Stress solutions – how to cope with stress
We recently spoke to a lady in her thirties who has lived with stress on and off for many years and wants to help others by sharing the four best methods she has found for successfully managing stress.
Stress is a BIG problem in the UK. According to the Mental Health Foundation (2018), 74% of people surveyed had experienced stress or the feeling of being unable to cope, and 32% of adults had even experienced suicidal feelings as a result of stress. People may live with stress for short periods, or for many years, and some will never even realise they are stressed. Experts understand that stress can wreak havoc on the body, affecting mental and physical health. Stress can lead to anxiety and depression, and has links to the development of irritable bowel syndrome, angina, obesity, fertility problems, hormonal imbalance and may put a person at higher risk of diabetes, stroke and heart attacks.
So, what can we do about stress? There are a huge array of resources and stress support services available, including psychological therapies, self-help, holistic treatments and ancient practices. In this article, we explore one woman’s efforts to relieve stress, and find out more about her experiences of some of these stress treatments.
What does stress feel like?
I have always had stress and anxiety I think, even as a child, but it has definitely worsened with age, as I’ve experienced the responsibilities and pressures that come with adulthood. Over the years, I’ve had periods of stress that have come and gone, and sometimes I cope better than others.
Once I realised I had stress and anxiety, I started my quest to learn as much as I could about why these episodes occur and how I could reduce my stress. This is an ongoing journey, and sometimes I forget I have this propensity for stress which leads me to gradually stop doing the things that help me, or let my thoughts take over.
For me, stress symptoms cause me to become moody and irritable. I feel as though I’m stuck in my own head because my thoughts whizz around and I forget to live in the moment. I worry over things that don’t really matter and I find it hard to prioritise things. I feel pressure that I have so many things to do and often can’t see that half of these don’t immediately matter. I suppose I feel as though I am failing because I can’t do everything I want to do, or think I have to do. I am a perfectionist and when things go wrong, I find it hard to dust myself off and carry on, which causes me to feel as though I can’t cope.
I had a major life event about 18 months ago, and this was extremely stressful and emotional. It definitely caused my stress kick in, and I have been living with the aftermath of stress ever since. Even though I know I am likely to have stress, it was only when the stress and anxiety became so chronic that I realised they were affecting me physically. Stress hormones change how the body functions and I have had lots of physical symptoms as a result.
Stress and anxiety affect everything I do. They affect my family life and make my relationships difficult, they make me want to avoid social situations, they make me tired and have little energy and they make me very critical of myself and others.
What helps beat stress?
I’ve tried all sorts of things over the years to help lower my stress levels but these are my go-to solutions that I try to keep up and do regularly in order to deal with stress more effectively.
I first came across mindfulness about 5 years ago when I found a local 8-week mindfulness course run by a Buddhist called Suryacitta. I learnt that mindfulness is actually an ancient Buddhist tradition of meditating and living in the present moment, rather than living ‘in our head’. Mindfulness has become ever more popular in modern society, due to our increasing awareness of mental health problems, and many people live with a feeling of disconnection from reality. Research has proven that a regular mindfulness practice actually alters the way the brain works for the better, increasing focus and decreasing the ‘stress’ responses of the brain.
Suryacitta taught me how to meditate, which generally involves sitting still and being ‘in the moment’. Meditation means allowing the mind to wander, then bringing the mind back to a focal point, commonly the breath. We would sit in his Kuti (meditation hut) and concentrate on our breathing for say 15 minutes at a time. Sounds easy, but let me tell you, it isn’t! It can be very frustrating when you first start to meditate.
The idea is that by gently drawing the mind back to the breath, we are training the brain to concentrate, rather than jump from thought to thought, worry to worry, leaving us with that ‘busy mind’ feeling. There are lots of other techniques to use as well, such as noticing and labelling our thoughts when they pop into the mind e.g. ‘this is worrying’, ‘this is future thinking’, or doing a ‘body scan’ which involves focusing on the sensations of each body part as you sit still.
