When was the last time you said you were stressed? Last week? Yesterday? A month or so ago? How about all of the time?
Honestly, I have to say my levels of stress run pretty high most of the time. It's kind of an occupational hazard. The strange thing is that I doubt I'm alone. Stress has become a ubiquitous part of our world these days. We work longer hours than ever, we're constantly connected to email or social media, financial uncertainty is everywhere and the world is, well, a little messy.
Stress is everywhere. While we say we should deal with it for a healthier mind and body, just how bad is stress for us, actually? And, more importantly, what should we be doing about it?
Stress and the heart
Heart disease and stress go together like peas and carrots. The exact mechanism isn't necessarily agreed upon at the moment, but it's probably a combination of adopting coping mechanisms such as eating poorly and not exercising coupled with direct effects of stress on your body's hormones and blood pressure. Things such as depression and social isolation are consistently associated with higher rates of heart attacks, while things such as a 'Type A personality' are a little less clear.
Stress and cancer
A little like heart disease, there is much discussion about how cancer is impacted on by stress -- both about which cancers and how stress changes the body and cancer cells. Stress may directly impact your immune system's ability to fight cancer. Again, it's unclear exactly how, but let's just say stress is not exactly an innocent bystander.
Stress and the mind
This is probably where we have the best and strongest links between what you're dealing with in life and how your mind feels. Over a longer period, stress is a risk factor for developing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders. It also may play a role in relapses of a number of other mental illnesses. Managing stress levels is an important part of keeping this in check.
So what exactly do I do about it?
I acknowledge that reading about all the terrible things stress can do to you may have made you more stressed. Sorry. However, knowledge is power. So let's use it to change our stress patterns.
Work stress can be difficult to avoid sometimes. We are often beholden to our jobs for financial reasons or the expectations of someone else. Work should be just that and remember, you will not perform at your best when you are stressed. Ensure that you have some genuine downtime from work. Not just days off and holidays, but unplugging from work emails or after hours work is vitally important. Even if it is just an hour after work at night when you watch TV, exercise or talk to your family. You need both mental and physical distance from the daily grind.
Be sure to cultivate relationships with friends and loved ones. We are wired for connection to one another and being truly and wholly connected to the people we like being around. Maintaining social connections or making new ones is probably one of the best things we can do to protect our bodies and minds against the negative effects of stress in our lives.
Learning and practising mindfulness is a great tool to cope with chronic stress and learn skills to deal with acute stress in your life. It is a tool that is known to help with depression and anxiety and is used by mental health professionals. With smartphones in everyone's pocket, there are so many easy-to-use and often free apps or courses to learn how to look after your mind. I highly recommend apps such as Buddhify, Smiling Mind and Headspace.
Fuelling your body right can also keep your stress at bay. This includes keeping your caffeine down as best as you can as caffeine can increase anxiety and make your body feel the signs of stress, such as a racing heart, even more than the actual situation itself. It can also disrupt sleep patterns. You don't have to give up your daily latte totally, but cutting back is not a bad idea. That being said, depriving yourself all the time of the one food you love probably won't make things any easier.
Finally, if you are finding that your stress levels are getting on top of you, talk to your GP and tell a trusted friend or family member. It's a part of daily lives and we need to be on the ball and ready to quieten down stress in your life and have a happy mind and a healthy body.