Doctor doctor: I feel constantly overwhelmed, how can I cope with the stress?

Niamh Houston

Dear Doctor I feel on edge and unable to cope with the stresses of life. Can high-stress levels harm my health and how can I take control of these feelings?

I constantly feel stressed, and am on edge the whole time. Can feeling like this do me harm?

Stress is a fact of life, and is unavoidable in our busy world. But today's demands can result in people feeling overwhelmed and wondering if they'll ever get a handle on it.

When stress is ever present, it can leave you constantly tense, nervous and on edge. It can be a vicious circle as the less control you have over your stress, the more likely you are to feel stressed.

In the short-term stress does no harm , but continuous stress can lead to the long-term activation of your body's stress-response system. The resulting over-exposure to cortisol and adrenaline can disrupt almost all your body's processes. This puts you at increased risk of a number of health problems including heart disease, digestive problems, depression/anxiety, sleep problems, obesity, memory impairment and worsening of certain skin conditions such as eczema.

How can I reduce my stress levels?

Prioritise your life by carefully managing your time and energy. Avoid unhealthy substance use -- alcohol or drug use will only worsen your anxiety in the long term. Exercise is a natural stress buster and anxiety reliever. As little as 30 minutes three to five times a week can provide significant stress relief.

Socialise -- don't let stress or worries isolate you from enjoying activities or meeting up with friends. Regular social interaction and caring relationships will lessen your worries.

Seek help, speak to your doctor to make sure that your anxiety isn't caused by a medical condition such as a thyroid problem or hypoglycaemia. If you find stress is interfering with your day-to-day functioning such as work, your personal relationships, or on a social level, you may consider some professional counselling.

Try to accept uncertainty -- there are certain things you cannot change or have control over in life. Constant worrying is a mental habit, and like any other habit you can learn how to break it. You can train your brain to stay calm and collected and to look at life from a more positive perspective.

Are there specific relaxation techniques to help counteract stress?

Yes, meditation is a type of mind-body complementary medicine. Mindfulness meditation is one type that results in a deep state of relaxation -- by focusing your attention on such things as your breathing or a specific image or object. This removes the stream of jumbled thoughts and information overload that are crowding the mind and contributing to stress. Anyone can practise meditation, and all that is needed is a few minutes each day.

The pay-off of managing stress is peace of mind and, perhaps, a longer, healthier life.