April is Stress Awareness month, so I wanted to share some of my experiences of stress, how I recognise when I am feeling it and what I do about it.

Stress is your body’s reaction to feeling under pressure or threatened. We are hard wired as humans to have survival instincts that mean that the slightest threat can raise our blood pressure, bring a tightness in our chest, and get us sweating.

This has served humans well in an evolutionary sense, we’re still here because of that high alert and without it, we wouldn’t necessarily have the motivation to get up in the morning and we certainly wouldn’t be looking both ways when we cross the road. So, our reaction to these pressures is a necessary part of life. In fact, it can improve performance (how many times have we used the phrase “I work well under pressure” to explain that away) and it can also build your longer-term resilience (“if I can get through that, I can get through anything”).

But chronic pressure and stress can also make you ill. I have talked openly about my burnout story (see more here: From Buzzing to Burnt Out ) of which stress was one of the many factors.

According to the HSE, over 11 million working days are lost a year because of stress at work

What causes stress?

The causes of stress can be quite individual but, in the workplace according to a CIPD Health and Wellbeing Survey in 2020, the main causes of stress are:

  • Workloads/volume of work
  • Management style
  • Non-work factors – relationship or family issues
  • Relationships at work
  • Non-work factors – personal illness or health issues
  • Pressure to meet targets or deadlines

Of course, there are a number of factors outside of work that can lead to chronic stress. Like living through a global pandemic and all the uncertainty that brings.

In my experience, it is often a combination of the above factors that all lead to the physical feelings of stress in my body.

The signs of stress

Often, other people notice I am stressed before I do. It feels like there’s a switch in my brain that goes into ‘tunnel vision’ on getting a task done that stops the rational part of my brain from functioning properly and noticing that the stress is there. So, I have learnt to listen to other people as well.

How it looks to other people before I notice it:

  • Getting defensive and highly sensitive to the slightest criticism
  • Overreacting and snapping over the smallest of problems and being quite tearful
  • Struggling to relax in the evenings (e.g. can’t concentrate on reading or watching TV – this often results in endless social media scroll)
  • Broken sleep
  • Using alcohol or food to numb

At this stage, it can often be hard when someone else points out these behaviours to me but I have learnt to (mostly) listen and take action when these things happen.

At this point I may start to notice the physical signs in my own body. As a chronic illness sufferer, I am ultra-tuned into these signs, but it has taken years of ignoring them and dealing with the consequences to get me here. If you notice these signs, I would urge you to listen to them before it’s too late:-

  • Tension headaches that don’t go away with standard pain killers
  • Ringing in my ears / tinnitus
  • Shallow breathing / feeling tight in the chest area
  • Tense muscles and clenched jaw
  • Digestive issues – feeling sick to the stomach, bowel issues
  • Lethargy / fatigue that goes beyond normal tiredness

Other signs include:

  • Panic attacks
  • Blurred vision
  • High blood pressure
  • Indigestion or heartburn

This list isn’t exhaustive, we all have our own signs and symptoms. They are easy to ignore and push away but ultimately if you continue to ignore them, your body will invariably shout louder and louder until you listen, in my experience!

How to combat stress

We all too often think that if we take the cause of the stress (the ‘stressor’) away, that will stop the symptoms of stress. Whilst it is important to understand the root cause / stressor and eliminate that as much as possible, it is actually important at this stage to ‘treat’ the symptoms too.

I can highly recommend the book Burnout: Solve your stress cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski to gain a better understanding of the difference between eliminating the stressor and dealing with the stress. Their book talks about the importance of completing the ‘stress cycle’. So many of us have to hold in emotions or are unable to have the appropriate response in the moment (because it’s not appropriate to hit your work colleagues, much as sometimes you would love to!). By giving your body an outlet for that stress elsewhere or at another time, it allows the cycle to be completed and you can move on from it and eliminate the stress response in your body.

The methods I use for alleviating stress are:-

  1. Movement:
  • Aerobic exercise – get that blood pumping! I can no longer run as far as I used to (due to chronic illness) so I use walking as my exercise. Do what works for you but get your heart rate up a bit and complete that stress cycle.
  • Dancing – sounds silly right? Good! Some silliness and movement combined is a great way to shake the stress from your body. My first ever coach introduced me to “dance breaks” and a decade later, it is part of my stress release routine.

2. Switching off:

  • This is partly about removing the stressors (putting your notifications on silent, not checking work emails) but it is also about allowing your mind and body to rest properly
  • Digital Detox – Unplugging from the digital world altogether for a set period of time can do wonders for bringing the stress levels down
  • Making time for fun – much like the silliness of the “dance break”, finding time to do something just for the joy of it and not related in any way to the original stressor can do amazing things for your stress levels

3. Mindfulness:

  • Meditation has been a game changer in my life, not just for alleviating stress but to help me to take notice of how I am feeling and be grateful for what is. But, it doesn’t have to be about meditation every time, just taking time to be present each day – not worrying about the past or the future, can have an amazing effect on your wellbeing
  • Enjoying time in nature is a great way to reduce stress and increase wellbeing

Sounds simple, right? Yes, well it is, but its also all too easy to pass these methods off as unnecessary or something other people need to do but you don’t. I discuss stress and burnout every day with my clients, as we work together to find the strategies that will work for them, but I still manage to ignore the signs in myself sometimes.

I have created a free resource which gives hints and tips on how to manage stress and avoid burnout. You can download it by clicking on this link: Free download: 4 stress busting strategies

Other useful resources

If reading this has set some alarm bells off for you and would like more support, here are some links to useful resources:

www.stress.org.uk – The Stress Management Society is a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping individuals and companies recognise and reduce stress.

https://www.bacp.co.uk/ – The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy is the professional association for members of the counselling professions in the UK.

Burnout: Solve your stress cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski the book I mentioned about completing the stress cycle.