SEEMINGLY ubiquitous in the western world, stress is the difference between what you feel you have to do and what you think you're able to do. The bigger the gap, the greater the pressure. And we all suffer from it at some point and to some degree.
For all of us there are, in any given day, flashpoints for stress. Like a lot of working parents, mine is bedtime. At work, I feel I can cope with whatever's thrown at me, but it's the 'herding cats' scenario of trying to get multiple children (who do indeed seem to multiply in number), who appear in their pyjamas in all sorts of unbedly places long after wine o'clock that makes me want to curl up in the corner and suck my thumb.
So how do we deal with it? Well, as with anything you have to recognise it first! If you're yelling at your kids/boss/husband for no apparent reason, or if you are irritated by the smallest thing, or if you feel overwrought regularly by your ordinary day-to-day routine, then chances are ... you're stressed.
OK, so you're stressed. Now what?
Well, first – as with everything – let's look at lifestyle. Are you getting adequate sleep? Eight hours is required a day for most adults. But even in middle to older years we need at least seven for optimum rest.
Are you eating healthily? Over-eating, which makes us sluggish and unproductive, adds to stress. But equally, starving yourself on some faddy detox, can also leave you feeling exhausted and unequal to your day. Adult women and men, on average, require approximately 1,600 to 2,000 calories per day respectively. You wouldn't expect your car to run smoothly on the wrong amount, or type, of fuel, so why expect your body to? Too much alcohol, caffeine or, worse, cigarettes, can all contribute to increased stress levels.
Exercise is absolutely fantastic for stress, and indeed most aspects of your mental health. I know people already feeling overwhelmed think, how can I fit in exercise on top of everything else? But the truth is that exercise has meditative properties which relax you. It gives you endorphins which make you feel more upbeat and it focuses your mind. All of which makes you more productive and efficient. So, adding 30 to 40 minutes of exercise into your day will actually allow you to get more, not less, done! It stretches time.
The other big lifestyle area you need to tackle in order to stress-bust is being organised – simple time-management and people-management. If you feel like you have too much to do, you need to break those tasks down into manageable chunks and look at how you can handle them differently. For example, instead of flying off the handle because you spend ages getting your kids out the door in the morning – and you end up yelling and pulling your hair out – get up a half hour earlier so there's loads of time and their endearingly useless ways won't drive you demented. It's simple organisation.
If, however, you're already very organised – maybe even too much so – and you're already eating, sleeping and exercising adequately, yet you constantly feel stressed, then perhaps there's more to it.
Stress is cumulative and, when it builds up over time, it can change from an external pressure to internal anxiety – a term people dislike, so they often call it stress instead.
If your stress is persistent, severe, or exists without any real external stressors to account for it, you should talk to your doctor.
Anxiety may need more than simple lifestyle change to address it.
Dr Ciara Kelly is a GP in Greystones, Co Wicklow
Sunday Indo Living