Escape the Stress Trap

Since April is National Stress Awareness Month, it feels like an appropriate time to take a look at how we are all susceptible to getting caught up in the stress trap, and have a look at some ways we might stop this happening before it’s too late.

And if you’re reading this thinking, ‘it’s already too late!’, what steps can you take to reclaim your life?

I think stress is one of those things that has a habit of creeping up on us when we are least expecting it.  One minute it can feel like we are happily going along, filling our work and social lives with all the things we enjoy doing most, and wham, before we know it, we are experiencing burn-out.

What does ‘burn-out’ feel like?:

  1. not being able to get to sleep at night because your thoughts are racing
  2. having disturbed sleep, including nightmares.
  3. feeling guilty that you are letting people down if you can’t keep to an arrangement
  4. feeling cross with yourself for not being ‘stronger’ and more able to manage all the things you’d planned
  5. feeling confused – after all isn’t yoga/ the gym/ meeting up with friends / going on a night out, etc supposed to be relaxing?
  6. worried about letting others down – friends, colleagues, your boss, your partner – they need you after all.
  7. feeling panicky about stress affecting your physical or mental health, especially if you have experienced burn-out in the past.
  8. physical symptoms – such as headaches, heart palpitations, nausea, muscle tension, loss of appetite or comfort eating.
  9. exhaustion, not being able to get up in the mornings and feeling constantly tired, even after rest and breaks.

Sometimes it is only when we start experiencing symptoms of burn-out, that we realise we have to do something about it, but unfortunately, recognising the symptoms for what they are can be confusing.

Because of the high expectations we can have of ourselves, we might be less likely to attribute our symptoms of burnout to our life-style.

Some suggestions for becoming ‘stress aware’:

  1. Next time you feel badly under pressure, try setting a timer for ten of minutes and  write down all you are feeling at that time, without worrying about spellings and grammar (no one is going to read it!).  You could include all your emotional feelings as well as any physical symptoms you are experiencing.  Try and write as freely as you can and without stopping to think.
  2. Write a list (I like lists!) of all the ‘demands’ that you are aware of having.  Try not to judge these ‘demands’.  (Sometimes, even taking a shower or making a cup of tea can feel too much).
  3. Looking at that list, which of the ‘demands’ do you have least choice over (these could include doing homework, attending college or work, caring for young children, etc).
  4. And now comes the more tricky task of deciding which ones you have most choice over.  It’s here where you are likely to experience feelings of  ‘I can’t let my friends down’, ‘the yoga classes are an important part of helping me to relax’, ‘I love my job, and I feel like I have to put in extra hours, even though my boss tells me I don’t have to’.  I am sure you can add to these dilemmas!
  5. Now have a think about the last time you had some time totally to yourself, with no activities planned.  What did you do – watch some trashy telly, read a book, newspaper, magazine, listen to music, have a long bath?  How did you feel at that time?  The chances are you relished that space.
  6. How much of your week do you actually have time totally to yourself? Do you feel like this is enough?

When we are in the middle of burn-out, especially if we are experiencing difficult symptoms and feelings, it is only natural that we want to find ways of stopping them.

You might recognise some of the following coping strategies in yourself:

  • having an extra glass of wine to block out unwanted feelings
  • rewarding yourself with junk food, or over-eating
  • punishing yourself by depriving yourself of food
  • ‘beating yourself up’, and telling yourself you should be able to cope with all you are doing, after all, everyone else is.
  • zoning out, perhaps having too much screen-time, as a way of avoiding what needs to be done

If any of this is sounding familiar, learning to recognise when you are starting to feel the pressure, before it all  starts to feel ‘too much’, is very important.

Once you are able to recognise you are doing too much, it is time to put some strategies in place!

  1. Be prepared to put into action standard self-care practice, e.g.. fresh air and moderate exercise, healthy eating, regular bedtimes, cutting down on caffeine.
  2. Practice Mindfulness.  Here are several useful  APPS, some of which are free: –Headspace; Calm;  Calm-Harm;  Chill Panda;  ESC student;  STOPP;  Dare; PanicShield;  Lite;  Catch It;  Pacifica.
  3. Try factoring more ‘me’ time into your daily and weekly schedule.  If this feels difficult, start slowly and build it up.
  4. Recognise when you are comparing yourself to others, and remember  you are a unique being; what is right for someone else may not work well for you.
  5. Listen to your symptoms.  This one is really important – our emotions work as data sources for our lives. We are the masters of ourselves, a ‘negative’ emotion is our cue to act.
  6. Take a brutal look at the list you made earlier and see where you can make some changes and cut down on some of the demands in your life,
  7. Try and start work an hour later and finish an hour earlier if this is possible.
  8. Recognise when you feel guilty for saying no to someone, and tell yourself it’s ok to feel guilty, but you have a choice whether or not to allow it to affect your actions.
  9. If you feel under pressure for a deadline, speak to someone about how you feel.  Remember universities will allow you extensions for extenuating circumstances, but if you don’t make contact, they have no way of finding out you are struggling.
  10. Remember, there is no shame in admitting you are struggling; on the contrary, it takes a lot of courage to speak out.
  11. And if you think you have to carry on and ‘be strong’ because others need you, remember the ‘oxygen mask on the aeroplane’ instructions: we need to make sure our own mask is in place, before we can assist others!

Hopefully, following some of these tips will start to help you to feel more in control of your stress-levels, and when you start to feel some positive benefits from the changes you make, it will inspire you to carry on and make further positive changes, as and when you need to.

If you are experiencing a lot of distress, it might be an idea to make an appointment with your GP.  And remember, talking to a therapist will give you a chance to explore things more deeply and can be an important step towards living a more stress-free life. Please get in touch if you want to chat about this further:

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