If you’ve ever played Dark Souls, you’ve likely experienced what stress is. Stress causes physical changes in the body designed to help you take on threats or difficulties. You might notice that your heart pounds, your breathing quickens, your muscles tense, and you start to sweat – This is known as the fight or flight response. Once the threat or difficulty passes, these physical effects usually fade. But if you’re constantly stressed, your body stays in a state of high alert and you could develop stress-related symptoms.
What is stress?
Stress is something that’s difficult to define or measure. Some people thrive on a busy lifestyle and are able to cope well with daily stresses. However, some people find that even a tiny change from their normal routine can cause stress. Most people fall somewhere in between but may experience periods where levels of stress increase.
Stress can also be acute – a single major event such as a bereavement, feeling unwell or an argument. But it can also be due to longer-term causes, such as heavy workload or conflict with people you encounter regularly. Many minor sources of stress or tension, which you could manage perfectly well if there was no other stress in your life, can build up to make you feel overwhelmed.
Telltale signs of stress building up include:
- Not being able to sleep properly with worries going through your mind.
- Minor problems causing you to feel impatient or irritable.
- Not being able to concentrate due to many things going through your mind.
- Being unable to make decisions.
- Drinking or smoking more.
- Not enjoying food so much.
- Being unable to relax and always feeling that something needs to be done.
- Feeling tense. Sometimes ‘fight or flight’ hormones are released causing physical symptoms. These include:
- Feeling sick (nauseated).
- A ‘knot’ in the stomach.
- Feeling sweaty with a dry mouth.
- A ‘thumping’ heart (palpitations).
- Headaches and muscle tension in the neck and shoulders.
What is an acute stress reaction?
An acute stress reaction occurs when symptoms develop due to a particularly stressful event. The word ‘acute’ means the symptoms develop quickly but do not usually last long. The events are usually very severe and an acute stress reaction typically occurs after an unexpected life crisis. This might be, for example, a serious accident, sudden bereavement, or other traumatic events.
How can I avoid stress?
There are many ways to combat stress, some suggestions are:
You can try making a stress list. Try keeping a diary over a few weeks and list the times, places and people that aggravate your stress levels. You might find that a pattern emerges. Is it always the traffic on the way to work that sets things off to a bad start for the day? Perhaps it’s the supermarket check-out, next door’s dog, a work colleague, or something similar that may occur regularly and cause you stress.
Once you have identified any typical or regular causes of stress, two things may then help:
- If you discuss this with a close friend or family member, it may help them and you to be aware of the reasons why you are feeling stressed. Simply talking it through may help.
- These situations can be used as cues to relax. You can use simple relaxation techniques (see below) when a stressful situation occurs or is anticipated. For example, try doing neck stretching exercises when you are in that traffic jam rather than getting tense and stressed.
Simple relaxation techniques
- Deep breathing. This means taking a long, slow breath in and very slowly breathing out. If you do this a few times and concentrate fully on breathing, you may find it quite relaxing. Some people find that moving from chest breathing to tummy (abdominal) breathing can be helpful. Sitting quietly, try putting one hand on your chest and the other on your tummy. You should aim to breathe quietly by moving your tummy, with your chest moving very little. This encourages the diaphragm to work efficiently and may help you avoid over-breathing.
- Muscular tensing and stretching. Try twisting your neck around each way as far as it is comfortable and then relax. Try fully tensing your shoulder and back muscles for several seconds and then relax completely.
Try practising these simple techniques when you are relaxed; then use them routinely when you come across any stressful situation.
Set specific times aside to relax positively. Don’t just let relaxation happen, or not happen, at the mercy of work, family, etc. Plan it and look forward to it. Different people prefer different things. A long bath, a quiet stroll, sitting and just playing your favourite game, etc. These times are not wasteful and you should not feel guilty about not ‘getting on with things’. They can be times of reflection and putting life back in perspective.
Try to allow several times a day to ‘stop’ and take some time out. For example, getting up 15-20 minutes earlier than you need to is a good start. You can use this time to think about and plan the coming day and to prepare for the day’s events unrushed. Take a regular and proper lunch break, preferably away from work. Don’t work over lunch. If work is busy, if possible try to take 5-10 minutes away every few hours to relax.
Many people feel that regular exercise reduces their level of stress. (It also keeps you fit and helps to prevent heart disease.) Any exercise is good but try to plan at least 30 minutes of exercise on at least five days a week. A brisk walk on most days is a good start if you are not used to exercise. In addition, if you have difficulty in sleeping this may improve if you exercise regularly.
Smoking and alcohol
Smoking and drinking might be tempting to help deal with stress, but in the long run, they can actually make it much worse. Drinking alcohol to ‘calm nerves’ may lead to problem drinking.
Many people find that a hobby which has no deadlines and no pressures and which can be picked up or left easily, takes the mind off stresses. Such hobbies include, for example: sports, music, model-making, puzzles and of course, gaming.
Some people find they have times in their lives when stress or anxiety becomes extreme or difficult to cope with. See a doctor if stress or anxiety becomes worse. Further treatments such as anxiety management counselling – for example, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – or medication might be appropriate.