Stress is not a mental health condition, it is ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’ (UK Health and Safety Executive – HSE). For example, we may feel stressed because of a heavy workload or an unhealthy atmosphere at work. Most people feel stress sometimes which is OK, and stress can sometimes support us by releasing cortisol which can help boost our energy levels or give us extra focus. However, when you are feeling stress regularly (chronic stress), that is when problems can arise, both physically and mentally.
- Chronic stress has a direct impact on the cardiovascular, nervous, and immune systems
- When stress becomes chronic it starts to change the brain – its size, structure, and how it functions.
- Too much cortisol causes the brain to shrink in size, impacting concentration, decision-making, judgment, social interaction, learning, memory, and our ability to control stress.
- The longer we leave talking about stress, the more likely we are to experience mental health issues as a result.
How many times have you said ‘I’m stressed’ or ‘my job is stressful’ but that’s as far as the conversation has gone? When feeling stress, it is sometimes hard to recognise it as a problem. Here are some signs of chronic stress which might help you to recognise what you are going through and get the support you need to move forward.
Signs of chronic stress…
- You’ve been feeling ‘stressed’ for a while.
- Whenever someone asks you about your work, you reply with ‘it’s stressful’.
- You feel that stress is part of your work and it’s ‘the nature of the beast’.
- You play down your feelings of stress.
- You put a mask on, pretending you’re OK every day to get through the work day.
- Stress has started to turn into mental health issues such as panic attacks, anxiety or depression.
- You feel trapped at work.
- You feel nausea, chest pains, changes in eating, rapid heartbeat, frequent headaches.
- You are having trouble sleeping, struggling to concentrate.
- You feel irritable, easily upset and persistent worry.
- You struggle to switch off from work at home, during conversations with loved ones you may not feel fully present.
What causes stress?
Once we are aware of where our stress is coming from, we can start to talk about it. It can help to look clearly into the parts of our lives that could cause us any stress. We know that we may feel stress from different areas of our lives, and those feelings may impact other areas of our lives too.
Identify where your stress is coming from:
- Relationships – family, friends, partner
- Mental health – low wellbeing can lead to stress
- New and unexpected – Something that causes stress and you have little control over
- Financial struggles – debt, money worries, unexpected bills, loss of a job
- Change – change at work, house moves, marriage, children, going on holiday• Negative life events – bereavement, divorce/separation, abuse, trauma, bullying
- Work – pressure, deadlines, workload, manager, atmosphere, culture
What outlets do you have for your stress?
Stress needs an outlet because there is only so much stress we can tolerate before we become overwhelmed. Let’s take this time to reflect on our outlets for stress and see whether they are healthy or unhealthy. Healthy outlets will help us to cope better with stress and build our resilience. Unhealthy outlets will maintain stress and cause mental health to decline.
• Are they healthy outlets? For example, getting fresh air, exercise, knowing your limits at work, talking about it
• Are they unhealthy outlets? For example, excessive drinking, overworking, not talking about it, over-eating, avoidance
Unhealthy coping strategies will add to the feelings of stress, even though for the short term they may mask those feelings. Looking at ways to support ourselves better can help reduce stress. We call this Self-Care. Self-Care doesn’t mean spending lots of money on yourself or sitting in a field meditating. It means taking the time to look after your own mental health and wellbeing. For example, make time to do things we enjoy, talk to ourselves in a more positive way, take regular breaks at work, eat and drink regularly, talk to someone we trust at work when we aren’t feeling ourselves.
Talking out about how we are really feeling to others, creates an opportunity for others to support us. When we are feeling intense feelings of stress, it’s hard to manage those feelings by ourselves. Talking to someone else will help us feel listened to and understood. We often think that talking won’t change the situation, and it may not do, but it can support us to process our emotions which will then make us feel better. Depending on what areas of our life we’ve identified the stress, will dete rmine who we talk to on changing the situation. For example, if the stress is surrounding unrealistic deadlines at work, then we can talk to our manager about the way this is making us feel, this will support our mental health better.
To summarise, when we feel stress regularly it can become chronic stress which causes both mental and physical health issues. Stress isn’t easy to identify within ourselves and we might not take it seriously enough. Let’s take time to think about our signs of stress and if we are currently feeling overwhelmed by stress then talk to someone about how we are feeling. It can also help to identify what part of our life is causing the stress, to then make the steps to talk those feelings through. We may notice that our outlets for the stress are unhealthy so we could look at changing those. Remember, the greatest tool we have is to be able to talk about how we feel.
Want to learn more about managing issues such as stress, depression, anixiety, panic and burnout? Check out more our Mental Health Awareness Training Courses