Stress affects everybody to varying degrees, but sometimes it seems as though it's all too much and we can't cope. One thing after another seems to happen and stress can escalate. This is a horrible feeling and tends to be accompanied by troubling thoughts like "It's just me. Everybody else can cope OK." It might seem as though the stress will never let you go. However, it doesn't have to be this way. There are plenty of things you can do to combat stress, as we shall see shortly. But let's start off by identifying some of the symptoms of stress.
Symptoms of Stress
Stress affects different people in different ways. Symptoms might include sleeplessness, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, chronic fatigue and feelings of helplessness and futility. Sometimes there is a change in appetite so you might end up losing or gaining weight. It can also be accompanied by such an awareness of all you have to do that routine maintenance, even washing and grooming, gets skimped. Some people withdraw and feel isolated. Others might feel niggly and irritable. However, perhaps the worst is the negative thoughts about yourself, the world and other people. If you sometimes suffer from panic attacks I invite you to go to that page. Meantime here's some useful information about stress.
It's normal to be stressed in stressful situations. Everybody else is too.
Some stress is good. Without at least a little stress in our lives we'd stagnate. Excitement is also a form of stress.
The function of stress is to help us go into overdrive so that we can cope with the pressure. Being a little nervous before an exam, for instance, can prompt you to revise so that you're properly prepared. At this level it's helpful. If it starts to interfere with your coping skills, it's time to take action. Dealing with the effects of negative effects of stress can help you perform at maximum level. Organising external things, perhaps by planning ahead or finding support, can help you bring stress down to manageable levels.
Psychotherapy or counselling are excellent ways of learning to manage stress.
Pressure from outside means that we produce stress hormones like adrenaline. If the pressure goes on, our bodies may think that the new, higher level of stress hormones is to be your norm from now on. If your stress is uncomfortable and ongoing it's a good idea to talk things over with your doctor who can provide medication if it's appropriate. This doesn't make the pressure go away but it can help to re balance your hormones so that you feel more able to tackle the underlying issues.
It is possible to feel more than one emotion at a time. It can be helpful to realise that apart from feeling stressed, you're also feeling other emotions too, some of which may be positive.
Pressure comes from outside. It's what we do with that pressure that makes the difference. See the next section!
Stress is often made worse by the way we think. Our thought patterns aren't fixed in stone! Changing the way we think often reduces stress dramatically.
Our reactions to stress were learned. This is good news because it means we can learn different, more self-supportive, ways of handling it.
We all pick up thought distortions which can make things seem worse. Here are some of the commonest, with ways to counter them. It's amazing how liberating it can be to work through these counters and apply them! Getting things into proportion takes a lot of the pressure off. After that you'll find plenty of other suggestions to help you free yourself from the old cycle of spiraling stress.
When we're suffering from some problem it's easy to think that we'll never get over it, we'll never get what we want and that we'll always feel bad. Every time you hear yourself using words like never and always, why not look instead for evidence that you can sometimes get what you want, that you sometimes enjoy yourself and feel relaxed? Changing never and always to sometimes can make a big difference!
Crystal Ball Gazing
Because you feel bad at some point it can be tempting to think, "I'll always feel this bad." This is another form of elasticating time, and the thought that in twenty years you might still feel like this is very depressing. However, there must have been times in your life when you didn't feel this bad. The reason we have a range of feelings is that sooner or later we'll need them all. Even happiness and contentment. Just as you don't know what colour the next car you see will be, you don't know what'll happen tomorrow. Just because things may have gone wrong for you in the past, don't discount your ability to do something different from now on! Why not concentrate on imagining that you're going to do things right? You're going to talk fluently and comfortably with the person you fancy. You're going to handle difficulties at work or at home in a cool, confident manner. You're going to make new friends and build a support network. The more you see yourself doing things well in imagination, the better you'll do them!
Rather than dwelling on the negatives, why not look for positives? They count just as much! Think of all the times when you have done well, you have been welcomed and valued! Even a smile from a stranger or a chance conversation at the post office is evidence that you've been accepted and therefore you're acceptable! If you can't think of any specific occasions right now, it's fine to imagine a few! Think of all the good things you have going for you, your skills and abilities, like the ability to learn. After all, you learned to walk and talk when you were just a baby. Right now you have much more capacity than you did as an infant! Cooking, shopping, gardening and being kind are just some of the skills you may have. Why not start making a list of all your good qualities and skills right now? Which others can you add to your list? You can carry your list round with you or put copies inside your wardrobe or your drawers where you'll come across it often. It's OK to re-read your list and it can be very comforting.
When something goes wrong, don't forget that it's just one event at one point in your life. For example, dropping the sugar bowl isn't the crime of the century. It doesn't make you the worst person in the world. It means you have accidents the same as everybody else does. Once you've cleared it up, it's over. Bad things pass - unless we hold onto them and never let them go! Even ongoing situations can seem less stressful if we also look for positives.
Often when people think something negative about themselves, they take that combination of thought and feeling (for example, "I feel stupid so I must be stupid") and believe it's the truth. Do you ever catch yourself thinking negative thoughts like these? The antidote is to realise that you've done plenty of things in your life. Some of them will have been good, some not so good, but most will have been neutral, like everybody else. Just because you feel stupid, it doesn't mean that you are!
