By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome back to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, a weekly podcast/article about mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin that is about much more than just talk – every episode includes practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week we’re talking about stress – what it is, why it happens, and how to deal with it (both at work and at home), plus how to manage your mental health and wellbeing every day in order to reduce the effect stress can have on you. So, let’s talk!
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Stress. Whether we like it or not, stress is a part of life. It affects pretty much every single one of us, and we need a little bit of stress in our lives to keep us motivated and moving forward – otherwise, we’d probably all be spending each and every day on the couch doing nothing! But when stress – either at home or at work, or both – gets out of hand, it can cause serious issues for your mental and physical health. I talk a lot in my writing about how it’s up to each of us to be proactive in managing our health and wellbeing, and there are many things you can do to minimise stress in your life. Sometimes, however, stress can get the best of you, so today I’ll talk through how to deal with the ugly beast when you’re feeling overwhelmed by the stress monster as well as how to prevent it from taking hold.
Stress is a psychological term that we’re probably all familiar with, and it describes the feeling we have when we’re under pressure or feeling overburdened by things going on in our life.
In small doses, stress can be a motivator – speak to any athlete, actor or professional musician about their process for getting ready and they’ll probably talk to you about the rush of adrenaline and nerves that they need to work through, and which they might channel into their game or performance. I know that every time I prepare to get up and speak in front of a group of people my nerves kick in, however I always remind myself of what someone I worked with many years ago told me, back when I was a trainer in corporate-land; she said, “If you don’t feel nervous before you get up to present or train, you’re probably not passionate about doing a good job anymore and you may as well pack it in”. That advice has stayed with me until this day, and when I start feeling the nerves before I speak I remind myself why it is happening – it’s because I want to do a good job – so I channel that desire to do well, and it helps me to do better. That’s an example of good stress, which can be a motivator, and we all have a little bit of stress in our lives which serves to push us and move us forward.
When stress gets out of control, however, and you feel constantly nervous or on edge, then it can be utterly exhausting, and if it goes on for more than just a few days then it can cause long-term damage to both your mental and your physical health. That’s why dealing with stress is so important because it’s bad for your health and there is absolutely no sugarcoating that fact, so let’s be clear – too much stress can kill you. Prolonged stress (usually two weeks or more) is get-your-backside-to-the-doctor level stress.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about what we’re not talking about this week. I’m not talking about just having the odd bad day or being a bit bored in your job or studies or anything like that… we all have responsibilities that we need to work through, and it’s pretty common to alternate between good days, average days, and crappy days. But when the crappy days far outweigh the good days or even the average days, that’s when there is a potential problem. When you’re feeling constantly overwhelmed or exhausted or out of control, it is up to you to do something about it and ask for the help that you need to get through whatever it is. If you just leave it and hope that it will go away, unfortunately it probably won’t and then you’ll likely end up with more stress.
Some examples of stress might be feeling pressure at work (or in your studies if you’re a student); it might be feeling overwhelmed by pressures at home; it might be feeling pressure from your family to be or do things a certain way that doesn’t fit in with your values or beliefs; it might be a relationship breaking down with a partner, friend or family member; or it could even be feeling overwhelmed by major events going on in the world. There are many different types of stress that we all experience but they all have one thing in common – they make your life more challenging than it needs to be.
Stress and mental health
Understanding and dealing with stress is a big part of good mental health and wellbeing, because unless you’re living in a cabin in the woods you’re probably going to have some level of exposure to things that can stress you out (and even then, there are spiders and things that will eat you in that off-grid home to deal with). Too much stress can lead to anxiety and/or depression over time – which makes logical sense when you really think about it. Look at it this way: if you constantly run your car engine at full throttle, eventually you’re going to run out of fuel and mess up the motor unless you take some time to maintain your vehicle. Your body is your vehicle and it needs maintenance too, otherwise if you’re constantly running on overdrive then something will eventually have to give. Part of that involves putting in place daily practice to deal with stress before it even happens, because dealing with stress early is the mental health equivalent of avoiding a molehill becoming a mountain – stop it before it grows into something so big that you need a sherpa and a herd of goats to climb it. It’s up to you to find a way to take the pressure down – that’s a 1980’s song reference especially for my fellow Australian listeners/readers, because how could I not quote John Farnham here?!
I’ve dealt with stress a couple of times in my life… and that may be the greatest understatement of the 21st century! I’ve talked to all of you before about my nervous breakdown in 2011 and the nearly seven years of depression and anxiety that followed, and I still struggle with anxiety now – the thing is that something like a total breakdown doesn’t just come out of nowhere, and it’s rarely linked to just one single event or area of your life. In my case, I had severe stress leading up to the breakdown and it was manifesting through a lot of physical symptoms – stomach and intestinal issues, migraines, back pain, poor sleep, the list goes on. I didn’t really deal with what was going on physically or mentally, instead I just self-medicated with food and alcohol which is hardly the most effective treatment.
