Suffolk therapist’s top 4 tips for coping with stress
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Birgitte Wendon-Blixrud, senior therapist at Suffolk Wellbeing Service, explains how stress affects the body and how we can learn to manage it.
With National Stress Awareness Day fast approaching on Wednesday November 4, it’s important that we all take a step back and learn to cope with any stresses that we may be suffering from.
But in order to handle stress, we must first understand what exactly it is and where it comes from.
“There are many different definitions of stress, but the one I like to use is that it is a response to a threat,” explains Birgitte.
“This doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical threat - it could be an emotional, social or financial threat.” Often, stress is brought on by trying to juggle a lot at once, overthinking, or feeling that you’re losing control over a certain situation.
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Stress can manifest itself in a number of ways, and there are a range of symptoms that people experience whenever they’re feeling stressed. “These can include heart palpitations, sleep difficulties, feeling very hot, and rapid breathing.”
The NHS lists a number of additional symptoms that are also common, including headaches, dizziness, stomach problems, difficulty concentrating, and muscle tension or pain.
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“We can often find ourselves in a cycle where our coping responses actually perpetuate our stresses.”
So what exactly happens inside the body when a person is stressed?
“When the mind perceives a threat, the body releases adrenaline and cortisol – these chemicals prepare the body for the threat that it is expecting. What someone perceives as a threat though is very subjective, as what may be a trigger to one person may not be to another.” For instance, the thought of missing a train or a bus may stress one person out greatly, but not bother someone else.
The body releasing adrenaline and cortisol is an ancient response we’ve always had, and dates back to our primitive days. “In today’s modern society, our threats are very different to the ones we had when we lived in caves – but the brain hasn’t quite caught up yet with the more modern threats we face, so we still expect that we might need to run away, fight the threat or sometimes freeze.”
Stress in small amounts however is a completely normal human reaction – and it’s only when it develops into a regular occurrence that it starts to become a problem.
“Everyone will experience stress on a regular basis - you just might not notice it. You may not necessarily realise your heart is beating quickly, or that your breathing has sped up, but you might notice you become a little bit more tense.
“It’s all very individual, but you may start to notice those feelings and symptoms affecting your day-to-day function. If you’re worried throughout most of the day about different things, and the amount of headspace it’s taking up, that’s going to affect both your function and wellbeing.”
Letting stress manifest and build up over a continued period of time can eventually lead to long-term health problems, both mentally and physically. Research has shown that stress can contribute to a number of issues later down the line such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety and depression.
“Your body can cope with short-term stress just fine, but it’s when that cortisol and adrenaline becomes an ‘on’ button for a long period of time that you will see problems start to develop. It eventually has a long-term effect on the body and the brain, and that’s something we’ve seen with people who have grown up with chronic stress – they struggle to switch that threat response off.”
Birgitte has also noticed an increase in the number of people being referred to her service with stress and stress-related illnesses, due in part to ongoing pandemic.
“The wellbeing service works with people who have mild to moderate anxiety and depression, and we have certainly seen people who have been affected by the coronavirus - we’ve also seen many who have come out of critical care units with traumatic experiences.”
Whether your stress is Covid related or not, Birgette has a number of tips that can help you try to cope before things get too much.
“Staying active is very good for our wellbeing – whether that’s going for a run, or a walk, or whatever activity it is that you enjoy. There’s no doubt that keeping active and staying in a routine is very positive for us. Secondly, it’s also important to stay connected with others. It’s been a challenge to do so during the pandemic, but finding alternative ways of keeping in touch with those close to you is very important and can prove extremely positive.
“Thirdly, we have to be kind to ourselves. I think this is something we dismiss fairly regularly, and we’re often very kind to others, but we sometimes don’t apply those same rules to ourselves. We can be very self-critical, and I think it’s important people realise all emotional responses to what’s going on right now are very normal. It’s not helpful to have a go at yourself for feeling a certain way, as this isn’t a normal situation for us to be in.
“Finally, I’d also suggest practising mindfulness. It can be a very helpful tool for our wellbeing, and there’s a number of ways we can all use it to help us stay present in the moment, which is something we need more than ever right now.” The NHS recommends a handful of practices that can be used to help when coping with stress – some of these include yoga, tai-chi and meditation.
“However, if you believe that you’re suffering from stress, anxiety or depression at a mild to moderate level, you can always self-refer yourself via the Suffolk Wellbeing Service, or visit your GP to have a professional referral made.”
To find out more about stress, visit www.wellbeingnands.co.uk or call 0300 123 1503.