Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Let's Talk About Stress!

I think we can all agree that everyone experiences stress, at some level or another, on a nearly daily basis. The contributing factors, severity and frequency will differ from person to person, but it's an almost universal fact of life. Yet it seems, and I speak from personal experience here, that we're just not taught how to deal with that almost inevitable stress in any kind of healthy or constructive way. I know I just used to reach for a drink, or a joint, any time things weren't going my way. And while that solution might make you feel slightly better (and for better, read numb) about what's going on at the time, it's a total bust for creating any kind of resilience or ability to cope on your own in the future. 

Before we try and tackle a problem, it's often helpful to go back to basics and figure out exactly what we're dealing with. What exactly is stress? Stress is your body's physical response to pressures, such as experiencing something new or unexpected, a threat to your sense of self or feeling like you have no control over a situation. When this happens, stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol flood your brain, creating a fight or flight response, allowing you to act quickly.

In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. Actually, stress can be broken down into two kinds. There's eustress, or 'good' stress, which creates a motivating 'seize-the-day' feeling that can be invigorating, allowing you to get stuff done. It's considered 'good' because there's a release for your fight or flight response that allows your stress hormones to dissipate and your system to return to normal. Distress, or 'bad' stress, on the other hand, has no such outlet, and your hormones, especially cortisol, continue to build up. Increasingly this is the kind of stress we experience in our modern sedentary lives. We're left permanently in fight or flight mode, making us feel overwhelmed and anxious. Over time, if stress is excessive, frequent or long-lasting it can affect our physical health as well. It can disrupt almost all our bodies processes, causing digestive problems, heart disease, sleep issues, as well depression. 

Never underestimate the smarts of a super-cute cartoon bat. Or how awesome Anastasia is...

So what are some solutions? There's obviously a wealth of information out there telling us how to deal with stress ('wealth' being the operative word, what with the self-help and drug industries being so keen to help us handle our stress...up to a point, repeat business being the key of course!) I believe there are ways to help, things you can do both in the moment and on a regular basis to make you more able to cope with stressful situations. Here's the things I've been trying out lately:
  • Think about why you feel stressed. I'll give you a prime example. Recently our van's engine started making an alarming knocking noise, and when we took it in to a garage for an MOT and check up, we were told we needed a WHOLE NEW ENGINE. We really weren't prepared for this, and it immediately sent me spiralling...I got angry, upset, I cried, you know, the usual. But when I pulled myself together, I tried to think about why it was that this was causing me so much stress. The reason is that it's going to cost us nearly £5000, and I was worried about being able to afford it. When I think about it, so much of my stress is financial - it's probably the things I worry about the most, and I know I'm not alone in that. But identifying the cause of our stress is useful - it allows us to realise what it is about a situation that's actually stressing us out, which leads us on to...
  • Sort issues into things you can and can't do anything about. I just had to accept that the van needed a new engine. It is what it is, and there's nothing I can do about that. What I can do is look at my finances, realise my 'rainy day' savings (which I am very fortunate to have) are for emergencies such as this, and that it's ok to use them to make this situation less stressful. Use that fight or flight feeling to motivate you to tackle the issues that are under your control. Any actions, even small ones, will immediately start diffusing that stressful, helpless feeling.
  • Find the silver linings. Try and look for the opportunities you have now this thing has happened, or the positives of a situation if you flip it around. Sure, it's not easy, but it helps focus your mind on more upbeat thoughts. For example, now we're in one place while we wait for the van, we've got more time to visit friends, work on the blog and podcast, go on the People's Vote march and play in the daffodils! And once we have a brand new engine, any low-level residual worry I might have about breaking down in the future is pretty much taken care of.
  • Self-care. Do something you love and enjoy that makes you feel good. I spent a solid day crocheting, drinking tea and watching funny women and feel-good movies. Do some exercise, cook a delicious meal, catch up with an old friend...feed your soul a little!
I challenge anyone to not feel better after hanging out with the daffs!

There's a few things that you can do on a regular basis that will help as well. Nothing's going to make stress disappear completely, but the more able you are to cope with things as they arise, the less impact stress will have on your health, both physical and mental.
  • Gratitude. Writing down what you're grateful for sounds kinds cheesy and basic, but over time it will help shift your perspective, especially if you often automatically focus on the negatives. Check out our blog post on gratitude for more info.
  • Sleep. Having healthy sleep patterns means you're getting  a proper rest, so you've got enough energy to deal with what life throws your way. Think about how crabby and sensitive you feel when you're tired...that's not a person who can handle anything! I've recently discovered the Bedtime function on my iPad, which reminds you to go to bed, and wakes you up every day at the same time. Or you could just set reminders and alarms - it's getting into the routine of having enough sleep that's important. 
  • Exercise. Exercise is basically allowing you to process the fight or flight response. Something super-active, like kick-boxing, is working out the 'fight'. Cardio, like running, swimming or cycling is essentially 'flight'. Exercise can also help by reducing our feelings of fear, which is a big contributor to stress, by improving our confidence and our feeling of resilience. 
  • Meditation. This is something I've been working on since the New Year, when I started meditating every day as my Dry January challenge (Listen to me talk about that here!) I do ten minutes every day, first thing in the morning, and although it's hard to see the benefits of something in the moment, I can definitely tell it's helping. When I found out about the van I was angry and upset and I cried...but only for five minutes. Then I pulled myself together and got on with figuring out what to do. The key for meditating (and getting any kind of benefit from it) is to do it every day. Make it part of your routine, and try different techniques to find what works best for you. If my mind is particularly busy I count my breaths, 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, until I get to 10, and then I start again. Or give alternate nostril breathing a go - this is balancing and grounding and needs concentration, so it's great for focusing the mind. Here's a good intro to see how it's done.
So much of the stress we feel on a day-to-day basis is insidious, caused by advertising, social media and a constant stream of fear from the news. Cultivating a state of mind that can move beyond this feeling of low-level anxiety will mean that you're more able to handle the big stuff that comes your way. 


If you can relate to what you've just read, let's continue the conversation! Sharing stories is one of our most powerful tools, so leave a comment below, check out the FREEDOM junkies' facebook page, or join our group.

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