“I’m not stressed! I’m just busy”, I say once again. I have no idea why people keep saying that I’m stressed. Yes I might be a little more on edge lately, easily irritated, feeling frustrated and maybe even a bit too blunt but I’m honestly not stressed. This was me in my late twenties. I’m not sure why I denied it at the time but I truly believed I wasn’t stressed. I thought all my problems would magically disappear in a few weeks. How wrong I was and weeks turned into months and then months into a few years and I was at a lost on how to get better and how to be that person I used to be.
In my late twenties I was extremely ambitious and career focused. A few years into my dream job and I was on my way towards my 10 year plan. Things couldn’t have been better, I felt on top of the world. One year later and it was a very different story… I was studying a MBA whilst working full-time, trying to make a long-term relationship work and juggling time for friends & family, exercise and everything else. Another 6 months forward and things progressively got worse... my study was consuming me, my relationship ended, sleep was all over the place, I felt exhausted, I could not control my persistent eczema, loss interest in work, couldn't stop my negative thoughts and started doubting myself in all aspects of life. And yes I still said to myself "I’m not stressed!".
Unfortunately my story isn’t an isolated case, in fact 35% of Australians report having a significant level of distress in their lives. It’s not surprising as we live in a society where we spend too many hours at work, have high expectations, excessive work and family demands, financial pressures, and health and wellness is often the last thing on our priority list. Three working days are lost per employee every year as a result of stress. For me this number was higher, going from no sick days in four years to taking five sick days in a year due to illness and a poor emotional state. Suffering from chronic stress had made me more prone to illnesses and resulted in me being an emotional mess.
Almost everyone feels stressed at some time in their life. When we experience poor mental health, poor morale and suffer from stress we fall into a cycle of unhealthy choices, negative thoughts and self-limiting beliefs. Constant stress, negative thinking and unhealthy habits can take a huge toll on your body, and often manifest in weight issues, skin conditions, digestive problems, fatigue, headaches, sleeping problems, high blood pressure, and can even affect self-confidence and self-esteem. This consequently impacts the workplace with reduced productivity and performance, increased errors and accidents, high staff turnover and increased absenteeism and presenteeism. A huge financial burden to a business. At it's worse, if left unchecked, stress can be fatal and can lead to a number of serious health problems such as stroke and heart disease.
I wish I could say I found an easy way out but unfortunately it was a 10 year journey of trial and error until I managed to control the stress in my life. As April is National Stress Awareness month I'd like to share what I believe are the best ways for managing stress.
When you're feeling stressed one simple thing you can do is to take a few deep, slow breaths. This can be done laying down, standing or sitting and done at any time of the day, even at work. All you have to do is focus on nothing but your breath. First, focus your attention on your breathing by placing your hand over your stomach. Take slow deep breaths, feel the air as it slowly enters in through the nose and allow your stomach to rise as you inhale and then exhale allowing your stomach to fall and feel the breath as it leaves your mouth. Focus on the sound of your breathing, the air moving in through your nose and out of your mouth, and feel your stomach rise and fall. The breathing shouldn’t be irregular, forced, or held for too long, it should feel natural, calm and relaxing. If you are focusing completely on your breathing you should notice how still, calm and quiet your mind and body are. You can do this exercise for a few minutes at any time during the day or if you’ve got 10 to 15 minutes spare then I suggest you lie down, get in a comfortable position and enjoy the calming effects deep breathing.
Caution: Although altering the breathing can be relaxing for some people, hyperventilation is also a symptom of panic disorder and is dangerous. Manipulating the breath should be treated with caution.
Progressive Relaxation Exercise
Through practicing the progressive relaxation exercise we can train our mind to recognise the first symptoms of stress (flight-or-fight response) and also how to release muscle tension on command. This ability allows us to minimise the effects of stress when it does arise and helps us to feel calmer, more in control and better equipped to deal with the situation. Because we are not experiencing a full blown stress response, our thinking remains clearer and we are better able to respond (act rather than react.) This exercise can be practiced by tensing the muscles of each body part and then completely relaxing the muscle. Start at your hands and move all the way through to your feet (include your facial muscles), tense and hold for a moment, then completely relax. To get the full benefits of this exercise practice it at least once per day for at least 5 to 10 minutes. If needed you can do the exercise with the help of a guided app (there are many free apps available).
Mindfulness is becoming recognised as an effective way to reduce stress, increase self-awareness, and improve our mental health. People often associate mindfulness with meditation, although you can practice mindfulness during meditation it doesn’t have to be the case. Mindfulness is being completely aware of the present moment in a non-judgmental way. During mindfulness we focus our attention on our thoughts, feelings, actions, and sensations in the current moment without judgement, not thinking of the past or the future just experiencing the right now. Mindfulness can be practiced at almost anything you do. You can practice it formally through meditation or informally through daily activities, such as during your shower or while eating.
While these techniques work for most, remember everyone is different, if you find these techniques are ineffective for yourself there are many other options for managing stress. From exercise to personal organisation to simply reading a book. Find something that makes you feel calm and relaxed. Make stress management a priority in your life and if you feel overwhelmed and are not coping with the stress in your life then seek help from a medical professional.