I have to admit Campaign weeks typically pass me by. National Chip week in February went unnoticed, as did National Bed Month in March (although on reflection perhaps I should have paid more attention to that one…) But it came to my attention that it is Mental Health Awareness week this week and the theme for this year is stress. This is so important for all of us. I thought it a good opportunity to raise the issue of stress and its relationship with illness.
Our stress response is a normal and necessary reaction to stressors we come up against in life. Our body releases stress hormones that help us to respond quickly - you’ve probably heard of this fight-flight-freeze reaction. Heart rate and breathing increase to get oxygen to the body quickly, energy is mobilised rapidly and even our pupils dilate to allow us to spot and evaluate danger more easily. These were all very useful evolutionary features when we were roaming the land having to watch out for any number of predators that may have considered us a tasty snack. This instant response enabled us to survive immediate dangers.
However, these days life is somewhat different. While we are lucky not to be faced with life threatening situations on a daily basis, we do suffer an awful lot of stress, much of this psychological stress. And it tends to be unrelenting: bills that need to be paid, job insecurity, relationship difficulties, family illnesses…. The list is endless.
These stressors could be considered as a filling bucket of water. Bucket size and rate of filling will vary from person to person and situation to situation. Up to a certain point it’s all good. The bucket fills, this is normal and we can cope well. However, if we are not careful, the bucket fills to overflowing and this is where problems can occur. Something has to give and in many cases this is our health. Stress can be a key contributor to many illness: respiratory infections, headaches, gut problems and musculoskeletal pains to name just a few.
What can we do about this?
As you will be aware, most of the time we cannot stop these stressors occurring. Life happens. What we can do is choose how we respond. One way of looking at this is ensuring there are outlets in your bucket – small taps installed to ensure the bucket does not overfill – at least not too often.
These outlets could be any number of things that you would find helpful:
Ensuring you have regular time every week to get together with close friends for a catch up.
Taking sometime out in the day to go for a walk.
Doing something indulgent just for yourself.
Spending a few minutes each day just sitting and breathing.
Listing the things that you are grateful for in life.
Spending a few minutes each day journalling about things that are on your mind.
There is no one specific formula and it will be different for everybody. If nothing particular comes to mind I do urge you to just try a couple of things on the list and see what works for you. Or if you have your own strategies please do share!