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1:00 AM 2nd November 2023
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Tips On Managing Stress & Anxiety: National Stress Awareness Day 2nd November 2023

 
Image by 1388843 from Pixabay
Image by 1388843 from Pixabay
When long-term stress becomes overwhelming, it can create mental, emotional, and physical health problems such as anxiety and depression, substance use issues, sleep problems, pain, and bodily complaints such as muscle tension.

Here mental health expert Noel McDermott looks at the impact of stress on the human body and how to manage anxiety better this National Stress Awareness Day.

UK Stress Statistics

74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope
One in 14 UK adults (7%) feel stressed every single day
1 in 5 people in the UK feel stressed more days a month than they don’t
51% of adults who felt stressed reported feeling depressed and 61% reported feeling anxious


Psychotherapist Noel comments:
“Stress is a normal physical reaction to the need to take action and relaxation is it’s opposite when we need to recover from taking action. These two balance each other out and both are needed. It can be understood through polyvagal theory. In this we have two nervous system responses - the sympathetic (activated) and parasympathetic (relaxed). Too much stress (activation) or stress that is around for too long can lead to overwhelm. Stress is also usefully understood as the release of two types of hormones into the body to stimulate us to take action: adrenaline and cortisol. Both these are part of what we understand to be fight-flight-freeze responses to threat. Again, too much of them (either because of a sudden life-threatening emergency, or because we are under pressure for too long) leads us from helpful action to unhelpful reaction and or shutdown."


Too much stress and in particular cortisol have long been known to precipitate even severe psychiatric disorders such as psychosis, and management of stress is a key part of treatment of long-term conditions such as these. Studies of identical twins show that stress management is the dividing line between one developing mental illness and the other not. Stress is also linked to biological illness as stress responses include inflammation and degradation of the immune system. Inflammation is a major precipitator of biological illness. Stress also manifests in physical symptoms including muscle problems, stomach issues, rashes, and skin conditions in general. It also affects sleep and appetite and diet.

Gender issues in stress

There are gender issues in stress also both in terms of what causes the stress and how it is manifests and is or is not managed. Stress in women shows in the presentation of more common mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression and men in the more severe mental illnesses and suicidal ideation and deaths. Also, men will often act out with stress through alcohol or substance misuse and in anger or aggression. Women tend to express psychological distress in more help seeking ways rather than in isolated and anti-social ways.

The impact of stress on the human body

Stress initially triggers a chemical reaction in us that’s known as the fight & flight response. In preparation to deal with these stressors the nervous system releases hormones (including cortisol), this can set off a number of physical reactions such as:

increased heart rate
alterations in one’s breathing.
tightening of the muscles
dry mouth
hot/cold sweaty hands & feet

What works to manage and reduce stress responses? There are a significant and always growing range of tools and resources available to manage stress responses and utilise better coping mechanisms. The emergent, evidence based, field of lifestyle medicine is clear about the 4 pillars of health and wellbeing in humans.1 - Diet, 2 - Sleep, 3 - Exercise and 4 - Stress management.

Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash
Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash
How to manage stress better: Do’s and Don’ts

Do’s:

recognise the signs and take action, some of the responses we have to too much stress are disastrously permanent such as taking one’s own life.
talk to your friends, family, and boss/colleagues about feeling stressed (sharing with another human who cares about us produces reward hormones which are the opposite of stress hormones).
socialise more not less, as your body will reward this, and reward hormones help manage stress hormones.
learn psychological coping tips from CBT such as balanced thinking, behavioural activation (managing depression) and exposure work (managing anxiety) and relaxation techniques.
focus on good nutrition in terms of regularity of meals, managed quantity, and good balance of nutrition through variety (try to maintain a 10% meat to 90% plant ratio) and maintain good hydration.
exercise regularly and if possible, do this outside and or in groups such as yoga classes. If you have too much cortisol do fight or flight exercise (sprinting, HIT, kick boxing etc)
learn mindful meditation (this reverses the epigenetic damage to the telomeres)
DOSE yourself up
understand the signs of stress; sleep disturbance, alcohol or drug use, changes in mood, arguing all the time, feeling depressed or feeling anxious and on edge, 'trigger happy’ around specific issues or life circumstances, immobilised and overwhelmed, having lots of small illnesses due to compromised immune functioning, avoiding our friends or work etc.
know your stressors (which is easy as they are pretty much the same for most people) money, relationships, work/school, big life changes (becoming a parent for example), loneliness and isolation and work to manage the negative impact of them.
improve sleep hygiene.
exercise and especially if you have too much cortisol do fight or flight exercise (sprinting, HIT, kick boxing etc)
learn mindful meditation (this reverses the epigenetic damage to the telomeres)
learn self-compassion.

Don'ts

drink on it or uses drugs to manage it (in fact become abstinent the minute you see your own stress responses).
isolate yourself and avoid people and social situations.
overeat or diet to manage it.
use shopping therapy or any form of consumerism to manage the stress (poverty is a big reason for stress reactions).
gamble



Mental health expert Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist and dramatherapist with over 30 years’ work within the health, social care, education, and criminal justice fields. His company Mental Health Works provides unique mental health services for the public and other organisations. Mental Health Works offers in situ health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised teams to meet your needs –www.noelmcdermott.net.