For over 30 years, Stress Awareness Month is observed with the intention of increasing knowledge about the impact of stress in our lives. Throughout April, it is encouraged to spread awareness, as well as increase knowledge on how to better manage or prevent it from affecting our physical and mental well-being.

So, what is stress?

Stress is our body’s response to pressure that can manifest itself in many different ways. It’s the feeling of being overwhelmed and finding it difficult to cope emotionally or mentally. Stress in small doses is to be expected and something we are equipped to handle. However, stress that is ongoing or left unattended to, can have serious consequences. Ongoing stress can affect the entire body and can negatively impact your well-being. Chronic stress is a risk factor for a multitude of health conditions including heart disease, dementia, stroke, accelerated aging, depression, anxiety, and prolonged digestive issues. Stress can also impact your outlook on life, interpersonal relationships, and your performance in the workplace or other areas of life.

How to recognise stress:

Understanding the signs of stress can help you recognise them at an early stage and use strategies to help you manage:

  • Increased irritability (might include getting agitated or frustrated more easily)
  • Feelings or symptoms of depression (might include loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy, feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, changes in appetite, a low or depressed mood, excessive crying, emotional numbness, and slowed bodily movements)
  • Gastrointestinal distress (including nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhoea, constipation, and indigestion). Your gut is suggested as your second brain – linked by the Vagus nerve – and is a key indicator of how your body is feeling.
  • Feeling lonely because of stressors
  • Body aches and muscle tensions
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headaches

Take a moment to check in with yourself and see if you notice the signs of stress. If you are not feeling like yourself, reach out to someone and talk about what is on your mind. Alongside the other consequences of long-term stress, these signs may be ongoing if they are not addressed. Once you acknowledge that what you are experiencing is stress, there are solutions you can employ to address it.

How to address stress:

Fortunately, there are a multitude of solutions you can try if you are struggling with ongoing stress. These include:

  • Spending time with others. We are social creatures and positive social connections, and support can reduce stress and improve health in other areas.
  • Breathing exercises and meditation. It is incredible what the human body can do to under so much strain. When stressed, our bodies send a signal to our parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) which allows our bodies to respond on “flight or fight mode.” This response was useful back in prehistoric eras when humans had to flee from danger, but yet we seem to generate the same response for challenges in the 21st century. One method to control or reverse our PSNS is to address our breathing. By taking long controlled inhales and exhales allows our bodies to relax and realise we are not being chased by a very hungry lion! In a similar approach, meditation or mindfulness is an approach to slow the racing thoughts in your mind and to really focus on how you are feeling in the present. This can be a quick 5-minute exercise and when done regularly, it can help develop useful skills and responses to regular stressors, such as gaining a better sense of perspective on the situation.
  • Regular physical activity can also help train your body to respond to regular stressors. Running, swimming, walking and yoga are all examples which can help relieve stress and promote physical and mental wellbeing in other ways. It doesn’t need to be intensive and can be modified to meet everyone’s needs.
  • Address the root cause. Many aspects of our lifestyles can contribute to a wider overarching level of stress, and it may be necessary to evaluate what may be causing each “micro dose” of stress. This can include taking lessons that guide you in your personal life or at work, limiting time spent online if online activity increases your stress, and setting boundaries. However, this can also look like employing radical acceptance and focusing on what you can control instead of what you cannot in cases where you may not be able to change something – or might not be able to change it right away.
  • Art and hobbies. Having hobbies is good for your health in more ways than one; various hobbies, including creative hobbies, may promote stress relief. Outside of art, listening to music, spending time with animals, gardening, reading, social activities, and hobbies involving physical activity are possible choices. It is okay to try different activities until you find something you like.
  • Spend time outdoors and in nature. The Japanese have an interesting concept of “Forest bathing” which is becoming more popular in the West. Essentially this is immersing yourself in nature and enjoying the moment in the present. Like meditation, it allows you to notice the small things and gain a different perspective on matters. Even a small amount of time outdoors can offer stress relieving benefits.
  • Ask for help or get therapy. If you feel you are unable to control your response to stress, it is important to reach out to others and seek help. Stress is a common and shared experience for all of us, and no one should feel ashamed for struggling with or feeling overwhelmed by stress. Speak to friends, family, colleagues, Mental Health First Aiders, your GP or a number of helpful charities.

Further information

Please find below useful links for more information about stress and ways to help cope with it, as well as links to getting help from organisations such as Architects Benevolent Society (ABS), mind, NHS & Samaritans to name a few:

Imagery Credit: BUPA

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