I learnt that I don’t have to listen to what’s in my head all the time because, honestly, when you start meditating, you realise what a load of rubbish goes on up there! I also learnt that mindfulness can be used in everyday life quite easily. When I feel myself getting lost in thought, I try to notice this and be in the present. I may focus on my breathing or the sensation of sitting at my desk.
Practicing mindfulness for 15 minutes a day does help me, but sometimes I fall out of the habit. I really recommend anyone experiencing stress to look into mindfulness because it’s so accessible now. There are tons of books, apps, online courses and face-to-face mindfulness sessions to try.
Exercise is really important to help beat stress and improve mood and I think most people notice how good they feel after a nice walk or a gym session, even if they don’t really fancy doing it in the first place. I do lots of different exercise to help with my stress, but my favourite is yoga. I’ve practiced yoga for many years and it’s a passion of mine.
Yoga has so many benefits to the physical body; it gets blood flowing, boosts immunity, keeps bones supple, and helps get rid of aches and pains. It’s brilliant for the mind as well because in yoga we learn to use and control our breathing which actually affects our emotions. Focussing on breathing helps us to concentrate on the practice of yoga and the present moment rather than what is going on in our heads.
Controlled breathing also helps calm the body physically, and yoga helps reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which helps us feel less stressed. It definitely works for me and I try to practice at home daily, and go to a regular class as well.
3. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)
CBT is really accessible now. It’s offered on the NHS in most areas of the country and there are lots of books, apps and online courses if you want to try and help yourself. CBT is based on the theory that mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression occur due to faulty thought patterns and that a person is able to change the way they think about situations, people and the world, which will help reduce their negative thinking and its impact. It sounds more complicated than it is. CBT can be quite challenging but it is also amazing to realise that the way you think about things can be changed for the better.
I’ve enjoyed a couple of courses of CBT over the years and I still use some of the techniques I’ve been taught, such as keeping a positivity diary, recording my thoughts about a certain situation (and looking at why they might not be ‘true’), and recording all the things I do to look after myself in a BACE (Body – Achievement – Connection – Enjoyment) diary.
4. Self-care and lifestyle
I try to look after myself as much as possible and do things for myself. It can be hard, especially as a parent, to find time for yourself, but I’ve learned that this is really important and not something to feel guilty about. I make time to exercise, eat healthily, take relaxing baths, read, watch trashy TV, and connect with people as much as I feel able to. When you feel stressed or anxious, it’s common to lose the will to do this kind of thing, which makes us feel worse in the long run.
I used to eat junk food or eat on the run because cooking a healthy meal was yet another thing on the to-do list. I now know that eating right is so important and I have realised over the years that eating too much sugar and bingeing on takeaways makes me feel worse. I’ve overhauled my diet to get as many vitamins and minerals as I can, and I do feel much better for it. I have also given up alcohol because it affects how I feel the next day too much.
I try to get 8 hours sleep a night and take a rest when I need to. Stress is exhausting as the body is working overtime and on high alert, which causes tiredness and fatigue. I am learning to relax as much as I can, and I’ve even tried going to a Gong Bath! This is an ancient practice of meditation where you lie in a room with a blanket and listen to someone playing a large gong and other instruments. It’s really relaxing and feels very therapeutic.
Do these stress-busters work for everyone?
There are of course, lots of reasons why people become stressed and some of these are major problems such as financial difficulties, losing a job, or a loved one being ill. If you’re one of these people you may well be thinking, ‘how are these things going to help me?” and I completely understand that. Everyone has to find what works for them, and I think even just trying to find ways to cope with stress can be rewarding. It’s hard to feel as though you don’t know what to do to help yourself. There are lots of services out there too, so if you have a problem that is causing you stress, I would say try to find out who can help you and consider ways to look after yourself whilst you are going through a difficult time. It really does help.
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