OPINION: Feeling stressed? Only you can do something about it
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Columnist Christine Webber has some advice if you’re getting a bit stressed by the events of 2020 so far
When my mum used to feel stressed, she would talk about her “nerves”. I tend to use the word “anxious”. My step-grandchildren tell me they are “stressed out”. Every generation, it seems, has its own vocabulary for when it feels tense and worried.
I like to think we’re more understanding of stress than we used to be. I was appalled to read that in the First World War, soldiers who were unable to fight because they were awash with fatigue and fear and out of their minds with the constant noise of battle, were sometimes court marshalled, then shot. Worse still, their names were omitted from the list of the dead on their town or village’s memorial.
Now, we’re not going through anything as dramatic as a war, but we are in uncharted territory with the pandemic. None of us anticipated it – and its uncertain and prolonged nature is causing an undercurrent of anxiety in many of us.
Of course, stress isn’t all bad, and indeed can have its uses. A psychiatrist, who was a friend and mentor of mine for decades, used to say that just as pain alerts us to the possibility that there’s something wrong with our bodies, stress highlights that our minds are being overwhelmed in an unhealthy way.
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When that happens, we can often identify the source of the stress – maybe we hate a job, or no longer love our partner – and begin to work out what we need to do about changing them.
But Covid-19 stress is different. Apart from keeping ourselves as safe as possible, we have virtually no control over the virus. And that’s what causes our unrest.
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The world-famous Mayo Clinic says: “Chronic stress is caused by extreme ongoing struggles, along with lack of control or meaning.”
I think this puts it very well and seems to sum up why many people currently are in danger of becoming chronically stressed.
Does it matter though?
It does. Persistent stress is bad for us. The Mayo clinic’s website goes on: “Stress can decrease your lifespan by three to five years, and chronic stress can accelerate your aging by 10 to 15 years.”
This is a clear message and makes me want to do everything I can to reduce any anxiety symptoms I have. Will you join me?
Let’s look at how stressed you may be, even if normally you’re someone on a very even keel. Are you:
Jumpy or nervous?
Unable to concentrate?
Unable to sleep in a restful and restoring way?
If you are, the likelihood is that you are more anxious than you realised.
Are you also experiencing panic, breathlessness, nausea, dizziness? Do you feel as though you have a lump in your throat? Have you got all sorts of aches and pains particularly in your jaw, shoulders or upper back? If you have any of these symptoms, then you’re probably extremely stressed. I must point out though that some of these feelings may indicate there’s something physically wrong with you, so you should see your GP about them.
On the subject of doctors, can they help with stress? Well, 30 years or so ago, they would have written you a prescription for tranquillisers. But that rarely happens now because such drugs are seriously addictive and are commonly given only for a very short period. Nowadays, most medics will advise exactly what I’m suggesting, which is that we should all take note of our stress during this weird period and build calming strategies into our routine to alleviate it.
You are the expert on you, so I’m not going to tell you what you must do. But in general terms, most of us would benefit from more regular exercise whether it’s dancing, walking, swimming, running, playing football or tennis. So, try to do something physical at least five times a week because getting more active is one of the best ways of defusing anxiety.
Yoga or pilates – both of which also involve attention to breathing – are very helpful too.
Then we need entertainment and diversions such as playing a board game with the family, watching a TV comedy or a favourite movie, or doing something with our hands like knitting, drawing, tapestry, woodwork, or making models. I painted some old and shabby garden furniture the other day and was amazed at how soothed I felt afterwards.
Playing a musical instrument or singing relaxes us, as does listening to music. And if you’re into meditation or mindfulness this could well decrease the level of stress you’re experiencing.
Finally, there are very good books on the subject, including:
How to Beat Worry and Stress (Dr David Delvin)
Overcoming Anxiety (Helen Kennerley)
And a couple of my video podcasts might also prove useful:
No one should feel ashamed of being upset or worried at the present time. It’s entirely justified. But please try to combat these feelings in a way to suit you. In other words, look after yourself!