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It’s a seemingly silent killer of mood and health. As Stress Awareness Month begins on the 1st April, often regulated to business owners, even PAYE employees have had to live with uncertainty of whether they will be paid at the end of each month.
Over the course of a full year dealing with Covid-19, the sheer amount of cortisol, the hormone released when you are stressed, likely reached dangerous levels within most of the UK’s population. This can have adverse affects on memory function, sleep and overall health – both mental and physical.
Stress at work has been difficult to separate from stress at home. Social isolation and anxiety have also taken a huge toll: enquiries to private healthcare services about depression were 42% higher in January 2021 than in January 2020, with a 21% increase in enquiries about anxiety disorders over the same period.
Dr Ian Nnatu, a consultant psychiatrist at Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Harley Street, says rising stress levels have been an emerging consequence of the pandemic: ‘I have seen a significant increase in patients with anxiety and stress over the last year, and I sense the pandemic, lockdown, and uncertainty about the future have all played a part.’
So how can people best handle stress, especially amid fears of a third wave of the pandemic? Here, Dr Nnatu answers six common questions people have about stress:
What is the difference between stress and anxiety?
‘Stress occurs when life’s external demands placed on us exceed our ability to cope. Stress is very common, leading to cognitive, emotional, behavioural, and physical symptoms. Cognitive symptoms include feeling overwhelmed, inadequate and unable to cope. People can have poor concentration and memory. Emotional symptoms can include feelings of anxiety, worry, apprehension, low mood, irritability, feeling overwhelmed. Some behavioural responses to stress include becoming more withdrawn from others, avoidance of tasks and people, procrastination. Stress can leave people feeling physically unwell, prone to colds and infections, having aches and pains, headaches, feeling physically exhausted.’
‘Anxiety is a person’s specific reaction to stress; its origin is deeply internal. It’s characterised by a persistent feeling of apprehension in many situations that are not typically threatening. Unlike stress, anxiety persists even after a concern has passed. In more severe cases, anxiety can escalate into an anxiety disorder.
‘It’s important to know how to identify and differentiate signs of stress and anxiety. Stress is a common trigger for anxiety and it’s important to catch anxiety symptoms early to prevent development of an anxiety disorder.’
Fight negative thoughts with the ‘catch it, check it and change it’ method
What’s the best way to handle financial stress, or stress around job loss?
‘Adopt a pragmatic stance and ask yourself if you can meet the expense. If you are unable to, could you consider a payment plan? The key thing is to do something about this. Get a strategy to pay this off and stick to it. Avoid the temptation to bury your head in the sand and put this off, as this often compounds the problem. Track your progress on a regular basis and make adjustments, as necessary. I would suggest forward planning to guard against this happening in future.
‘With a job loss, this can be rude shock to the system especially when you have not seen this coming. Be compassionate to yourself and avoid self-blame. Reflecting on what happened is a sensible thing to do, but avoid dwelling on this. Take what you can from this exercise and move on. Focus on the future and avoid dwelling on things that are not within your control. Look after your mental health and self-care. Regular exercise helps to build resilience and boost our immunity. Develop other interests and try not to be defined by your job. Stay connected with positive people.’
During the pandemic, uncertainty about the future is a common source of stress. What’s the best way to deal with this?
‘Try to stay in the present moment. Mindfulness and breathing exercises can help with this. Keep a routine and structure. Exercise, to boost mood, can be a useful source of distraction. Restrict your news consumption and try not to ‘Google’ your symptoms. Seek professional help instead. Notice your ‘faulty’ thinking styles; cognitive behavioural therapy can help to identify and change faulty thinking styles.”
If you have a higher intolerance for uncertainty, making you prone to negative feelings, and anxiety, what strategies can you put in place?
‘The first step is ‘noticing’ and being aware of this problem and then you can take steps to try and address this. Learn to accept the things you cannot change. If you cannot change your circumstances, then change your attitudes towards these. There are several things that you can do on your own to help with low mood and anxiety. Exercise can often be a quick and effective way of boosting mood and reducing anxiety. Thirty minutes of brisk walking every day is sufficient especially if you can do this when the sun is out.
‘Make sure you have a healthy diet with wholesome foods; the link between nutrition and our mental health is very powerful. Ensure good sleep and stay connected with close friends and family. Drink alcohol only in moderation and avoid smoking. Seek professional help if your symptoms do not improve.’
No one can avoid the unexpected, but are there simple steps that can help you face life’s uncertainties?
‘Try to stay in the present moment and avoid the temptation to dwell excessively on past events, or to try and predict the future. Breathing exercises, mindfulness and meditation can help with this. Focus on things that are within your immediate control. Keeping a routine and structure can help to boost your wellbeing. Accept that the future is uncertain and allow yourself to feel confident that you can cope with whatever comes up or know how to get help. Notice when you are becoming preoccupied with negative thinking and on a downward spiral. Use simple techniques to reframe your thinking by recognising these negative thoughts, challenging them and then replacing them with more adaptive thoughts. Some refer to this as ‘catch it, check it and change it’. Avoid social media feeds that can cause you to feel destabilised. Stay connected to friends and family. Try and find something pleasurable to do; giving, volunteering, and helping others is a great way of boosting your mood and sense of wellbeing.
How do you stop ruminating on negative events or making stress your ‘default’ emotional state?
‘Distraction can be useful to help break the cycle of ruminative thinking. Calling a friend or going for a walk helps. Reading a book or listening to music can also be effective. Try to identify what you are worrying about, and ask yourself if you can do anything to solve this. If you can, then use a problem-solving approach instead to try and address the problem. Use brain storming techniques to help come up with a strategy and work on problem solving. Use mindfulness to help you stay in the present moment. Find a comfortable spot in a quiet space and focus on your breathing. Identify your negative thinking styles and try and reframe these.’