How to deal with stress – because the physical symptoms of stress can be debilitating

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  • Stress is something that affects all of us to varying degrees. Whether things get on top of you at the office, or home life becomes to busy to handle, almost anything can cause a certain level of stress in our lives.

    But what is ‘stress’ and what are the symptoms? Stress is produced to keep us safe and protected. When our brains are stressed, our body releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and physical changes happen in our body as a ‘fight or flight’ response to a potentially dangerous situation.

    That’s why you might start to sweat, shake, get quickened or heavy breathing, or begin to struggle for breath. It’s simply your body attempting to prepare for a challenge or threat.

    And stress can also be a driving force. It can motivate us to get the job done – whether it’s paperwork or packing for a trip at the last minute.

    But when it overwhelms you, and leaves you feeling unable to get things done, it becomes a problem. If you feel as though you’re finding it difficult to cope, or unable to deal with the level of stress in your life, it’s time to take a look at your stress levels and how to reduce them.

    First you need to be able to recognise the symptoms of stress.

    What are the stress symptoms?

    Stress symptoms are things we’re probably all familiar with, but sometimes it’s hard to recognise them as stress symptoms.

    Despite people thinking it affects just your mental state, stress can leave you both mentally and physically exhausted.

    What are the mental symptoms of stress?

    Stress can leave you feeling:

    • irritable
    • under-confident
    • fearful
    • unable to concentrate
    • unable to make decisions

    What are the physical symptoms of stress?

    Stress may also cause physical symptoms such as:

    • stomach pain
    • a feeling of sickness
    • dizziness
    • sleep problems
    • a feeling of tiredness that makes it difficult to do anything

    And of course, we all know the effect stress symptoms can have on our personal relationships. If we’re stressed after a long and busy day, we’re far more likely to snap or to become angry at our loved ones.

    But there are ways to deal with tension. You can practise techniques that teach you how to deal with and how to reduce stress…

    How to reduce stress

    Research in 2016 found that people in their sixties who work in high-stress jobs and have little freedom or control to make decisions at work are 15% more likely to die than those in low-stress roles. Stress hormones like cortisol and arginine vasopressin have also been implicated in negative outcomes ranging from arthritis, weight gain and insomnia to heart disease, depression and dementia.

    Feeling your stress levels rise just thinking about it? Here are 27 science-backed ways to tackle your stress, right now.

    #1. Work out regularly

    Exercise is a known stress-reliever, and a way to burn off all of the tense excess energy that stress brings. So make the most of its benefits and get outside. It may be a quick run in the sun, or a game of golf. Fresh air + physical activity = a vast range of benefits for your mental health.

    If you can’t get outdoors, try an indoor workout – run up and down the stairs, or even do some really brisk housework to burn up the cortisol and work off that adrenaline.

    Regular exercisers release less cortisol in response to stressful situations. Scientists believe that the physical stress of exercise allows the body to ‘practise’ dealing with stress. Yoga might be the most effective choice of all, combining the benefits of mindfulness with those of physical activity. Those who practise regularly experience a drop in cortisol levels and report experiencing less stress when confronted by stressful situations.

    #2. Practise breathing exercises

    As you breathe out, you signal to the parasympathetic nervous system to instruct your body to calm down. Breathing exercises, where you breathe out for longer than you breathe in, will keep you zen-like.

    #3. Try some online therapy

    You can wait 10 or more weeks for a referral for therapy on the NHS, but you can get instant help online. Mindbox is a website that offers around the clock help for people struggling with a range of mental health issues – from anxiety and panic attacks to stress management. Their mission is to “provide the best therapy, in the right place, when you need it the most”.

    At woman&home we believe it’s important to be able to access support whenever and however you need it, which is why we have partnered with Mindbox to offer you an exclusive discount of up to 50% off their services.

    #4. Physically connect with people or your environment

    Due to our human need for connection and physical presence, spending time in the presence of friends can be extremely beneficial. This isn’t easy to do in the current environment, so get outside where you can.

