You’re facing a tight deadline or a high workload at work, you’ve got a big game coming up and it’s playing on your mind, you’re having some problems in your relationship or your finances are tight and it’s beginning to cause you concern.
Stress can arise in many different situations and in many different guises. Most people I speak to see stress as something that happens to someone else or don’t like to admit that they are feeling stressed themselves. Even when I point out that they are exhibiting some classic symptoms of stress they are reluctant to admit that they might be stressed.
So let me get this out of the way early on.
Being stressed does not mean you are weak, incapable, incompetent or disorganised. It can though be an indication that you are pushing yourself too hard, not taking enough time to recuperate or rest, or just experiencing a difficult period in your life where you have very little control or influence over the outcome.
Stress can present as agitation, illness, lack of energy, insomnia, loss of focus, headache, fatigue, gastro-intestinal issues, anxiety or social withdrawal.
For myself, often the first indication I have that I am stressed is my scalp becomes dry and itchy. I can now recognise this as an early indicator that I am stressed and take action to bring my stress levels back down. In the past it has manifested as IBS, headache, anxiety and insomnia, I rarely reach the kind of stress levels where I end up with any of those particular stress symptoms anymore because I pay much better attention to looking after myself these days.
If you are having trouble sleeping it’s a pretty good indicator of high stress levels, and the lack of quality sleep exacerbates the situation. Stress can cause us to develop tunnel vision; we can become totally focused on the cause of our stress (an evolutionary throwback which at the time served a pretty valid functional purpose, if you are being chased by a tiger you don’t want to be distracted by the beautiful sunset) to the point where it is all we can think about. We ruminate and recycle the same thoughts over and over while never coming to any solution.
No wonder you feel tired! The brain uses up 20% of the body’s energy, a much higher percentage than most people would have imagined I’m sure. With that in mind then consider that stress ramps up brain activity as stress hormones kick your brain into overdrive to deal with the stressor you are facing and you can begin to see why people feel ‘wiped out’ when they are stressed or working too hard.
This can cause over tiredness and also make it difficult to sleep as the build-up of stress hormones keep the mind in a hyper-vigilant state to cope with the perceived external threat.
Even in the best of situations we rarely get everything we want so most of the time we are negotiating that space between getting what we want and being ok with what we get. At times though the situations we find ourselves having to negotiate are so far from where we would like to be that that dissonance is enough to lead to prolonged and elevated levels of stress.
Let’s say that the demands placed on you at work might have increased over time. This can often be the case when someone is particularly good at their job but finds it difficult to say no or draw a line in the sand that says “Ok, this is the limit at which I can function at a sustainable level”.
Imagine that you measure stress levels on a scale of 1 to 100. As workloads increase, expectation levels rise and you find it increasingly difficult to deal with the demands placed on you your stress levels at work might climb to 90. They might drop off a little when you get home and try to rest but as your brain is still trying to figure out a solution you never really get back down the scale. You might get down to say 65 but still be unable to really let it go meaning that you never really get to rest. This can mean that when you go back to work, or whatever the stressful situation is, you aren’t fully rested and because you never really managed to get out of the stressed mind-state your levels quickly shoot back up to 90.
Mindfulness can help you to regulate those stress levels by allowing you to bring them down to a more manageable level.
Mindfulness, as I like to think of it, is really creating a space where you focus on bringing that level down as low as you can for a short while by consciously creating quiet space for your mind. This allows your body some time to recuperate, as the levels of stress hormones in your body decrease, and your brain to rest. It also means that the time it takes to get back up to 90% is increased as you are starting from 15-20 instead of 65. Over time and with regular practice it can slow down the onset of the stress response as the brain learns to regulate itself a bit better.
Mindfulness practice has also been shown to improve focus, increase awareness and reduce mind wandering while also reducing the impacts of stress. Long term practice can even increase tolerance for stressful situations meaning that we are slower to become stressed in the first place.
There’s a mobile app called Headspace which has short mindfulness meditations on it which lead in to longer ones if you feel like it as you progress.
Or there are many free mindfulness resources on the web where you can download guided meditations. You can easily find 5 to 10 minute body scan exercises to get started with.
Doing that and making time where you can for self-care and exercise can make a big difference to how you experience stress.