In hindsight, I knew I was struggling and I was constantly stressed about a number of things – financial issues, family problems, work issues and an overall lack of job satisfaction, as well as general life satisfaction. I do think that if I had have sought help earlier things might have been a bit easier to handle, but unfortunately I waited until I was past breaking point and it took nearly twelve months to find a treatment that could settle my out-of-control emotions (and for the first six months of that I was suicidal, so that made it even more difficult to get through every day). My point is that it’s never too late to do something about your stress, but know that the earlier you start talking to your doctor the better the chance that you can avoid your mental health spiralling out of control – mine was really fast; from initial breakdown to being suicidal only took a couple of weeks, so it’s important to act quickly. If you’re struggling, don’t put it off – you owe it to yourself to do something.
So, what causes stress? Stress is a symptom of bigger issues going on in your life. It’s the little tip of the iceberg sticking out of the water – you’ve probably heard this analogy before but if not, roughly 90% of the mass of an iceberg is hidden underneath the water so what you see above the surface is just a small percentage of its true size. Stress is like that – it’s a symptom of underlying challenges/issues or your needs being unfulfilled. It can be triggered by any number of things – stuff going on in your life, big or small. Some of the big stuff might be illness, arguments with family or friends, moving house, financial issues, planning a big event like a wedding or even a holiday (which can often be far less relaxing than we think it’s going to be, especially if you’re cramming a lot of stuff into a short period of time), or it could be down to pushing yourself too hard. Stress can happen because of stuff at work or stuff at home, or it could be a combination of both – or in fact stress at work could contribute to greater stress at home, because you might be feeling less resilient (and vice versa).
Let’s talk about stress at work for a minute and let’s be real here – it’s pretty rare not to have a crappy day at work every now and then. But when you’re constantly stressed at work, not only are you not going to be terribly effective, but it’s going to be harder and harder for you to find joy outside of work, so it can often end up being a downward spiral into greater stress.
Everyone’s experience is unique and this topic is so big that it’s probably going to need its own episode later on, so I’ll keep that in mind… anyway, there are a few common types of work-related stress. It might be that you’re feeling overwhelmed by the workload or the expectations of the job, it might be that you like your career but not your current employer, it could be that you’re not happy in your current career, you might be having problems with your co-workers, or you might have stuff going on outside of work that’s making it hard to be fully present at work. I’m sure there are lots of others that I could list, but most work stress will likely fit into one of those categories.
Whatever the contributing factor is, be it at work or at home or both, it’s usually not just about what’s going on in your mind. Often, you’ll see physical signs of stress manifesting and it might seem like it’s coming out of the blue, but it’s your body trying to tell you that something is wrong. I don’t know why we insist in western civilisation on continuing to treat our bodies and minds as being seperate entities; I mean, our minds are housed inside our bodies, so it’s not like they’re ever going to be separate because if they were you might have a bit of trouble living! I mean, I’ve come across some people who are living without a brain but it’s not that common, thankfully…
When you’re stressed, your body responds – sometimes you might even experience the physical symptoms before you realise what’s going on in your mind. You might be getting headaches regularly, have ongoing muscle tension, have difficulty sleeping, you might become moody or irritable or angry much more easily than usual, or have low energy or intestinal issues, feel constantly on edge and nervous, or you might struggle to find pleasure in activities that you used to enjoy, or you might find yourself increasing your use of alcohol or other substances as a coping mechanism.
However stress might manifest for you, it’s important to be aware of it and address it early because the longer these feelings go on, the more dangerous they are to your overall health. Let me quote Beyond Blue here (an Australian mental health organisation): “You may be at risk, for the majority of the last two weeks, you found it hard to relax, felt stressed or overwhelmed, and/or felt panicky or anxious. If this is the case, managing your stress levels should become a priority.” (Find this article here). It makes sense when you think about it – as I said earlier on, if you run your car at full throttle, it’s either going to run out of fuel or something’s going to break in the motor… and you are no different. There’s only so long you can function on overdrive before something has to give.
Practical steps for dealing with stress
Let’s get into how you tackle stress, both at work and at home. First of all, let’s take a moment to talk about mindset in general and the role it plays. If you’re a hopeful and optimistic person, you’re certainly not immune to stress but you are more likely to manage it well if you’re able to look for the positive in things rather than becoming hung up on the negative – you can read an article in Psychology Today about the links between optimism and stress here. Regardless of the scientific evidence to back it up, it’s pretty-much common sense when you consider it because how you choose to think has a direct impact on how you feel. It’s not a magic pill though, and as I already mentioned optimistic people aren’t immune to stress – but let’s be clear that mindset and what you choose to focus on in your life is a big starting point in dealing with stress.
Hope plays a massive role here; if you have hope for the future, hope that things can and will get better, you will be more likely to look for the positive in things or want to push past any barriers which will then enable you to get to where you need to get to. In the words of American motivational speaker Brian Tracy, “Set peace of mind as your highest goal, and organise your life around it.” Part of this is about being proactive with your mental health – because before we even talk about how to deal with stress when it’s happening, I have to point out that we should all be taking steps every day to minimise and prevent stress before it happens – I have said it before and I will say it again, prevention is better than cure! I’ll give you some tips for how to do that in a minute.
