New year / new you?
Welcome to 2022! We know that, for many, this year's start feels very similar to the last, with the dreaded pandemic still keeping us locked away from each other. In this time, stress and anxiety can feel a little like the baseline - that this is the "new normal" and that our daily challenges are either getting worse or amplified. One study last year from CIPHR found that nearly half (49%) of UK adult respondents admitted to feeling stressed five or more days each month - one of the highest statistics on the globe.
In these times, it's easy to forget that most causes of stress are temporary. The mechanisms we use to cope with these challenges can help see us through the darker times - whether through support or changing the way we think and act in our daily lives. Here's our round-up of how you can get off to a good start in 2022.
What actually is stress?
While there's an abundance of definitions for the term, it's widely accepted that stress is a feeling of anxiety that you encounter in response to a situation. Stress creates internal physical, and emotional tension, leading to various bodily, mental, or behavioural responses.
Stress is found in the human fight-or-flight response, a left-over from our caveman days that keep you alert in the face of potential danger. Stressful situations often mimic our body's fight-or-flight response, which floods the body with a range of different hormones. The two primary ones being: adrenaline, which increases your heart rate and blood pressure and cortisol (raises blood sugar levels, alters the immune system and temporarily raises energy levels).
Studies show that unmanaged stress can lead to many physical and mental health problems, potentially including heart disease, weakened immune system, heightened blood pressure, anxiety disorders and depression.
5 Common Signs of Stress
Specific symptoms can indicate that stress may be negatively impacting your life. Some common symptoms:
- Headaches and migraines: Tension headaches occur when our muscles contract or are tightened for long periods. When you're stressed, your body naturally tenses up. When suffering from chronic stress, this constant tensing leads to headaches, interfering with your daily routine.
- Teeth grinding: Also known as bruxism, tension from stress can cause clenching in the extremities or the mouth. For many, teeth grinding unwittingly occurs at night while asleep, leading to headaches, ground-down teeth and jaw pain that gets worse over time.
- Sweating: Stress raises your heart rate and increases body temperature, activating the sweat glands needed to cool down. Some people have active sweat glands, making them prone to sweating even at lower stress levels - this can create a spiralling effect where more heat causes more anxiety.
- Nail-biting or picking: When we're stressed, our bodies look for ways to cope. Some people find biting or picking at their nails to be an effective short-term stress reliever. Not only is this kinda gross, but it's also unhealthy - especially during these strange times where we're supposed to try and reduce hand to mouth contact.
- Burnout: Burnout occurs when you reach peak emotional, physical, and/or mental exhaustion. Burnout can absolutely make you feel anxious, depressed and inadequate, impacting your performance at work or your relationships.
What Is stress management?
Stress management is a way of lessening the harmful effects anxiety and stress may have on your body. Being completely or permanently stress-free is not likely, nor particularly healthy - a small amount of stress can be beneficial in keeping motivated. However, it is certainly possible to adapt your stress response to mitigate stress's negative impact on your life.
8 Ways of dealing with stress
It's vital to know how to effectively lower stress levels to reduce the probability of stress harming your life. Some helpful stress reduction methods we recommend are:
Avoid stress triggers
Everyone's motivations are different, but imposing distance between yourself and a triggering event (social media, the news, or even an individual) can really help combat potential anxieties before they arise. Try to remember which variables create more negative feelings than positive, and try to limit those as much as possible.
Mindfulness meditation and walking meditation are relaxation techniques that can help relieve stress. When you give your mind something to concentrate on other than the anxieties and strains, you help create distance between yourself and the stressful situation. This allows you to question negative thoughts and gain perspective.
Get some exercise
You don't have to run marathons to experience it, but exercise is one of the most restorative ways to mitigate stress naturally. When exercising, you release endorphins, chemicals in the brain that act as a natural painkiller and raise mood levels. Increasing the number of endorphins in your brain can reduce the physical pains of stress and improve your dopamine production, which can help you feel happier overall.
Yoga was a physical and philosophical practice in India over 5,000 years ago (we've written about the link between yoga and stress here). Specific forms of yoga incorporate mindfulness with low-impact physical activity. It's thought the best time to practice yoga is early morning as it sets up our nervous systems for the rest of the day to navigate stressful situations with more awareness of our body and breath. Tai chi is similar to yoga, except it consists primarily of standing poses in motion rather than seated and standing postures held in place. Each practice has been proven beneficial to those who experience chronic stress.
Get better sleep
While this is often easier said than done, stress can cause you to lose sleep, and losing sleep can cause you to feel more pressure. Improving sleep hygiene can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep at night, reducing your stress. We've written on how to sleep better and wake up refreshed here.
Sometimes, the words and stories you say to yourself (known as your internal monologue) can contribute to stress levels. This is what CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) studies and tries to solve. Try altering your perception when you respond to a particular issue or stressor. For example, instead of saying you just can't do something, ask yourself what you can do instead.
Take a digital detox
One of the most meaningful ways to handle stress is by finding a balance between the virtual and the physical worlds - in other words, trying a digital detox. This can help nurture better relationships with people and reorientate yourself - especially important at the start of a new year.
Sort out your diet
As anyone who's ever great brunch, food can influence our moods. The negative is that sugary foods cause blood sugar imbalances, creating mood swings. If you're already stressed and have elevated cortisol levels (the stress hormone), drinking caffeine is a recipe for anxiousness, difficulty sleeping, a lack of energy and other adverse health outcomes (we recommend a delicious oolong or matcha tea instead). Leafy veg and foods rich in magnesium and vitamin B are great mood boosters.