Life can be stressful. Life during a pandemic, for many of us, has been stressful squared. From managing intensified anxieties around our health, work-life and relationships, to more existential concerns about what ‘the future’ might look like for us - stress is an understandable response to the events of the past year. And yet, we know long term it can wreak havoc on our wellbeing.
So, before we get stressed about feeling stressed, Beingwell expert and Life Coach Grace McMahon has some timely advice on how we can best cope, in honour of Stress Awareness Month this April.
To no one’s surprise, stress levels have soared to stratospheric new heights over the past year. A report conducted by the Stress Management Society revealed that since the COVID-19 restrictions began in March 2020, 65% of people in the UK have felt more stressed .
And yet, stress is not exactly new to us. The Mental Health Foundation’s 2018 UK study found a staggering 74% of respondents experienced stress so acutely that they felt “overwhelmed or unable to cope” . Evidence that highlights that our toxic relationship with it well preceded the pull of the pandemic.
The prevalence of stress is particularly bad news when it comes to our wellbeing, as prolonged stress has been linked to a myriad of serious health conditions; from depression and diabetes to heart disease . This is why Stress Awareness Month was established back in 1992 - to raise awareness of the causes and potential solutions to the endemic problem. Nearly 30 years on, however, stress seems every bit as woven into the fabric of our daily lives as, say, our social media usage (I’ll leave it up to you to judge whether that’s merely a coincidence!).
However, help is at hand! Thanks to the easing of social stigma around mental health, there is now an abundance of resources to help us manage stress. Luckily, here at Beingwell, our resident expert and all-round soul-of-sunshine Grace McMahon is here to help us navigate our way through these troubling times.
Over to Grace
We’re all familiar with stress to some degree, but what’s going on for us when we say we’re feeling stressed?
“When we say we’re feeling stressed, what we’re actually feeling is our response to stress. Whenever we are faced with danger or threatened by it (whether it’s real danger, like doing a bungee jump from a great height, or the threat of doing something we’re not sure about) our nervous system instructs the body to produce the hormones, cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. These flow through the body readying our fight, flight or freeze response - this is what we’re feeling. It might make us feel like screaming into a pillow, running at it head-on or hiding under the duvet, but it’s a totally normal feeling.”
Stress seems to creep into a whole host of life experiences; from studying for exams to wedding planning- so, isn’t it just an inevitable (albeit annoying) part of life?
“Yes, unfortunately, it is just one of those annoying things we have to deal with, however, it’s not all bad. When we experience normal stress levels, our nervous system restores balance within the body as the threat or danger passes. This is what gives us the drive to complete tasks or challenges, like getting through a presentation to the entire company. But when our stressors (causes of stress) mount up we find it more difficult to cope and end up with that frazzled, overwhelming feeling, because the danger doesn’t seem to pass. Although we will inevitably face stress, we can manage it quite easily - but we need to keep an eye on our stress levels to not overload and tip into unmanageable territory.”
OK so stress might be normal, but no one exactly enjoys the feeling - what can we do to stop ourselves from getting super stressed out?
“We might need to take a step back and investigate what our current stressors are - there may be few in our lives right now which is great, but the more likely option is that there are many, especially with the current circumstances. Once we have assessed, we can chop out unnecessary demands and prioritise what’s important to us. We often have busy schedules and lives that ultimately lead to stress, but what we fill our time with might not be necessary - if we don’t need to check emails till tomorrow, leave them till tomorrow. If we don’t need to run to the shop because we ran out of milk straight away, leave it till we can - although it can be quite upsetting realising there’s none left for the cuppa we already made so maybe that is a priority! Everyone’s priorities will be different, check in with yourself.”
What if the people around us are feeling stressed, how can we best support them?
“With the increasing demands and pressures right now, we can be quick to feel the stress, and so is everyone else around us. If someone we know seems more stressed than usual, we could offer a helping hand to relieve some pressure; offer to grab anything they need from the shops while we’re there, offer to pick the kids up or take the dog for a walk. Or even simply offer a listening ear - sometimes all we need is a good old whinge about how tough everything can feel. But most importantly, offer help or time when it suits you, it’s a huge challenge to try to help someone else when we’re not helping ourselves - make sure to look after yourself then offer assistance to others.”
Thanks, Grace! We feel less stressed already.
Stress is normal and in some instances even helpful for us, our nervous system is incredibly clever and works to keep our bodies in balance when it strikes.
To avoid getting stressed out it’s key to prioritise the things that are most important to us (aka keeping that fridge fully stocked).
If we want to help our loved ones when they’re feeling stressed, offer practical help or a listening ear - just make sure we’re not biting off more than we can chew, by prioritising our own wellbeing first.
1. Stress Management Society (2019). www.stress.org.uk
2. & 3. YouGov UK-wide stress survey (2018). Commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation.