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The importance of stress awareness

April 1, 2020

Three quarters of respondents to a 2018 study carried out by the Mental Health Foundation said they’d experienced stress in the last year to the point where they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Faster paced lifestyles, work and family demands, and pressure from social media to do more and have more have all contributed to rising stress levels.

At this current challenging time, when most of us are facing a period of isolation, it’s likely that many more people will be feeling stressed. It may be useful to know that April is Stress Awareness Month, and we’ll be publishing a series of blogs that look at how to recognise the symptoms and manage them.

Historically stress was good for humans, giving us the adrenaline boost needed to fuel the ‘fight or flight’ response that kept us safe when we were in danger. It can sometimes be useful today, for example if we have an accident or find ourselves in an emergency situation stress will help us to react faster and take action. If we’re sitting in an office, or getting ready to take an exam, however, this isn’t much use! And it can have a negative impact on our quality of life and our health.

If we’re feeling physically stressed by the current pandemic this is because we’re facing a threat. However, our bodies going into the ‘flight or fight’ mode isn’t really helpful to us in dealing with this particular threat.

Many people don’t realise they’re suffering from stress. Others may know they are, but not acknowledge the need to do something about it. Feeling under stress is almost seen as the norm, accepted as an inevitable part of a busy life. It can seem like we’re expected to deal with whatever lands on our shoulders, particularly at work when everyone has too much to do and there’s never enough resources. Sometimes people are reluctant to appear weak by admitting that they’re struggling to juggle everything they need to do; they feel they ‘should’ be able to cope and just get on with it.

The fact is, stress is just as valid a problem as any other kind of mental health difficulty. Being aware when we’re experiencing stress – or recognising when it’s affecting someone around us – is important, as it’s the first step towards feeling better. In fact, allowing stress to go untreated has its dangers. Psychological therapist Joanne Adams explains why this is.

“If we’re stressed over a long period of time, which is what we call chronic stress, this can lead to physical and mental health problems. Sometimes the impact is direct – for instance, stress can make anxiety and depression worse – and sometimes indirect, causing someone to eat more junk food for example. It’s best to seek help sooner rather than later, so having an awareness of the symptoms and being able to spot them in yourself and others is very valuable.”

Stress happens when the demands placed on us are greater than the resources we have to deal with them. For example, if you’re working from home with limited access to resources, some of your colleagues are sick, and you’re aiming to complete your normal work activity, this may understandably lead you to feel stressed. Stress isn’t always inevitable, though, because it can depend on how a person thinks about a situation and what help they have around them. It’s possible, for example, that a delivery worker who’s currently working exceptionally hard doesn’t feel stressed because they feel supported by the local community.

The ‘tipping point’ at which stress is felt will vary from person to person. Two colleagues might have the same workload, but whereas one of them believes they can handle everything they’ve been asked to do the other could feel completely overwhelmed.

Where it’s possible, we can and should address our stress, says Joanne Adams. “Think about the consequences for yourself and for others if you carry on as you are. If you run yourself into the ground at work trying to do everything you could end up off sick. If you end up exhausted because you’ve been dashing around non-stop helping the people who rely on you at home, you won’t be able to help anybody. The best way to look after others is to look after ourselves. This message is especially important now, when many of us are under even more pressure than usual.

In later blogs we’ll be looking at the signs of stress, and sharing some practical approaches to managing them. Online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be very effective in managing the symptoms of stress – you can self-refer yourself for treatment here.

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