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One thing is clear about stress – it's common. In a recent survey for the Mental Health Foundation, 74 per cent of people reported that, in the past year, they had felt stressed to the point of being unable to cope.
However, while stress is undoubtedly serious, the term itself is bandied about so much it's become almost meaningless.
We talk about being stressed when we're stuck in traffic, struggling with work deadlines or looking after children or grandchildren. But what does it really mean?
"It might sound strange but there's actually no medical definition of stress," says Paul Farmer, CEO of mental health charity Mind. "It's not a psychiatric diagnosis. However, it can lead to mental and physical health issues and have a major impact on your life."
Although we usually think of stress as something negative, it's crucial for our survival.
"It's basically a physical and psychological response to a threat, and it keeps us alive," says chartered psychologist Dr Meg Arroll, who specialises in stress relief.
"We need to be able to run away from danger, or react quickly and fight it – this is the fight-or-flight response, and humans wouldn't have survived without it. We’re designed to deal with short, sharp bursts of stress – the classic scenario of one of our early ancestors fighting a rival or running away from a sabre-toothed tiger. The modern equivalent might be giving a speech or taking an exam."
There's actually evidence that this type of acute stress is beneficial for mental and physical health. It keeps us motivated and alert, and can help support our immune system.
Unfortunately, most of us live with lower-level but continuous stress, with no rest and recovery period.
"When our physiological response to pressure becomes sustained and we can't get it back in balance, anxiety, poor sleep, lowered immunity and cardiovascular problems can follow," says Meg. "What's more, when we're stressed our behaviour patterns tend to become unhealthy, which has further implications for mental and physical health. You might eat junk food, drink too much alcohol, go to bed late, stop exercising or smoke."
Tense muscles, nail biting, waking up worrying or butterflies in your tummy are all sure signs of being overwhelmed. But here are some of the less obvious signs that you may be struggling:
Stress is often associated with the workplace, but it has far broader underlying causes than deadlines, says Meg.
"Work can certainly be a contributor, but it's usually just one piece of a jigsaw," she says. "It may be part of a bigger picture, such as trying to keep too many plates spinning."
"You might be working but also looking after children and/or ageing parents, as well as still taking on the majority of housework and preparing food. It's the level of responsibility and pressure that results in stress."
Remember that stress is individual – something that doesn't faze you may cause your friend a lot of stress.
Also, you can be stressed about one big thing – such as debt – or lots of smaller issues. Generally, says Paul, situations that are stressful are those in which we face uncertainty, lack of control, too much responsibility or big changes we can't necessarily influence.
The year 2020 saw plenty of these situations; the COVID-19 crisis led to uncertainty and lack of control at a level many of us had never experienced.
It's also worth noting that even ‘positive' situations can contribute to stress. A new relationship, having a baby or planning a big celebration can all pile on the pressure.
"The first thing I always recommend is keeping a mood diary," says Meg. "Becoming aware of your stress levels – and what contributes to them – is an important step."
There may be some situations you can resolve or improve. It can help for you to sit down and brainstorm a few ideas with a friend or family member, as they may see solutions you can’t.
Sometimes, though, there's little you can do to ease the pressure. What you can do is put some steps in place to help yourself deal with it.
This is very individual, says Meg, so there's no guarantee the classic stress management steps will work for you. What’s important is to come up with your own plan. Here are some ideas.
Work it outExercise singes stress hormones and helps you switch off. Whether you choose boxing to burn off that nervous energy, or find calming yoga is your go-to, what's key is doing exercise you'll stick at.
Make time for meditation
"Some people find mindfulness meditation very helpful," says Meg. Other types of meditation work for different people, so experiment – you can find lots of guided meditation on YouTube. Try starting your day this way, even if it's just for 10 minutes – it can give you a sense of calm before the busyness kicks in.
That means anything that absorbs you in the here and now, such as drawing, baking, gardening or playing golf.
Talk it over
"Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helps you find new ways to look at situations," says Meg. Your GP can refer you, or look for a private therapist.
Get the nature cure
A raft of research has found spending time in green spaces is one of the best calming steps you can take. That could be as simple as a stroll in a local park or woodland. Time in blue spaces – bodies of water – may also help.
Watch what you eat
Caffeine, alcohol and sugary foods may seem to help in the short term but in excess are guaranteed to aggravate stress symptoms, and may interfere with sleep, which becomes a vicious cycle. Prioritise a healthy, balanced diet, with plenty of fresh fruit and veg – and stay hydrated.