TRIGGER WARNING - STRESS
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) 2018 in the UK, with a focus on stress. Considering that arguably the largest and most popular trend in stress management at the moment is mindfulness, it seemed more than appropriate to dedicate this blog post to stress awareness. Therefore, in honour of MHAW 2018, I will write two blog posts on mental health awareness, the first of which will discuss stress and how mindfulness can help us cope with the stresses of daily life and beyond.
We have all experienced stress at some (or many) points in our lives. Stress can be broadly defined as the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable. However, stress is not a single static phenomenon and different individuals experience it differently. Additionally, the causes of stress are unique to each individual and the severity of stress lies on a continuum between daily stress that we all face now and again and severe stress that causes an impairment in our everyday functioning, as well as our mental and/ or physical health and wellbeing.
Even at the lower end of this continuum, individuals who are stressed may experience physical (e.g., increased heart rate, sweating, stomach cramps, head aches, sleep problems, etc.), emotional (e.g., anxiety, worrying, difficulty concentrating, feeling overwhelmed, etc.) and behavioural (e.g., reacting irritably to people, avoidance, withdrawal, drinking or smoking, etc.) symptoms. At the upper end of the continuum, individuals who suffer from stress may experience anxiety, depression, or even withdrawal from daily demands and responsibilities.
When we encounter stress, our body produces stress hormones, triggering the “fight or flight” response (also known as the “fight, flight or freeze” response). This response is not only natural, but it is often appropriate, allowing us to get through the situation and tackle each problem as it appears. Once the problem has been dealt with, we then return to a neutral bodily state, with no lasting negative health consequences.
Sometimes, however, stress becomes excessive, frequent, or long-lasting, causing wear and tear to the body. Additionally, when we are permanently faced with stress, we may not return to a neutral bodily state and continue to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. Chronic stress can therefore have a negative impact on both our physical and mental health.
So how can we deal with stress when it occurs? And what can we do to prevent it from becoming a chronic concern?
Lessons from mindfulness
This blog post will focus specifically on how mindfulness can help you deal with stress. However, it is important to remember that there are many different ways to cope with stress and that you can seek help if you experience undue stress that gets in the way of your daily functioning. You can seek help through the NHS, Mind.org, or the Mental Health Foundation, among others.
- Awareness. Mindfulness and meditation practice can help us not only become aware of the situations and triggers that cause us stress (so that they can be avoided or minimised), but it can also make us more aware of our thoughts in response to these stressors. Once we become aware of our thoughts, we can separate ourselves from them, and not take them as a truthful account of the situation that we are in.
- Non-reactivity. Mindfulness teaches us non-reactivity, or the ability to step back from the situation and pause for a moment before responding. In this way, we can assess the situation and respond in the most appropriate manner, as well as become aware of our emotional and physical reactions to the problem, so that they do not overwhelm us.
- Acceptance. Mindfulness also helps us accept situations and thoughts as they arise, rather than fight against them, as some stress may be inevitable. We cannot (always) stop things from going wrong, but we can control our reaction to them when they do. Additionally, by practicing acceptance, compassion, and kindness towards ourselves and others, we can cope with a stressful situation in a way that does not harm ourselves or the people around us.
- Focus. Mindfulness meditation increases our focus and concentration, allowing us to give priority to one task at a time and thus reduce multitasking, which may contribute to our stress in the first place.
- Relaxation. Finally, mindfulness meditation can have a relaxing effect on our mind and body, helping us to reduce not only the physical symptoms of stress, but the emotional and behavioural side-effects as well.
Do try this at home
- When you feel stressed, take a few moments to bring your mind back to the present moment by focusing on your breathing.
- Sit in a short formal meditation and become aware of the thoughts that are currently going through your mind, without getting caught up or involved in them.
- Physically remove yourself from the stressful situation and get some fresh air, so that you can reassess the situation and respond in an appropriate way.
- Take a walk or do some gentle mindful movement to reduce the physical sensations of stress in your body.
- Talk to somebody about how you feel, and as you articulate the thoughts in your mind, try to let go of the hold they have over your emotions.
- Write down what needs to be done and remove distractions as you tackle one thing at a time.
- Make sure you get enough sleep, nourish your body, and do exercise that makes you happy, to ensure that you are mentally and physically more able to cope with stressors as they arise.
- Listen to your body and take a longer break or some time away if you need it.
- Most importantly, accept what you cannot change, and be kind and compassionate to yourself and others.
- Remember that mental health always comes first.