The complete guide to stress and how you can banish it from your life
Money, work and the state of our relationships - these are the three life issues that cause Irish people the most stress and while our daily worries might seem insignificant, they can have a profound impact on our overall health.
While psychologists argue that a certain amount of stress can but good for us (for instance the nerves you feel before a first date or ahead of the first Leaving Cert paper) regular periods of acute stress can develop into a chronic condition. This affects all aspects of our lives from our cardiovascular wellbeing to our ability to get a good night’s sleep.
Because a certain amount of stress is seen to come part and parcel with life, many people ignore the symptoms until they develop chronic stress, according to psychologist Anne McCormack.
"Many of us feel like stress is such an ordinary thing, something that everyone feels, and so we often just grin and bear it even when it becomes overwhelming.
"Our relationships, our professional lives, our finances, these are things that all of us stress about and although it may not seem so significant at the time, stress can build and build until it becomes a real issue and a real threat to our health."
Five ways chronic stress impacts your health
Stress can directly lead to heart disease
A recent study published by Harvard Medical School’s the Lancet found that chronic stress suffered over a prolonged period of time is directly linked to your cardiovascular health. Those who have a heightened activity in the part of the brain linked to stress, the amygdala, are more likely to suffer from a heart attack, heart failure and heart disease because of this.
Consultant Cardiologist Dr Robert Kelly said that stress has a direct impact on the heart, regardless of age or other risk factors.
"I recently put stents in the heart of a 35-year-old executive who was presenting with chest pain and had blockages in his heart. His job would be hugely high-pressured, with a responsibility over a department of a thousand people. An incredibly young man for this kind of heart complication, but the link made by the Lancet between chronic stress and heart disease is something to be considered."
Stress impacts our sleep
More than 40pc of Irish people who have issues with sleep relate their problems to stress, according to recent research. However, Sleep Consultant Lucy Wolfe says many people might struggle to fall asleep because they are worrying, but not getting enough sleep also contributes to stress, creating a vicious cycle.
"Everything you feel, everything you eat, everything you drink, it can all be traced back to your quality of sleep and that includes stress.
"There is a definite relationship between stress levels and the quality of sleep you get, and it can create a negative cycle, which can be difficult to pull yourself out of."
Stress causes us to compensate
Heading to the pub after a difficult day at work, having that cigarette after a stressful meeting or scoffing a bar of chocolate after a chat with your boss are all ways in which we compensate for stress.
However, Dr Kelly says these practices have an obvious impact on our health and can put us at risk for a number of other ailments and conditions.
"To compensate for stress we might have a cigarette, too many coffees, that regular glass or two of wine to help us wind down in the evening, but these all have an impact on our health.
"I recently treated a patient who was experiencing heart palpitations but when we sat down and looked at it, he was having up to nine coffees each day, working mad hours, bringing his work home at the weekend and not getting the exercise he used to before taking on his new role."
Stress impacts your mental health
While chronic stress is not a cause of mental health problems including depression, it is certainly can be a contributory factor.
"Stress is not a direct cause of mental health problems,” Dr Robert Kelly says.
"But of course chronic stress can make us more prone to suffering from poor mental health. Likewise, stress is not a direct cause of cancer, but certainly years of chronic stress might increase the risk."
McCormack said high stress levels can make us more at risk of panic attacks, which can have a frightening impact on how we function.
"Higher anxiety levels make it more likely that a person will suffer from panic attacks which can become debilitating.
"It’s important to address stress before it becomes overwhelming and a good way to start that is to make a conscious effort to make smaller changes."
Stress and weight are linked
Dr Kelly, who recently launched a health and wellness business (www.rkcardiology.ie) to help his patients tackle their weight, said making the effort to lose pounds has a positive impact on stress levels, as well as overall health.
"People tend to overlook the impact being overweight can have on stress. Making small dietary changes and losing a few pounds can often have a positive impact and make us feel as though we are more in control.”
"Being overweight can put you at a higher risk of diabetes, stroke, heart disease, you name it, but losing weight can undo a lot of these risks if you are young."
Stress has a regrettable impact on our happiness
When you’re stressed, it can be easy to look at the negatives, which impacts our overall happiness. Dr Kelly said by making an effort to focus on the things in our lives that are going well, or the things that make us happy like our family and friends, can help improve our stress levels and have a positive impact on our health.
"There has been studies where dying people were asked what their biggest life regrets were and it’s worth bearing in mind. A large majority of them asked ‘Why did I work so hard?’, ‘Why did I worry so much about paying the bills and that mortgage’, ‘Why didn’t I spend more time enjoying myself with my friends and family’, and that happiness factor is worth thinking about."
10 ways to alleviate stress
Keep a journal
"A diary can be a good way to figure out why you are stressed,” says McCormack. “It can help you identify the patterns and to pinpoint your stress triggers.”
Tackle your weight with diet and exercise
"There’s a lot of positivity that can come from tackling your weight, people might begin to tell you how good you’re looking and you might feel better able to tackle your environment,” says Dr Kelly.
"Your energy levels improve, your sleep cycles improve and both of these have links to stress. Making an effort to get some exercise can also have a positive impact on stress levels.”
Acknowledge the symptoms of stress
Typical symptoms associated with acute stress are an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, a skipping, fluttering heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweaty palms and headaches.
