Saturday 20 July 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: How to stop stress ruining your life

The myriad pressures of modern living affect us all and if we are not careful they can take their toll. But treated positively, stress can make us happier and more successful, writes our GP

Ciara Kelly
Ciara Kelly

Ciara Kelly

STRESS! In some ways it has become public enemy number one in terms of mental health, and almost everyone believes themselves to be suffering from it or that they need to manage it better. But what exactly is stress and can you actually make it work for you?

It’s hard to get a concrete definition of what stress actually is — there’s lots of stuff about external pressures causing distress — but for me the simple definition of stress is the shortfall between what you feel able to do and what you feel you’re expected to do. It’s that sensation that we are being pushed beyond our limits. Which can be very hard to cope with and can put enormous strain on us. But equally, sometimes pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone and challenging ourselves to do a little bit more can be empowering, revelatory and exhilarating.

So let’s take a little look at the downsides of stress and how to manage it and also the less talked about upsides and how to harness it.

Negative  stress

This is the kind of stress we’re supposed to avoid or try to manage. External pressure or excessive demands on us that make us feel very worried or even a bit sick. Lots of us can handle stress for a period of time but when it becomes cumulative — which it does when it’s ongoing for long periods — we start to absorb it and internalise it so now we feel stressed even when there’s no real pressure on us. We’re stressed all the time. At this point it becomes a real problem. And when you get here I’d describe someone as suffering from anxiety — although people often prefer the term stress as it feels more acceptable to them. But anxiety is the general feeling of worry, nervousness or unease — and if that’s where you’re at — your stress has morphed into something more serious.

Anxiety, of course, if left unchecked is exhausting. That constant nagging worry about everything and sometimes nothing at all, coupled with that inner negative monologue and an inability to turn your head off — can often lead to depression. Where your mood is now low because you feel wrecked and you view everything in a negative light because you’re constantly worrying about it. So it is important to nip stress in the bud before it develops into something more serious from a mental health point of view.

Toxic stress

Some people who are in difficult circumstances such as chronic poverty, situations of violence, abuse or other major psychological pressures can suffer from toxic stress — a chronic low-level feeling of unease that can cause severe strain on mental health, physical health and, indeed, a lowering of your life expectancy. So stress can have massive implications for your health and happiness.


So how do you feel if you’re suffering from stress? Not everyone recognises the symptoms. And sometimes if they’ve been there for long time we ‘normalise’ them and treat them as if they’re not really a problem even though they clearly are.

Inability to sleep properly — often because things are playing over in our mind;

* Irritability — often over minor things;

* Poor concentration;

* Inability to make a decision or a plan and stick to it;

* Smoking or drinking too much;

* Eating too much or too little;

* Feeling tense and being unable to relax — feeling like you must always be doing something

* Physical symptoms like nausea, palpitations, dry mouth, a knot in your stomach, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, feeling sweaty, headaches, muscle tension.

If you recognise these symptoms in yourself — chances are you are at least suffering from stress and possibly you may be suffering from anxiety.

Managing stress                       

One of the first things you should do is write down what is bothering you — or where your flashpoints arise. So if your stress all relates to your boss — identify that. And if you always fly off the handle trying to get the kids ready and out for school — identify that. Knowing what’s bothering you specifically is the first step to doing something about it and especially if you are struggling to make decisions or plans, writing stuff down can be very helpful.

The next thing you should do is talk about it — getting advice and support from trusted friends or family members really eases the burden of stress. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ isn’t a cliche for nothing. And if that isn’t enough, talk to a professional counsellor or psychologist. They are great at giving you pointers on the road to managing your stress and also possibly reordering your life and reducing it.

Stress reduction

There are lots of helpful things you can do to reduce your stress — although, of course, dealing with the root of it is probably most important. In the meantime try some of these:

■ Breathing exercises — long, slow deep breaths — in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to count in for seven and out for 11 to really slow you and your breathing down;

■ Tense and stretch your muscles — tense and relax individual groups of muscles starting at your feet and working your way up your body until you are rolling out the tension in your head and neck;

■  Positive relaxation — this isn’t just the absence of rushing around, this is the engaging in actual relaxing activities. Do what you enjoy, from stuff like yoga, a dance class, a quiet stroll, a warm bath, a good book. Often when we are stressed we find it hard to do these things — so sometimes you will have to ’train’ yourself to relax at these kinds of pursuits, but do train yourself and you will start to feel the benefits;

■ Time management — try to pepper your day with small periods of time outs, over lunch or when you get home from work, for example, where you just do nothing but chill for a bit. Being constantly on the go with no small breaks is very stressful. But also try to allow enough time for stuff you need to do. If school mornings or kids’ bedtimes are a flashpoint get up 20 minutes earlier or start preparations half an hour sooner so you aren’t rushing to get everything done and feeling like you’re failing;

■ Exercise!!! This is a huge stress buster. It gives you more energy by raising your metabolic rate. It clears your head while you’re doing it, giving you a little mental rest. It produces endorphins, those happy hormones that make you feel better able to cope. And it’s a time out — just for you. Exercise is as effective as anti-depressants in improving your mood in all but the most severe forms of depression. It is an absolute game changer when you are feeling stress or strain;

