health

When stress can be helpful, and 7 ways to cope when it's not

Image: Author (supplied)

I used to thrive on stress – I was proud of how busy my life was, how much responsibility I had, and how much I achieved at work. I took on more and more, never saying no, and worked long hours throughout the week and weekends. Running down the corridor to the toilet was evidence of how little time I had for personal things.

The fight or flight response gives us a burst of adrenalin to cope with difficult situations, and can be positive in the short term. But long term exposure to stress can act to undermine our physical and psychological wellbeing.

I thought that difficulties sleeping, constant feeling of hyperactivity and irritability, were normal. They weren’t. They were a sign of stress. And eventually I had to take stock, listen to my body, and make major changes in my life.

Here are 7 simple steps anyone can follow to do this.

1. Recognise the first signs of feeling stressed and identify triggers

Identifying the first signs of stress – such as feeling tense, headaches, tiredness, or irritability – as well as the triggers that set you off, can help you to put coping strategies in motion early. Keep a record of times you felt stressed, and what was happening at the time. Was it work, your partner, children, or prompted by worries? Or is it always at that time of the month that everything can feel overwhelming?

2. Change the situation that is causing stress

Sometimes this is easy, sometimes impossible. You might be able to reduce your responsibilities at work, but you can’t avoid your children. Getting some extra support, or telling a friend or family member that you feel you aren’t coping may relieve the burden. Try to avoid major life changes, such as buying a house, if you feel stressed. Going on holiday is always a good solution. Try taking a day off from your normal life if you can’t afford a long break.

3. Look after your body: exercise, healthy eating and sleep

One of the most effective means of reducing tension, relaxing the mind and body, and reducing anxiety and depression, is exercise. Endorphins give your body a pleasure hit. Movement distracts you from negative thoughts. And overall feelings of wellbeing following regular exercise make you feel better about yourself. Maintaining a healthy diet helps us cope with stress, and avoid spikes in blood sugar that can lead to feelings of anxiety. Getting enough sleep helps us cope through the day. 7-8 hours is ideal.

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4. Learn how to relax

Relaxation is a skill – for most people it doesn’t happen without practice. Deep breathing, muscle relaxation exercises, yoga, meditation and Tai Chi are techniques which can relax the body and reduce stress. Or spend time doing something you enjoy – and watch the tension ease away.

5. Do things you enjoy

In a busy life, we often have little time for things we enjoy. Women with young children are hardest hit, often having no time for themselves. Make a list of the things you like to do – or the things you used to like, when you had more time. Do at least one thing a day for yourself – even if it only lasts 5 minutes. Try to build up to at least 30 minutes a day. Read something for pleasure; lie in the bath; go to the movies; go for a meal out; join that club – whatever you enjoy.

6. Socialise more and get support

Spend time with people who make you feel good. Have fun and laugh. Invite a neighbour for a cup of tea. Talk about your feelings and ask for support if you need it. Try to resolve personal difficulties with others, or if possible, avoid people who trigger your stress. If relationship issues are your trigger, try to talk about difficulties at the time, rather than letting frustrations build up. Get support from a counsellor if you find it hard to talk about problems.

7. Don’t judge yourself

Making harsh self-judgements about how you should be coping, how you should feel, or how you should be succeeding in work, family life, or relationships can be the biggest cause of stress. Don’t try to be superwoman – the perfect partner, mother, or work colleague. It’s OK to have an off day – or an off month. Some people have an off year. It’s OK to need support. Make a list of all the positive things about yourself and your life. When you feel down, don’t focus on the negative things, read your positive list.

How do you deal with stress?

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