When you, as an ordinary human being, make a mistake, do you ever catch yourself thinking that everyone's looking at you and thinking bad things about you? In fact most people think far more about themselves than about anyone else. They probably haven't noticed that you've made a mistake. If they did, maybe they're feeling sympathy because they've done stuff like that too. Besides, you are much more than one action!
This is one thought distortion that we commonly apply to others as well as to ourselves. It can be particularly damaging if you're dealing with children. Say your child (or you!) drops a glass and it breaks. How easy it is to "teach the lesson" not to do that again by saying something like, "How can you be so clumsy? You're so stupid!" The child (or you!) will probably forget the incident but might carry that "stupid" label through life. Rather than labeling the person, though, it makes sense to label the action. You can say to yourself, "That was a daft thing to do but I'm smart enough to realise that and pay more attention next time."
How often do people say, "She made me feel useless"? While it's a common speech-pattern, it's not a truth. If someone calls you "useless", I invite you to think to yourself, "I'm not useless because I can do this and this and this..." If it's safe you could say it out loud to the person criticising you. If it's not safe you can keep your positive answer to yourself. You don't have to go by the opinions of unkind, unsupportive people. Why not look for positive opinions about yourself? Good things count just as much as bad ones, if not more! Other ways we blur responsibility are by taking on other people's tasks ("Oh, give us it here! I'll do it because you can't be trusted") or thinking we're responsible for the emotional and physical well being of other adults. We're not! We're each of us only responsible for ourselves and any pre-adult dependents. If you're a carer, you're still not responsible for your dependent's moods and you don't have to feel the same as they do.
Changing Should to Could
Quite often people have a kind of sound-track or running commentary of automatic self-critical thoughts. One of the commonest ways we beat ourselves up is to use words like should, could, ought to, must and have to. You might think, "I should hoover the front room tonight." The thought that whispers along behind this one is "...because if you don't you're a slattern/lazy/filthy" and so on. However, maybe tonight you have a headache, you have lots of other more urgent chores or you're just plain tired. If you change should to could, you stop beating yourself up with unrealistic moralising and start finding choices. "I could hoover the front room tonight but under the circumstances I prefer to do it on Saturday" is much less painful. Saying it this way still gets the front room hoovered and you feel more in control.
All or Nothing
Like the shoulds, all or nothing thinking can be another way to beat yourself up or stop you finding enjoyment in life. If you don't start a job until you're sure you can do it absolutely perfectly, you may never get started! Alternatively you may prolong tasks far beyond their reasonable time-span. Good enough is good enough! It's the same with focusing exclusively on one aspect of your life to fulfil you. Sometimes people get hung up on the idea that only having the perfect loving partner can make them happy, or that only being the breadwinner makes them worthwhile. Work and love are great, but there are other things in life. Community, family, friends, home, hobbies, and spiritual matters can also enrich your life. You're allowed to be just as important as anybody else because you're at the centre of your own life and you live it through your senses.
Triangle Breathing is easy, quick and effective. Inside a minute your stress levels start to drop. Just breathe in normally for a count of three, breathe out normally for a count of three, and hold your lungs empty for a count of three. Then breathe in normally for a count of three, and so on. This is taught to soldiers about to go into combat but it works for other situations too. That's because the ordinary breathing with the three seconds of holding your lungs empty tells your body, "Hey, there's no panic. We don't need any more adrenaline." Then things start to get back to normal.
There are a number of techniques you can combine so that sleepless nights are rarer and less stressful. Here are some of them:
Before you go to bed, and preferably much earlier, write down all the worries and tasks you have to do. Then put the paper by the front door where you'll see it on the way out in the morning. That way you won't feel obliged to remember all this stuff all the time!
Stop work two hours before bedtime. Do something pleasant and relaxing, even if it's just watching TV or doing the crossword for a while. You're entitled to some relaxation!
Put a couple of drops of lavender oil on a tissue by your pillow. This contains some chemicals which held you unwind and get to sleep.
Alcohol disrupts sleep if you have more than one or two glasses of wine or half-pints of beer. It's much more useful to have a cup of hot milk and honey.
Tea contains even more caffeine than coffee! Coca-cola is pretty high in caffeine too. Keep your consumption down to no more than four cups a day, and none later than about 5 hours before bedtime.
Cigarettes stimulate the production of adrenaline. If possible, quit, but in any case you could change to a lower tar brand and cut down to less than ten a day.
Don't work in bed! Let your bedroom be a place where you can relax.
Fix on a bedtime routine, perhaps setting the clock while you run yourself a warm bath, clean your teeth and then listen to some soothing music or a relaxation tape when you get into bed.
If thoughts come to trouble you, you can imagine a beautiful blue sky. As each thought appears, imagine it's a bird and it just flies across the sky from one side to the other and disappears out of sight.
If you can't sleep, tossing and turning isn't going to help because you may well beat yourself up with negative thoughts or by telling yourself, "I've got to get some sleep because I've got to get up early" or whatever. If after an hour or so you're still not asleep, why not get up, make yourself a milky drink and read a book by the fire for a bit? Avoid too strong a stimulation, like watching action videos, and don't do any work. Just let yourself have some time to unwind. When you get back to bed a little while later you'll be more relaxed and ready to sleep.
Just as you have learned how to be stressed, you can learn to relax, and just think how much nicer that will be! I wish you peace of mind.