- Introduction to reducing stress
- Why reduce stress?
- Recognising signs of stress
- Managing stress once it is recognised
Stress is a common condition that can have serious adverse effects on an individual’s quality of life and health. It occurs when an individual feels too much pressure that they are unable to cope with. In response to stress, the body produces stress hormones (e.g. corticosteroids) and their heart rate and blood pressure rise. Stress occurs every day and is a normal part of human functioning. It can have some benefits, such as increasing motivation, but excessive or chronic stress can lead to health problems.
Stress can come from many different sources, including:
- Work: For example, the threat of losing a job or difficulty getting along with co-workers;
- Interpersonal relationships: Including relationship difficulties with partners and/or children;
- Finances: For example, not having enough money;
- Personal loss: Such as the death of a loved one;
- Personal threats: For example the threat of physical violence.
People can respond to pressure in different ways depending on several factors, such as their personality, beliefs and past experiences. Not everyone will become stressed in response to the same causes or stressors. Some people may function well when they are stressed, while others may not.
Reducing stress has societal, familial and individual benefits, such as:
- Economic benefits: Reducing stress increases an individual’s productivity at work and reduces the number of days they take off;
- Physical health benefits: Being stressed consumes energy and nutrients which could otherwise be used to protect the body (e.g. from infectious diseases);
- Psychological health benefits: Reducing stress improves sleep and reduces irritability, anxiety and depression; and
- Relationship benefits: Improved interpersonal relationships with co-workers or family members.
Reducing stress involves both recognising the signs of stress and developing strategies to cope with it. Individuals aiming to reduce stress should be familiar with the signs of stress and strategies for coping with stress.
Chronic stress does not develop overnight, but as a gradual process over time in which many factors may contribute to stress. As stress increases, individuals typically show a range of signs and symptoms, including:
- Pushing themselves too hard;
- Finding it hard to relax;
- Pretending everything is okay when it is not;
- Headaches and fatigue;
- Indigestion, nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea;
- Heart palpitations;
- Muscle pain, spasms or clenching;
- Stomach ulcers;
- Increased perspiration and urination;
- Tension, anxiety or depression and less enjoyment of life;
- Becoming obsessed with small issues;
- Mood changes, including aggressive or passive behaviour;
- Difficulty concentrating, making decisions or remembering;
- Relationship problems;
- Changes in appetite, or weight gain or loss;
- Increased nicotine, caffeine or alcohol consumption.
It is important for individuals to recognise that they are stressed when these symptoms occur, and to take measures to reduce the stress. Stress is unlikely to go away on its own, so ignoring the symptoms will only prolong and increase stress.
Individuals who find they are suffering from stress can take a number of steps to manage the condition.
Maintain a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy, and low salt and sugar. Healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables and dairy products contain many important nutrients and minerals, which are consumed in large quantities when an individual is stressed. Depleting the body’s stores of these nutrients reduces its immune defence. Unhealthy foods such as biscuits, chips and coffee may reduce the body’s ability to absorb vitamins and minerals from healthy food.
Exercise helps relieve tension and increases the rate at which vitamins and minerals are absorbed by the body. Aim to get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every day. Incorporate exercise into the daily routine, for example by:
- Walking to work or to the shops;
- Taking a morning or evening walk with friends or the dog;
- Taking the kids to the park, or playing with them and their outdoor toys.
For more information, see Get More Exercise.
Putting aside time to relax every day is an important strategy for reducing stress. For many people, reserving the time for relaxation may be the greatest challenge, so be proactive. It may be as easy as taking lunch and tea breaks at work. Reducing stress increases productivity, so time spent relaxing is ultimately time well spent. Relaxation time could be spent:
- Reading a book or listening to music;
- Playing with pets or children;
- Performing a relaxation exercise (e.g. progressive muscle relaxation, in which each group of muscles is gradually and consciously clenched and relaxed in turn, while imagining tension flowing out of the muscles with each relaxation).
Take a moment to pause and think about what is causing the stress, each time it is felt. It is important to think realistically about the source of stress and its consequences. In some cases, stress may arise from an individual making a mountain out of a molehill.
To assess the cause and potential consequences of a stressor, individuals should stop each time they begin to feel stressed and think about:
- What is causing the stress?
- What is going to happen?
- What is the worst possible scenario?
Being organised and managing time can help relieve stress. However, it is important to be realistic about what is achievable when making plans, as planning to do too much may simply cause further stress. Setting priorities is also important to make sure the most important tasks are completed first.
Talking about problems often helps to resolve them. Friends, family members or partners can often help by listening to problems and offering support and advice. There are also a number of professional mental health services available for people who wish to speak to a health professional about their stress, and a GP will be able to provide a referral to a local service. Spending time with a loved one, even if problems are not discussed, may be a useful way to reduce stress and lift spirits.
The workplace can be a source of significant stress. Think about ways to reduce stress in the workplace. Identifying potential stressors and developing strategies to reduce them is one possible strategy. For example, workers might think about how their workload, managers, co-workers and work environment affect their stress, and ways they could reduce stress from any of these sources (e.g. by communicating better with co-workers).
For more information, see Managing Mental Health in the Workplace.
People who are stressed should try to change their attitude to circumstances which cause them stress, and to view their stressors or pressures as challenges instead. Mindfulness may be a useful technique for people who wish to change their attitude; this practice involves becoming consciously aware of thoughts and actions, with the aim of “letting go” of destructive thoughts.
For more information, see Mindfulness.
For more information on staying healthy in the New Year, including tips on diet, partying, exercise and general health, see Health in the New Year.
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- Gunaratana BH. Mindfulness in Plain English. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications; 2002. [Publisher]