Stress can be quite difficult to define or measure. Different people handle stress differently. Some people find that they can easily survive a busy lifestyle, and quite well at that, with high levels of stress. On the other hand, some people become tense or anxious and stressed over the slightest change from their daily routines. Most people fall somewhere in between but there are increased periods where they go through more stress than usual. So, how can one handle these stressful moments?
But first, how do we end up stressed?
Stress can be an acute problem where a single occurrence such as bereavement or feeling unwell or having an argument with someone can trigger a stress reaction. It can also be more long-term and chronic such as having consistently heavy workloads and constant conflict with people around you. Sometimes, very small stresses can build up over a period where you can feel quite well until it becomes too much and then you feel overwhelmed.
How is stress related to depression?
Stress is more related to anxiety than depression in such a way that there is a crossover between the two conditions. Chronic stress that doesn't go away after maybe a few days or a couple of weeks after you've tried basic relaxation techniques can be quite problematic and can lead to depression. If you have these persistent symptoms, you need to see your family medicine doctor to find a way of getting over it.
What are the common signs of stress?
There are several stress signs, which you can also see physically. Some of these signs include:
- Not being able to sleep properly
- Worrying constantly
- Becoming very irritable and impatient of minor issues
- Being unable to make decisions
- Not being able to concentrate due to a lot of things going through your mind
- Not enjoying food
- Feeling tense all the time where you may have a fight or flight response
- Having a dry mouth
- Feeling your heart thumping away or having palpitations
- Feeling sick and having a knot in your stomach
- Having headaches, and muscle tension in your neck and shoulders
Stress management techniques
There are several techniques that you can use to try and combat everyday stresses. The first thing is to make a stress list like keeping a diary over a few weeks, where you register your low levels, the things that trigger stress, and places and people that might aggravate your stress levels. With this, you might find that a pattern emerges; for instance, you might find that you get stressed when you're stuck in traffic, or you come home and hear the neighbour’s dog barking, even you might find that a particular person or colleague at work causes your stress levels to increase.
Once you’ve identified what the stress triggers are, then it’s time to try and relieve it or avoid in future. You can do this by:
- Just talking to somebody like a close family member or a friend about your stress and triggers.
- Trying some simple relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises when you're in a stressful environment can help in stress reduction.
How to: Take a nice deep breath into your lungs and very slowly breath out. If you do this a few times and concentrate fully on your breathing, you might find it is quite relaxing. Some people find that breathing with the abdomen can also be relaxing. To do this, simply sit down and put one hand on your chest and the other one on your abdomen. Aim to breathe quietly by moving your tummy, with your chest moving very little. This encourages you to do it efficiently and might help you avoid over-breathing
- The other technique is to do muscular stretches and tensing. Try twisting your neck from one direction to the other as far as you can without it becoming too uncomfortable and then relax. Additionally, try tensing your shoulders and back muscles as much as you can for several seconds, then relax completely.
- Positive relaxation is another way you can combat stress. You can use this technique by dedicating a timeout in your day to relax. This is because relaxation doesn't happen by accident; you need to plan for it. This can include simple things like taking a long walk or a nice bath or listening to music. You shouldn't see this as a waste of time because it is an important part of dealing with the stress of everyday life.
- Meditation and yoga can do a good job of helping you relax as well.
- Exercise is also a very good way to help reduce your stress levels. It is recommended that we exercise at least 30 minutes a day. This can be a brisk walk or going to the gym.
- Last but not list, make sure you avoid smoking and drinking alcohol. People who engage in this think it might be relaxing, but the reality is quite different. You can end up with many health problems, in addition to addiction.
So, the next time you’re in stressful situations, just try practising some of these techniques and see if that helps.
Medical options to manage stress
If the above stress management techniques don’t work, then at this point you may require some form of treatment. As a family medicine consultant, I might refer you for cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT with a counsellor who can help you manage stress and de-stress differently by addressing underlying thought processes and behaviours. If still, these techniques don't work, then it would be time to work with medication that can help prevent stress, particularly one that's chronic and debilitating.
Words by Dr Ali Razzak – Family Medicine Consultant and Aesthetics Expert at Aesthetics by King’s College Hospital Dubai.