    #5. Eat foods rich in key vitamins and minerals

    Foods rich in zinc, B vitamins, vitamin C and magnesium have a stress-combating effect. So stock up on spinach, pumpkin seeds, broccoli, fish, nuts, beans and wholegrains. There is evidence to suggest that some supplements can help anxiety too.

    #6. Read or watch something funny

    Having fun reduces the level of stress hormones in your body. Turn off the news and horror films, and watch a comedy, or read a joke book to relax your nervous system. It responds to pictures of trauma as if it has to protect you in similar circumstances, so give it some time off.

    Just the physical act of smiling can directly affect your mood, as well as your body’s response to stress. Research has found that people asked to smile during a stressful task recover more quickly.

    #7. Listen to calming music or go to a gig

    Gentle, harmonious music is calming. Avoid too many raucous beats when you are stressed and go for something more soothing – or even switch off altogether!

    Music can moderate cortisol spikes. But there’s no need to stick to Classic FM. Going to a live gig has been found to lower cortisol levels, so rock on.

    #8. Drink a lot of water

    Water needs to be still and plain (not sparkling or flavoured), and is best drunk at room temperature or warm. It’s good for energy, your bowel and skin.

    #9. Physically rock your body

    Rocking is soothing for the human body and mind, reconnecting us as it does with the gentle slosh of amniotic fluid in the womb. Applying the technique can calm you down.

    #10. Try your hand at mindfulness and meditation

    A relatively modern idea, the concept of mindfulness is simple – and can help see you through some of the most stressful times.

    Daily mindfulness meditation decreases cortisol production by an average of 20%. Focus and awareness could be key – brain scans of highly resilient people indicate that they pay more attention to what is going on in their bodies at times of stress than less resilient people.

    Essentially, all it means is being aware of ourselves and the world around us in the present moment – and not constantly worrying about the future, or agonising over the past.

    Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, told the NHS, “It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’ – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour,”

    “An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. That might be something as simple as the feel of a banister as we walk upstairs.

    “Another important part of mindfulness is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment.

    “It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.”

    There are various meditation and mindfulness apps that can help you master this approach.

    #11. Download a destressing app

    There are plenty of apps on the market that can help to reduce stress in your life. Headspace is a good one to start with, as it offers 10-minute meditation exercises, which are easy to slot into even the busiest of lives. The exercises are also offered on a specialised basis too – including work stress, bereavement, divorce, or any number of things that may cause stress.

    Sanvello is another useful app you can download straight to your phone. It allows you to track your mood so you can chart and examine the moments you feel most stressed, in order to do something about them. Along with relaxation techniques, this app also offers up a community of people who all feel similarly, so you can share your thoughts, feelings and any gripes you have as you go.

    Alternatively, you could try this 9 minute hypnosis track, created for us exclusively by Mindbox’s co-founder, Anna Richardson, to help you stay calm and feel less stressed.

    #12. Make sure you get more – and better – sleep

    We all know that everything seems worse after a bad night’s sleep – and better after a good one. It’s essential to get your designated eight hours in order to be best able to cope with the stress that life can bring. According to the American Psychological Association, adults who sleep fewer than eight hours a night report higher stress levels than those who sleep at least eight hours a night.

    Having said that, learning how to sleep better is not a one-size-fits-all formula, so find the amount of sleep that works for you, whether that’s six, seven, eight or even nine hours sleep a night. Just make sure you keep your sleep pattern regular.

    #13. Talk to friends and family

    Counselling or therapy can come in all forms – it doesn’t just have to be with a qualified therapist. Talking to friends and family to release your emotions and admit some of how you’re feeling can be just as therapeutic, and can help to alleviate some of the anxiety you might be feeling.

    #14. Change your mindset

    The key to conquering stress may not lie in removing it from your life, but in learning to embrace it. Whilst those in high-stress jobs with little freedom seem to be at greater risk of premature death than those in low-stress roles, those in high-stress roles with a greater degree of autonomy are 34% less likely to die than those in low-stress occupations. A stressful job can be experienced as “energising” rather than “debilitating”, Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, the study’s lead author, posits.

