Stress Awareness Week
This is International Stress Awareness Week, so let’s talk about stress. Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires us to respond. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Stress is a normal part of life and can help you protect yourself when exposed to potential danger. It can also heighten your awareness so you are able to perform or respond better when needed. You can experience stress from your environment, your body, and your thoughts. Even positive changes such as taking part in a race, preparing to give a presentation and meeting someone for the first time produce stress. When faced with a stressful situation, the body releases hormones that prepare you to either stay and deal with a threat, or to run away to safety. This is known as the fight or flight response.
A very stressful event can trigger Acute Stress Disorder. This occurs when a person has an extreme reaction after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as being seriously assaulted or fearing for their life. Acute Stress Disorder is commonly seen in survivors of domestic abuse, and it impacts a person’s ability to manage everyday life. A person is diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder when their response to a trauma is immediate – that is, it occurs between three days and a month after the event. Acute Stress Disorder is closely linked with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which can be diagnosed when the response to trauma lasts for over a month.
The symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder can include –
- Flashbacks, such as vivid memories, dreams, or feeling like you’re re-experiencing the event
- Low mood, where it’s difficult to experience any positive emotions
- Changes in thoughts and beliefs about the world, yourself or others (e.g. ‘The world is unsafe’, ‘I’m no good’)
- Dissociation, or difficulty in remembering parts of the event, or feeling ‘detached’ from reality
- Avoiding thoughts and feelings about the event and trying to stay away from things that remind you of it, including places and people
- Feeling ‘on edge’ and finding it difficult to relax, sleep or concentrate
It’s not just a very stressful event that can cause problems. If we suffer chronic or long-term stress, this situation will wear the body down and can lead to anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, digestive problems, panic attacks, raised blood pressure and other long-term health conditions. Whereas the types of stress response that allows us to run faster is beneficial for us, the type of constant stress experienced when living with an abusive partner is very damaging.
People suffering chronic stress will often ‘self-medicate’ by engaging in compulsive use of substances or behaviours to try to relieve their stress. These substances or behaviours include food, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, gambling, sex, and shopping. But rather than relieving the stress and returning the body to a relaxed state, these substances and compulsive behaviours tend to keep the body in a stressed state and cause further problems. The distressed person becomes trapped in a vicious circle.
If you’re suffering domestic abuse, escaping from your abuser and seeking help is likely to be the first step to reduce your stress. If you suffer Acute Stress Disorder or PTSD, it’s likely you’ll benefit from professional help in the form of medication and talking therapy. But what can you do to help yourself if you’re aware you’re overly stressed? Recognising that your stress is at an unhealthy level is necessary to find the motivation to do something about it. The following practices could help you manage your stress better –
- Control what you can but accept that there are events you cannot control and learn to let go.
- Be assertive instead of aggressive – assert your feelings, opinions, or beliefs instead of becoming angry, defensive, or passive.
- Learn and practice relaxation techniques; try meditation, yoga, or tai-chi.
- Exercise regularly – your body can fight stress better when it is fit and exercise ‘burns up’ stress hormones.
- Eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
- Manage your time more effectively and learn to say no to demands that will stress you.
- Make time for yourself.
- Prioritise rest and sleep – your body needs time to recover from stressful events.
- Seek help for addictions to alcohol, drugs, or compulsive behaviours.
- Use support networks – spend time with those who love and support you.
- Seek help from professionals if you’re struggling to manage your stress.
Spend Stress Awareness Week focusing on your personal levels of stress. Is your stress at a healthy manageable level, or is it too often boiling over and disrupting your health and happiness? What can you do to help yourself? Who can you go to for support? Do you need to say ‘no’ more often and sometimes take some time out? Reducing unhealthy stress will benefit your well-being and happiness. Use this week to kick-start your journey to managing your stress better, be prepared to start putting yourself first and doing what makes you happy. Whatever your situation, there is much you can do to improve your stress levels, what will be your first step?
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