April – Stress

By Izabel Carter

What is Stress?

Definition (The Chambers Dictionary app): 1. Strain; 2. A constraining influence; 3. Physical, emotional or mental pressure; 4. A disturbed physiological state resulting from being continually under emotional or mental pressure.

I prefer a slightly different definition.  A number of years ago, when I first moved into Human Resources, I worked with an Occupational Health Advisor, Tricia, who banned us from using the word ‘stress’.  She was adamant that it was overused, and what we were really describing was being under so much pressure we were struggling to cope.  And I still think Tricia is right.  That said, I am going to use the word Stress throughout this blog post – otherwise I’m labouring the point.

As you will know if you’ve read the rest of my website, I recently stepped out of corporate life, and everyone says how much better I look; my skin is better; the tell-tale dark circles are gone; I am more relaxed, and I miss the people but I don’t miss my job.  I am still under pressure to make this new career a success.  I don’t have a regular income anymore, but with that comes a level of flexibility and autonomy of which I could only have dreamt before.  But back in the office stress was all around me.  Not just in my office (i.e. me), but people more senior to me, my peer group and those in more junior positions – so everybody.

What causes Stress?

The level of pressure that builds up and eventually can overflow to become stress can come from a number of sources:  physical, emotional, financial, nutritional, relationships, the environment and lack of sleep (which I talked about in my March blog).  The thing to remember is that we are all different, and what one person will struggle to handle may well be like water of a duck’s back for someone else.

What happens in the Body?

When we are under a lot of pressure, and it’s reaching the point when we struggle to cope, our body will produce large amounts of the hormone cortisol, which will inhibit your digestive system, put your body into fight or flight response, result in increased fat storage, down regulate your metabolism and increase inflammation in the body.

Let’s talk about the fight or flight response just for a second.  Think back to the last time you became riled by something someone said (they didn’t make you riled, that’s your reaction to what they said).  Your reaction resulted in adrenaline being released into the bloodstream.  But if we don’t then move (i.e. simulate the fight or flight response), this will result in a build-up of cortisol (which you already know is not good) in the body.  So next time you get riled, go for a brisk walk, or run up the stairs – don’t just sit and stew (it really doesn’t help) – and because you can’t do this when you are driving – road rage is never good.

What do we see or feel?

This is not an exhaustive list, but symptoms of stress include: increased boredom; emotions close to the surface manifesting as irritability and/or intolerance; susceptibility to feeling additional pressure more keenly, poor decision making; increased appetite leading to comfort eating and ‘giving in’ to cravings.

What can we do?

I am not a religious person, but the Serenity Prayer, attributed to the protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, springs to mind;

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

I also recommend a book by Richard Carlson called “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”; a really easy read, which will help you work out how to let the small stuff go.

Finally – learn to breathe properly using your diaphragm; it can really help calm us in times of stress and anxiety.  I used to play the clarinet, so I learned from the age of 11 to breathe with my diaphragm.  So when I’m in a relaxation class, or at the end of yoga, or I’m practicing deep breathing to help me sleep, it’s my stomach that goes in and out – not my chest!  Here’s how:

  1. Breathe in and out through the nose
  2. Breathe with the diaphragm.  The air you breathe in through your nose should go all the way down to your stomach
  3. Breathe relaxed
  4. Breathe rhythmically
  5. Breathe silently
  6. Focus on your breathing; if your mind wanders, just go back to focusing on your breathing

Some people find counting helps too.  I found a lovely website, countingbreaths.com.  Check out the tip mode here.

Reflexology can help too (but you knew that was coming).  Massage the endocrine reflexes on both hands, as shown in the diagram, as well as the diaphragm, and the spine (shown in green).  You can do this when you are practising your deep breathing.

If you would like more information, please call me on 07912 951763, or email me on [email protected].

And Relax…