In our hectic modern lives, we often put a huge amount of pressure on ourselves and take little time to rest. Every day we are faced with problems ranging from work or financial woes to relationship worries, so it’s no wonder many of us would describe ourselves as stressed.
But what does it really mean to be stressed? And what is going on inside our bodies when we are under this kind of pressure? Read on to find out…
What is Stress?
Stress is a physiological reaction to a high pressure situation. It stems from our hunter-gatherer ancestors who would frequently be faced with life or death situations such as encountering wild animals or other, hostile tribes.
In these situations, the human body switches into “fight or flight” mode. The adrenal glands begin to produce two hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Together these work to increase metal alertness and prepare our bodies for action.
Our heart rates increase, allowing more blood to be pumped to the muscles. Blood sugar levels rise, providing an extra supply of energy. Other functions such as digestion, reproduction and immunity are put on hold while we deal with the threat.
This fight or flight reaction would have been life-saving for our ancestors, allowing them to make split second decisions in the face of danger. Should they stand and fight that bear, or run away?
These days, we deal with a different kind of stress, but our bodies still react in exactly the same way. Under normal circumstances, this doesn’t cause a problem. Once the stressor has been removed, our bodies should quickly return to a state of calm. However, when we face more constant stresses, such as a never-ending project or an unreasonable colleague, real issues can start to occur.
Symptoms of Stress
Having constantly raised levels of adrenaline and cortisol in your system can cause what is known as chronic stress. This may lead to symptoms such as:
These classic symptoms of stress are a sign that you need to stop and take a break. And while you may not be able to throw a spear at your boss, there are plenty of other things you can do to help.
A Change is as Good as a Rest
When you’re snowed under at work, it can be tempting to skip lunch and stay at your desk. However, giving yourself a short break and a change of scene can help to reset your brain and actually improve your productivity. If you can, use your lunch hour to go outside for some fresh air, and at the very least get up and stretch your legs. You may be surprised by how much difference this small act makes.
Be More Active
Exercise is one of the best ways to keep stress at bay. Some people prefer to blow off steam with high impact sports such as running or squash. Others prefer calming practices such as yoga or tai chi. Whatever you choose to do, the most important thing is that you pick something that you enjoy and do it regularly. Aim for at least 30 minutes, five times a week for the best results.
Eat a Balanced Diet
When you’re stressed, it can be all too easy to slip into bad eating habits, but this will only make you feel worse in the long run. Eat three meals a day to keep your energy levels constant, and choose foods which can aid your mental function such as oily fish, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Avoid sugary snacks as these will give you a sudden burst of energy, followed by a slump, tempting you to eat more.
Try a Relaxation Technique
Many people find relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises or meditation helpful. These techniques can feel strange and unnatural at first, but the more you practise them, the easier and more useful they become. Experiment with different techniques to find the one that suits you best.
Talk to Someone
Talking to someone you trust is a good way to process your thoughts and get emotional support. Even if they are unable to help directly, talking to someone can often help you to get things in perspective. If you are suffering from long-term stress or finding it hard to cope, consider asking a healthcare professional for help and support.
Take Time for Yourself
Finally, make time to do something you enjoy every day, even if only for half an hour. Read a book, take a bath or book a massage – whatever works for you. Never feel guilty about taking time to look after yourself, it’s just as important as any other aspect of your life.