Terri Morrissey, CEO of the Psychological Society of Ireland, says: “When it comes to stress it can be a cycle of alarm bells, it’s important to pay attention to our bodies.
"Our focus is so often on external sources that we can miss the signals and not be in tune with what is going on.
"It can be a bit like an old radio, you can be listening to a station with static without realising it is not exactly clear, but when you take the time to tune into the right one it can make a big difference."
Set yourself small goals
Rather than a life overhaul, it can be helpful to make small achievable goals to alleviate your stress, for example, to make an effort to get seven hours sleep, or to get out for a 30 minute walk. However, larger goals can often add to our stress levels and make us feel terrible when we don’t achieve them.
Morrissey says, "Setting yourself goals can be a double-edged sword and can often add to our stress levels. It depends on what your goals are, it is very important that they are achievable. Much like it would be unrealistic to set a goal to lose two stone within weeks as a resolution, it can be harmful to set goals that are over-reaching."
Chill out on the commute
Recent research has shown that 55pc of people admitted to being stressed while driving four times each week, and our daily commute certainly takes a toll on our stress levels.
“Traffic and a long commute is definitely something that has a great impact on a lot of people,” says McCormack.
“Sitting in traffic night after night, morning after morning can make you tense. Practising some simple breathing exercises in the car, or taking the moment to consider why you are feeling so irritated can be helpful.
“If you’re feeling stressed, spend some time practising gratitude. Think about all the things you are grateful for, and ask yourself how your current situation pales in the grand scheme of things” she said.
Get the correct amount of sleep
Sleep consultant Lucy Wolfe says the human body needs more than seven hours sleep to function properly.
"To promote the best possible health, we need to sleep for between seven and nine hours each night. This ensures that we drift through five sleep cycles. Some people boast that they need four or five hours sleep. This might not affect them today or tomorrow, but there could be long term health implications so getting that quality of sleep is vital."
Making an effort to consciously focus on what is happening in the moment, for example, your breathing or your heartbeat as you lie in bed, can be a way to wind down and to lower your stress levels.
Think about yourself
Dr Robert Kelly says that we can often be more concerned with our partner’s health above our own which can be detrimental.
“If stress is making you sick, you need to do something about it.
“I often get wives in to ask me to have a look at their husbands, and I sometimes go ‘Well what about you?’ We have a tendency to forget about our own health and wellbeing."
Have a chat
Many of us feel that stress is such a common problem we much go it alone, but having a chat with a partner, friend or even a professional can be helpful.
McCormack says: "It can be good to talk about it. I think people don’t check in with themselves enough and it can cause a build up. Talking about your emotions with a friend or partner, or even a counsellor can help you relieve that bubble of stress and can become a good mechanism."
Build up your resilience
Terri Morrissey believes that people have an ability to build up their resilience to tackle stressful situations, but it is something that takes time.
“Something I am working on right now is the idea of resilience building and mental toughness. This kind of grit and determination is something we have to build up and constantly work on, we aren’t just born with it. It is about developing the capability of handling our stress.
“There are a number of ways we can work through our stress, practical thinking, physical activities, consciously changing our behaviour.”
Sleep Consultant Lucy Wolfe’s five tips to get a good night’s sleep
More than a third of sleep problems are related to stress, which can make it difficult to get the quality of sleep you need. Here are some tips to help you switch off and achieve the necessary seven hours a night.
Document your worries in a diary
A few hours before bed in the early evening, it can be helpful to document your worries in a journal, however it is important to do this well before bedtime. This can be a good outlet for worries and a way to work through them before you attempt to go to sleep.
“Practising mindfulness can be a good coping mechanism to help you alleviate stress. Instead of focusing on your worries in bed at night, make a conscious effort to incorporate some mindfulness practices, like focusing on your breathing cycles.”
“For instance instead of thinking about how much you are worried about work and dreading it you might instead say to yourself ‘Okay, I’m worried about work, but right now I’m going to concentrate on my body'. It’s not something that can be done in a night, but working on good sleep practices can help make it easier to get the night’s sleep that you need to function.
Make a commitment to better sleep
“As well as making an effort to go to bed early, Lucy said it’s important to keep your sleep routine as regular as possible.
“Try and keep your cycle regular, for example, aim to go to bed at the same time and rise at the same time. Having staggered bedtimes and sleeping in can add to the problem if you are struggling with your sleep.
“Having a regular structure promotes your hormone balance and your circadian rhythm, which is our biological clock.
“Napping during the day can also have an impact,” she said.
“It sounds obvious, but avoiding coffee and caffeinated drinks is important. We shouldn’t be drinking coffee after 2.30pm as it can stay in our bodies for between six to eight hours.”
Take it easy in the kitchen
“Eating large meals within three hours of sleep can impact your sleep quality. You should also avoid strenuous exercise within three hours of bedtime.”
Make sure your environment is right
“Your sleep environment is very important.
“Your room shouldn’t be cluttered, it shouldn’t be scented and strong candles should be avoided.
“The room should be comfortable and cool, your mattress should not be more than ten years old. The textures should be something you are comfortable in.
“Your bedroom should be dark and quiet and free from devices.”
Handy tip for shift workers
“Shift work offers its own challenges. If you are on a night shift it can be a good idea to put on your sunglasses before you leave the building. It sounds silly but it the sunlight can have an impact on your ability to get to sleep.”
Lucy is the author of The Baby Sleep Solution