To mark National Stress Awareness Month, Joanna Baker, Therapist and Psychoeducation Coordinator at the University of Derby, shares her insight and methods to combat stress.
Stress is a common part of life and results from a build-up of mental and/or physical pressures to a level that we find overwhelming. We all experience different stresses in a lifetime – such as academic pressure, financial worries, relationship breakdown, serious illness, bereavement, job loss, or the demands of caring for children or sick relatives. We have to cope with challenging life changes, such as leaving home for the first time, taking on new responsibilities, or living with new people. Even when these are pleasant developments, they can still take a mental and physical toll on us. When lots of little stresses and some big ones happen in a short period of time, we may lose our ability to cope well. The amount and type of stress we can stand will vary from individual to individual.
The Mental Health Foundation conducted a study through YouGov in 2018, where a poll was piloted to understand the stress levels of 4,619 people in the UK – the largest known study of this type. Results showed in the past year, 74% of people have felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope. And, 49% of 18-24 year olds who have experienced high levels of stress felt that comparing themselves to others was a source of stress, which was higher than in any of the older age groups
So, what is stress?
Stress is not a mental health problem in itself. Stress is the modern-day effect of an evolutionary mechanism known as ‘fight or flight’, designed to save our distant ancestors from dangers in the wild. For instance, when under physiological stress, our muscles may tense, blood pressure soar, the heart race and the chest hurt, as breathing becomes shallow and quick; saliva may dry up and we might sweat and shake. When these bodily changes took place for our ancestors, it was because they faced a major threat, such as a wild boar attack, and they needed to gear up to run for it or to fight for their lives. Once they had taken action, and survived, all the physiological arousal would quickly subside.
But, in modern times, it is rarely a wild boar that makes us feel threatened. More often, it may be looming deadlines, the pressure of combining work and study, poor time management, debts, or difficulties with personal relationships. The stress doesn’t end and so the physiological effects don’t ebb. It leads to what experts call the allostatic overload. Instead of out witting the wild boar and then retreating to a nearby cave, repeated stressful events are like being chased all day by a wild boar on repeat. Sound like one of your days? It turns out that this is very bad for us. It can make us sick. That’s why we get physical symptoms from severe stress, such as disturbed sleep and ailments such as frequent migraines, back ache, angina, skin eruptions, bowel problems, stomach cramps or high blood pressure. And we commonly feel highly anxious or depressed.
All these symptoms are warnings that important emotional needs are not being met. In a fast-paced modern world with many responsibilities, it can be easy to forget to look after ourselves properly and fall prone to the effects of stress. While stress can impact your life significantly if left unchecked, there are a range of long and short-term steps you can put in place to help look after your mental health.
Three ways to relax immediately
To reduce your anxiety levels, practice one of the following relaxation methods for 10 minutes at least twice a day:
1) 7/11 breathing method – this incredibly simple (and incredibly effective) breathing technique that relaxes your body and mind quickly is the most powerful we know and has been used for thousands of years throughout the world.
Here is how you do it, and it is as easy as it sounds:
1 – Breathe in for a count of 7.
2 – Then, breathe out for a count of 11.
Make sure that when you are breathing in, you are doing deep ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ (your diaphragm moves down and pushes your stomach out as you take in a breath), rather than shallower higher lung breathing.
If you find that it’s difficult to lengthen your breaths to a count of 11 or 7, then reduce the count to breathing in for 3 and out to 5, or whatever suits you best, as long as the out-breath is longer than the in-breath.
Continue in this way for 5-10 minutes or longer if you have time – and enjoy the calming effect it will have on your mind and body. An added bonus of 7-11 breathing is that the very act of counting to 7 or 11 is a distraction technique, taking your mind off your immediate concerns.
2) The clenched fist method – this simple technique can be done anywhere:
- Settle yourself comfortably and make your hands into the tightest fists possible.
