What is it?
Stress can mean different things to different people. Usually we associate being “stressed” with not being in control of a particular situation or an environment, leading us to feel uncomfortable in body and mind. Stress involves a combination of different physical, mental, and emotional feelings and it basically describes the way we deal with change – or the way we react to being ‘out of our comfort zone’.
Stress-inducing events are not always necessarily bad, although dealing with personal trauma such as the loss of loved ones, being made redundant, and so on, can all be extremely stressful. New personal relationships, moving house, and even getting promoted aren’t exactly ‘bad’ things, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not stressful. Whether the changes to our lives are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or in between, they can still leave us feeling stressed.
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While some surveys suggest up to nine in 10 Australians have experienced stress, precise figures on the incidence of stress remain elusive. What can be said is that growing numbers of Australians are spending time away from their workplaces due to work-related stress.
The National Health and Safety Commission says work-related stress is responsible for the longest stretches of absenteeism by employees. WorkCover Tasmania says claim costs for workplace stress are generally higher than those for other injuries because a longer recovery process is needed.
Individual responses to stressful situations vary, depending on personality and personal history. How an individual reacts to a stressor may depend on whether they perceive they have the abilities and resources necessary to respond.
Common causes of stress include time and financial pressures, conflict, change, and relationship difficulties. In the workplace, factors linked to stress include:
- Long hours
- Heavy workload and/or tight deadlines
- Organisational change
- Lack of job security
- Lack of clear direction at work
- Lack of autonomy
- Boring work
- Lack of proper resources, equipment or training
- Poor working conditions
- Few promotional opportunities
- Harassment and/or discrimination
- Conflict with colleagues or supervisors
- Traumatic incidents, such as workplace accidents
There are a number of things that can help prevent or reduce stressful feelings. Some things you might like to try are:
Learn how to relax
Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, can help relieve the symptoms of stress. It can help you to calm down and take a step back from a stressful situation.
You can also relieve stress and tension by having some time to yourself, doing whatever you enjoy, such as:
- Having a warm bath
- Listening to music
- Occupying yourself with a hobby
- Exercising, such as a run, a bike ride or a walk
Talk to someone
Just talking to someone can be helpful. Stress can cloud your judgment and prevent you seeing things clearly. Talking things through with a friend or work colleague can help you find solutions to your stress and put problems into perspective. You can also talk to your GP, a counsellor or a psychologist.
Learning how to find solutions to your problems will help you feel more in control thereby lowering your stress. Take time out to do things you enjoy, such as cycling, going to the footy, playing golf or going to the movies.
If your stress is work-related, it may be worthwhile making time to speak with your supervisor. Your employer has a responsibility to minimise stress – and may need to assess the workplace environment, in order to identify solutions.
Sugary snacks and drinks, such as soft drinks, give your body a temporary energy boost followed by a sharp drop in energy. This ‘sugar crash’ can make you feel tired or irritable, and unable to concentrate.
Eating at regular times and not skipping meals can make a big difference to your ability to deal with stress. This will allow your body to release a steady stream of energy throughout the day, which will improve your concentration and mood.
Try to reduce the amount of coffee, tea, energy drinks and cola that you consume. These all contain caffeine, which can drive up stress levels if you have too much.
Be aware that being under stress can sometimes make you feel tempted to drink more alcohol to relax. Alcohol, just like smoking and comfort eating, is an unhealthy coping mechanism which will not solve your problems; it will simply give you new ones.
Exercise will not make your stress disappear, but it can give you the chance to step back from a stressful situation. As well as many health benefits, exercise is also known to:
- Release a chemical called serotonin, which makes you feel happier and less stressed
- Allow you to take out your frustration and anger in a constructive way
Furthermore, exercising regularly can make you better able to cope with stress by lifting your mood, building self-confidence and clearing your mind of any anxious thoughts.
Bad sleep habits leading to lack of sleep can leave you feeling tired, low in energy and irritable, which can all reduce your ability to manage stress. Most adults need between six and nine hours of sleep each night. While a lack of sleep can make stress worse, stress can also disrupt sleep.
Contact your GP if you are having difficulty sleeping. They may discuss your bedtime routine to see if there are any bad habits contributing your insomnia.
Contrary to popular belief, smoking does not help combat stress. In fact, it can make stress worse as well as damage your health.
Giving up smoking is not easy and, in the short term, may cause you to feel more stressed or annoyed. However, irritability and craving are signs that your body is trying to repair itself.
Classic signs and symptoms of stress include:
- Feelings of fatigue, tiredness, or exhaustion
- Muscle tension
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Sleeplessness (insomnia)
- Changes in appetite (increased or decreased)
- Grinding teeth/clenching jaws
- Feeling weak or dizzy
- Constant or recurring headaches, stomach ache, or back pain
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Problems with concentration and decision making
If you feel stressed or have a number of these symptoms, it is best that you book in for a check-up. Your doctor will be in the best position to help you get your stress levels under control.
It’s not possible to completely prevent stress, as we never know what life is going to bring! We simply cannot control every situation or person we are going to encounter. However, if you are aware of situations that usually cause you stress, it is possible to plan coping strategies to minimise the discomfort you experience.
What reduces stress for one person may be totally ineffective for others. It may require trial and error to determine the method that is most effective for you. Indeed, for some people a combination of activities will work best to relieve stress. These include:
- Focusing on a healthy diet, rich in fruits and vegetables
- Regular exercise such as walking
- Reading and spending quiet time alone
- Learning time management
- Breathing exercises
- Ensuring you have free time to pursue your personal interests
- Simply talking things over or confiding in someone
- Avoiding excessive drinking and smoking
These are just some of the simple strategies that can be followed when you’re feeling stressed. If none of these approaches seem to help, it may be worth discussing this with your doctor. Sometimes medication is necessary to help you deal with life stresses more effectively.
No matter what approach you adopt, it’s important to try and break the cycle of stress before it has a chance to exert long term effects on your health.
Benefits of exercise
One of the best ways to release the pressures of everyday life is to exercise! The benefits of exercise for the body and the mind cannot be underestimated. Your workouts can be the times when you shut out all the hassles and just focus on the task at hand. Exercise can be your steam valve, a way to release anger, frustration or excess energy. Once your doctor gives you the ‘all-clear’ to exercise, try and fit 30-60 minutes of physical activity into your daily life. If you can’t find time for a 30-minute workout, try three 10-minute sessions per day. The benefits are the same!