■ Fags and booze — we often lean on these when we are under pressure, but the truth is they only make us feel worse so we should reduce or stop them altogether at times of stress. Cigarettes raise our heart rate and blood pressure only increasing our stressed-out feelings, plus as they’re addictive the more we smoke the faster the withdrawal symptoms kick in — making us feel nervous and agitated. And alcohol is a depressant that lowers our mood but also, particularly the morning after the night before, increases our anxiety levels exponentially;

■ Sleep — tiredness is the enemy. It’s very hard to not feel stressed if you’re exhausted. Try to get a minimum of seven hours a night to function properly and feel like you’re on top of your game;

■ Hobbies — Lots of us have stuff that we like to do but that gets neglected when life gets in the way. Hobbies like cooking, drawing, knitting, writing or indeed soccer, golf, snooker, model railway building or whatever the hell you like yourself are all great to switch off and get some balance back in your life. Spending some time doing something you love is a great way of switching off and recharging your batteries. You always said you were going to write that great novel. Maybe just do it.


OK, so you’ve signed up to a creative writing class, you’re doing hot yoga four times a week you’ve started playing golf, clean eating, listening to relaxation tapes, joined a running club and are attending a counsellor and you still feel sick with stress and are biting the heads off all around you. What then?

Well then I would suggest you need to go and see someone like me. Sometimes time-management, lifestyle changes, counselling and exercise simply aren’t enough and you may need medication. No one ever wants to go on tablets they always want to ‘fight it themselves’ but the reality is when you ARE fighting and are getting nowhere — sometimes you need more than that. It’s far better to feel good and be on medication than to feel crap and be off medication. Feeling well and happy is the goal here — whatever it takes to achieve that.

Optimum stress

Up until now I’ve talked exclusively about managing negative or toxic stress levels and trying to protect and nurture your mental health. But there is such a thing as optimum stress levels — that sweet zone where you are a little bit stressed for sure but it hasn’t started to get to you yet and you are buzzed and adrenalinised from the stress you’re experiencing and are in a highly productive, stimulated and energetic space.

The zone of optimum stress is where people often reach their full potential in terms of doing well in exams or interviews or their careers in general. And learning how to harness stress so you stay in that zone, highly focused and productive, is something that high achievers strive for in the pursuit of reaching their goal of success.

View stress as a positive

A lot of what it takes to optimise your stress is to do with how you view it.

First, you need to recognise that stress is often what motivates you to take action. If you think about anything big you’ve ever achieved chances are you were stressed in the run up to it. So stress is not always a bad thing and viewing it positively is one of the first things you need to do to make stress work for you.

On some level we all know that doing stuff that’s important probably is never going to be easy, and worthwhile stuff is often quite difficult in terms of the effort required. This is true whether you are striving to get a qualification, a new job, a promotion or buy a house. Those landmark achievements in your life will always be stressful and require some hard graft. It is the unusual person or the particularly unproductive person maybe who never experiences stress.

But viewing that stress as something that enhances your performance during times of pressure will allow you to feel an uplift and a motivation from it and to feel like it’s helping you and you are moving into a productive coping mode.

The way to view stress is a side effect of you challenging yourself to be better. And, apparently, our brains function better when they view challenges as positives not

negatives — and in this space we process faster and are more productive.

Harvard psychologists say we should see stress as a by-product of achieving success and in the same way we strain in the gym to get fitter and faster and can see that sweat and strain as a good thing on the road to better physical strength. Stress then can be seen as the same kind of side effect of achieving psychological strength.

Use your stress                       

It’s important to bear in mind that stress — that fight or flight feeling — was designed to help us, not hinder us in coping with difficult or scary situations. And even though we often hear about the negative effects of stress on the body there are many positive effects in terms of hormones that are released too. Reframing your attitude to stress so you see it as performance enhancing rather than something awful completely changes your perspective around it and can make feeling a little bit stressed seem like a good thing.

How to manage stress  and stay in the sweet zone

■ View stress as a positive that is performance enhancing and pushes you to do your best and be your best;

■ If you are going beyond optimum stress recognise it and use the tools listed above under ‘Managing stress’ to pull back from the brink — especially talk to people;

■ Stick with positive people who have ‘can do’ attitudes and see ways to achieve goals rather than obstacles to achieving them. The people around us hugely affect how we behave and think. If you hang out with people who are capable you will feel capable too — it’s true!

■ Prioritise what you can and can’t achieve — don’t waste your time or your focus on things that are beyond your control. Forget about them and manage what is under your control — stressing over what’s not under your control is wasted energy;

■ Perfection is not the goal, in fact it’s the enemy — don’t waste your time pursuing perfection, just get it as good as it can realistically be.

Finally, when attempting to harness your stress and make it work for you remember it’s a bit like training for a marathon — you wouldn’t expect to go straight out and run 26 miles. But running shorter distances initially and working up to it means it’s achievable.

In the same way overcoming small amounts of stress along the way makes you realise that you can grow in your abilities to cope with challenges, which is empowering but which is also, coupled with hard work, a great recipe for success.

Stress is part of life. You would want to be doing very little or something very dull not to experience it at all. Sometimes it can be very tough to cope with and you need to take steps to protect yourself and stop it getting too much for you. But equally sometimes it can be the great motivator that pushes you onwards and upwards. Like everything else, it’s all about how you view it really.


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