- Look at your fists carefully as you scrunch them harder and harder, being aware of the whiteness of the knuckles, the feeling of your nails against your palms, the pressure of your thumbs against your forefingers and the rigidity of your wrists. Notice too, the tension moving up your arms to the elbows and shoulders.
- Close your eyes and keep squeezing your fists, concentrating on the tight physical sensation.
- Then with your attention focused on how the tension feels, allow your fingers to slowly unwind, and concentrate instead on the spreading sensation of growing relaxation.
- Now feel the enjoyable sensation of relaxation spreading naturally through your fingers and up your arms as the tension drains away, concentrating on what form it takes, maybe a tingling feeling or a sensation of warmth.
- Whatever form it takes, let the relaxation spread through your body, relaxing your brow, cheek muscles, jaw, shoulders, chest and so on, down to your toes.
- Keep your focus on the stress falling away and the calming differences you feel in your body.
- Repeat for as long as you like and enjoy the calming changes that occur throughout your body. As your body relaxes, so does your mind.
3) The whole body method
- Work gradually through the main muscles of your body, tensing each in turn for a count of 10 and then relaxing them. As in the previous technique, this works on the simple mechanical principle that, if you tense muscles and then relax them, your muscles are always more relaxed afterwards than before you tensed them.
- Try starting with your feet, move up to your calf muscles, then your knees, your thighs, your stomach muscles and so on…
How to beat emotional stress
1) Look after yourself physically
Stress raises your cortisol levels which have a big impact on your physical wellbeing as well as your emotional state. It’s important to remember to look after yourself in all the usual ways: getting enough sleep, eating well and taking regular exercise.
2) Learn to stop worrying
You can learn to recognise and treat the rising feeling of anxiety in such situations as a helpful warning sign to apply your anxiety management techniques. Some people get back ache when they are over-stressed; some people come out in spots; you experience anxiety – they are all just like satnav signals telling you to stop, recalculate and get going calmly down the right road again.
You are not an anxious person. You are a person who can be hit by anxiety – and can learn to handle it. The more you do something different successfully in those stressful situations, the more your brain learns to expect to cope. In effect, then, you can learn to outwit your own genes.
3) Challenge unhelpful thoughts
The way that we think about things has an impact on our mood, anxiety and stress levels. Many of these thoughts occur outside of our control and can be negative or unhelpful. It is therefore important to remember that they are just thoughts, without any real basis, and are not necessarily facts. Even though we may believe a lot of our unhelpful thoughts when we are feeling low, anxious or stressed, it is good to remember that they should be questioned, as they are often based on wrong assumptions. This resource may help.
There is a clear link between wellbeing and academic success. To help students make the most of their time at university, we provide a wide range of face to face, telephone and online support.
Student Wellbeing Centre (Derby) 01332 593000 (x3000)
Student Wellbeing (Buxton/Leek/Chesterfield) 01298 330414 (x4414)
During February 2019, 154 therapy appointments were missed – this amounts to £4,635 of wasted funds and 154 hours of lost therapy time. We understand that sometimes you may be unable to attend your appointment for one reason or another. Wherever possible, please give at least 24hrs notice so we can make the appointments available to other students.
There are also lots of great self-help resources out there, including:
The NHS Choices Moodzone offers practical advice, interactive tools, videos and audio guides to help you feel mentally and emotionally better.
The NHS Eatwell Guide shows how much of what we eat overall should come from each food group to achieve a healthy, balanced diet.
The NHS how To Get To Sleep Guide has some great tips on how to improve your sleep.
Samaritans is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you need a response immediately, it’s best to phone. This number is FREE to call. ☎ 116 123 (UK) 116 123 (ROI)
MIND, the mental health charity: https://www.mind.org.uk ☎ 0300 123 3393
Rethink Mental Illness https://www.rethink.org ☎ 0300 5000 927
Other useful links
Emotional Needs Audit http://www.enaproject.org
This is a national project designed to find out how well innate emotional needs are being met in our society.