parenting stress, carer stress and financial stress just to name a few. Some of these have been quite intensely frightening or emotional times, and these have had the deepest effects I think.
I’m perhaps not always the best person at juggling it at times. I sometimes get overwhelmed, I overthink, I can let the intrusive voices take over, I feel too much and get overloaded and, as you can see, I blame myself for not coping better. Fun. I’ve also had my stress ridiculed and minimised by people who simply don’t live my reality but think they’re the only ones that have a hard time (I could probably do a whole other post on such “Vampires”).
Last month after a long period of chronic stress I became run down. I had become exhausted, breathless, had heart palpitations and an almost constant feeling of dread. I wasn’t able to properly overcome one stressful event before the next one was upon me and it felt relentless. This time I had to pause, make changes, and seek medical help; things are improving and I am more aware than ever now of what works for me, what I need and what I can’t engage in.
I am not an expert so the below is only based on my own experience and research.
Depending on personal circumstances (specific stresses, personality type etc) different approaches work for different people. Here are some ideas I have found to help manage my stress levels and some may work for you if you’re experiencing similar symptoms:
Sleep and me have a funny relationship. I love sleep. My kids not so much, especially when they were younger. Therefore I sway between periods of sleep deprivation when I’m up several times a night or very early in the morning, and so exhausted in the day I just want to nap.
Sleep for me during times of stress can be difficult but more often than not it became a way of shutting stress out and listening to what my body needed, and that was quiet space and rest. That’s not to say that sleeping all day is ideal, and it’s probably not practical around family, work etc but trying to tune in to what your body needs and sometimes prioritising a nap, or an early night if you can’t nap, is a way of hitting the refresh button on stress and giving yourself a break from the to-do list & intrusive thoughts.
Find supportive relationships to help you cope and not drain you further with drama or narcissism. It can be so natural to put others first very often and want to support those in trouble, but if you find you’re the one supporting more than being supported when you need it then the balance is off. Misery loves company and often we can attract negative people when we are already feeling stressed. Some people will only be around when THEY are in a crisis and need YOU, often sensitive to their own upset but not to your feelings.
Look at your energy levels around different people and adjust how much of yourself you commit to those that drain you and those who leave you feeling lighter & more positive. It’s not about ghosting people who are low, more about controlling how you react to them and what energy you have available for your own problems whilst investing in supportive relationships.
I recently started using this app and it is great. It focuses on Mindfulness meditation techniques. It has an introductory course to get you started with several small short sessions you can commit to daily, with 3, 5 or 10 minute guided meditations. I do find them relaxing and the principles build on my self awareness I embrace in yoga (see below) but help you to think more about staying present and how to handle negative thoughts/stress throughout your day as an observer rather than having to be dragged around by them constantly. I’m currently learning about neuroplasticity and the neurology of thoughts and habits and finding it both interesting and enlightening in building better responses to stressful situations.
Yoga has been an important spiritual connection for me since I was in my late teens. Taking time on my mat for myself and combining the flow of movement with strength and pranayama breathing is a way of adding perspective to whatever else life is throwing at me and a way for me to be alone but connected to something greater. There are so many ways to do Yoga and so many teachers. I like the flexible way of practising via YouTube videos and I love the approach of Yoga With Adriene. Her monthly calendar prompts and 30 day Yoga practices have really focused me to aim for daily yoga of some kind. They have given me so much stress relief, particularly knowing there are 5 & 10 minute videos specifically for stress and/or anxiety I can just click on and I know will help.
Talk to your GP
It is important to rule out medical conditions (such as anemia or thyroid problems) that can cause nervousness and affect breathing and heart palpitations. Of course chronic stress can also impact your physical health so it is always good to talk these things over if you are experiencing symptoms. They can prescribe medicines such as beta blockers to reduce anxiety, and refer you for cognitive reframing steps (CBT) to help manage stress in different ways.
Diet & exercise
We can only function as well as the fuel we put in and the temptation to eat junk and drink is often high when we are stressed. I’m not a big drinker but I do love sweet treats and meals out to lift my mood but I’m conscious that this needs to be balanced with what my body actually needs to keep me healthy. I’ve cut caffeine right down recently as I am definitely sensitive to it when I’m stressed and anything that eases heart palpitations is a must for me. I’ve found I love chamomile tea which is naturally caffeine free.
Exercise releases endorphins which lift moods, it tires us out so we sleep better, it builds physical strength which improves our wellbeing. Studies have shown that resistance training as well as things like running, hiking & cycling all improve symptoms of anxiety, the exact reasons for which are still being researched but are linked to neuroplasticity (changing the way the brain functions).
Whether it’s colouring, bullet journal/scrapbooking (my favourite), sketching, painting, sewing, writing, woodwork, knitting, even photography, being creative can focus our minds on something constructive but beautiful, and helps relieve tension.
Talking about our needs, feelings, and experiences can help lighten the load. I often naturally withdraw when I’m stressed, I’m not sure why but hazard a guess at it being a learned coping strategy against criticism, and protect myself by handling things more on my own. It’s always when I’ve spoken about a particular problem or admitted I’m struggling that I start to see a way through more calmly though. So my advice is don’t hibernate too much.
Nature is there for us. And usually free. Woodlands, beaches, hills, fields, gardening, running/cycling; anything that involves fresh air, some exertion and a way of connecting with something bigger is a way of relieving tension, feeling calmer and finding perspective. Just half an hour having a cup of tea in my garden gives me such a boost.
My own mental health isn’t something I’m used to discussing much but I’ve made a change in that in recent months with positive reactions.
It’s been a big help to me to talk to people who I know understand and care. It isn’t easy but charities like Time To Change want to support people in changing how we think and act about mental health.
Today is their #TimeToTalk day so it felt appropriate to share my own journey and I encourage you to give them a look on twitter and their website to keep conversations about mental health going.
How do you manage stress?