    Other studies have found that those primed to see stress in a positive light subsequently experience less of it! So, next time you feel the pressure, remind yourself that stress can not only motivate and energise you, but help you live longer, too.

    Can’t help but feel helpless in the face of the source of your stress? You can still take steps to mitigate its effects on your mental and physical health. Many stress-related deaths are thought to be linked to unhealthy responses to stress (smoking, drinking, comfort eating…) and not directly to the stress itself.

    #15. Put worrying on your to-do list

    Scheduling 30 minutes of dedicated ‘worry time’ into your day could help you manage stress more effectively, according to researchers. The catch? You are only allowed to worry within this 30 minute period!

    #16. Get a plant

    The soothing effects of nature are well-documented. Look out of the window. The more trees you can see, the quicker you’ll recover from a stressful task. If the view from yours is more concrete jungle than suburban oasis, don’t despair – a desk plant could have similar effects and there are plenty of places you can buy plants online. It’s also worth taking the occasional trip to the beach – researchers believe that ‘blue spaces’ (i.e. locations near open water) could have greater impact on stress levels than green spaces.

    #17. Drink tea

    There are some fantastic health benefits to drinking tea. Regular tea drinkers experience less stress and release less cortisol in response to stressful tasks. Scientists believe that the amino acids found in green and black teas may have calming effects.

    #18. Chew gum

    Chewing gum for at least 5 minutes, twice a day lowered the anxiety levels of a group of stressed-out nurses. They also experienced a boost in energy.

    #19. Get a pet

    The act of petting a dog or cat has been proven to lower blood pressure, and has near-instantaneous effects. Research has also found that people cope better with a stressful task when their pet sits in on it with them as opposed to their spouse.

    #20. Get a massage

    Researchers believe that massage could have a direct impact on stress-related hormones. A weekly Swedish massage decreases the levels of cortisol and arginine vasopressin (associated with a host of ill-effects, from weight gain to heart disease) circulating in our blood, whilst increasing our levels of oxytocin (associated with mental and physical wellbeing).

    #21. Take a nap

    Lack of sleep can result in stress for mind and body – increasing cortisol levels by up to 250%. However, a power nap (a nap up to 30 minutes long) can eradicate this effect.

    #22. Get creative

    You may be able to reap some of the benefits associated with meditation and exercise by taking part in a creative activity – playing a musical instrument, singing, sketching or even colouring-in. Immersion in a sport or art-related activity has been linked with improvements in immune function, cognitive function and reported wellbeing, and decreases in blood pressure and heart rate. Experts believe these benefits stem from entering the state of ‘flow’, a state of energised focus.

    #23. Go shopping

    Yes, there may be a case for retail therapy after all! Shopping has been scientifically proven to boost low mood, with researchers speculating that the act of making purchase decisions may be a way to “restore personal control over one’s environment”.

    #24. Try PMR

    PMR, or progressive muscle relaxation, has been found to be as effective as meditation when it comes to stress relief. Working from top to toe, or toes to top, simply tense and release your muscles, one area of the body at a time. Hold muscles tight for a count of 5, then relax as deeply as possible for 30 seconds.

    #25. Lend a hand

    Giving directions to a stranger, helping your child with their homework or even just holding a door open – science says that the more ‘helping behaviours’ you engage in on a daily basis, the less impact stressful experiences will have on you.

    #26. Stay connected online

    A digital detox could be counterproductive after all – using social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter several times a day, sending and receiving plenty of emails and regularly sharing digital images could reduce your stress levels by a fifth – if you happen to be female. Sadly, men don’t enjoy the same benefits…

    #27. See your GP

    However, in some cases, it’s essential to go to your GP to seek some professional help for symptoms of stress. Particularly if you find stress interferes with your day-to-day activities – such as sleeping, working, and interacting with your loved ones – it’s important to know that professional help, including counselling and therapy, can work.

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