First, let’s look at how to deal with stress when you’re in the middle of it. First and foremost, identify the cause of the stress. Unless you know what’s really causing it, how are you going to deal with it? Remember what I said before – stress is a symptom, so you need to get to the bottom of what’s really going on. Reflect, dig deep and ask yourself what is happening or not happening that’s causing you stress. Be really, really clear – I’ve talked in previous episodes about digging in so you can understand what’s really going on under the surface (find steps on working through emotional baggage here), and if that means you need to speak to someone you feel comfortable with – preferably someone who can be objective and direct with you – then it’s time to talk to someone. It might be more than one thing that’s contributing to your stress – in fact, it probably is going to be more than one thing if we’re realistic about it – so make sure that you really, really, really understand what’s going on under the surface before you start thinking about solutions.
Once you’re completely clear on what’s causing your stress, you can start working through what you can do to tackle your stress. There is no one-size-fits-all approach because what works for one person may not necessarily work for another, so you need to come up with a list of things that will work for you. A few of the main things that you can do are:
- Dig deep to understand what is really causing your stress – if you haven’t already identified what the root cause of your stress is, then you need to do this before going any further; for advice on how to work through deeper issues, read last week’s episode ‘Let’s Talk About… Baggage’ here (it’s quite detailed)
- Confront it – there’s no point keeping your head in the sand to protect yourself, so confront whatever it is that’s going on. Even just acknowledging that you’re having a rough time can be exactly the circuit-breaker that you need to start thinking about how you’re going to tackle the problem.
- Find solutions – I know it seems obvious but if you want to get rid of stress, you need to address the root cause or causes. Come up with ideas that will resolve the problems that are causing your stress.
- Talk to someone you trust – often a good conversation with a close friend or family member can be just the release you need to get it off your chest, so that you can start to process your way through what’s going on.
- Take a break – a couple of hours or a couple of days to relax might be exactly what you need to recharge your batteries and work through how to tackle whatever is causing your stress, so allow yourself some time.
- Ask for help – some problems are bigger than us as individuals, so if you need help ask for it… do not think that you need to del with it on your own. If you’re super-stressed out or blessed with anxiety like I am, the idea of opening up to someone might make you want to crawl under a rock, but you don’t have to go through things on your own so why would you carry all of that burden alone? Seeking help from someone else can assist you to look at things from a different angle and maybe even to come up with solutions you might never have thought of on your own. You don’t need to go it alone – seriously!
- Diet, exercise and sleep – it might seem like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted, but if your patterns have been all over the place then getting them back on track can help to stabilise things. Put down the cupcake, pour out that second glass of wine and stop listening to that medley of Adele songs, because if you put healthy stuff into your body and mind then you’re more likely to reduce your stress (as long as you’re dealing with the root cause at the same time). Eat well, have a regular sleep cycle and stick to it, take regular exercise and do stuff that’s good for your health – relaxation techniques and mindfulness work well, plus a recent study has shown that yoga can reduce stress and anxiety (read the article here).
Once you’ve managed to work through what’s causing your stress at the moment, take some time to reflect on what happened and consider what you need to change in your life to prevent it from happening again (or at least reduce the chance of it happening). Consider what is within your control versus what is out of your control. For example, if stress is happening because of your job and you can’t change things, then all you can do is change yourself – either change your outlook or change your job. If it’s to do with stuff in your relationship – you can either change your outlook or you can change your situation, i.e. Either seek professional counselling to work on things, or make a decision to move on.
You can only control your own thoughts, feelings and actions – you cannot control others – so if you’re not happy with the way things are, then it’s up to you to change how you think, feel and act. End of sentence. I’m sure it would be lovely if we could just change people or situations to be the way we want them to be, but life doesn’t work that way (thankfully!) and the sooner you accept that the only things you can control are your own thoughts, feelings, and actions, the better off you’ll be.
That brings me to preventing stress, which is all about proactively managing your overall health – when I talk about health, I am talking about physical, mental and spiritual health. Do things that are healthy for your mind, body and spirit because what you take in directly affects how you feel. Work through issues as they arise, and let go of things that are out of your control. If you’re in a situation that is likely to cause stress, either do something about it or remove yourself. I know that sounds simplistic but if you accept that you can only change what is within your control, that you can’t change other people or situations that are outside of your direct control, then all you can do is either influence the situation to change (and wait patiently and hope for it to change), or change your role in the situation. Know what matters to you and focus on that – don’t let stuff that’s not important distract you from what is important.
If you know that you’re prone to stress or that you’re in a stressful situation, be proactive about managing your physical, mental and spiritual health. Don’t let it slide, because prevention is better than what? Cure! That’s right! And on that note… think about what you’re exposing yourself to. For example, there’s a lot of stressful stuff going on in the world – politics and environment and much more. Have a clear perspective about what you can influence vs. what you can let go of, and choose not to get involved in negativity. I make a point of not opening news articles about particular politicians because I just don’t want to be exposed to hatred and greed – I read the headlines so that I know what’s going on, but I choose to find the balance between minimising my exposure to negativity and not burying my head in the sand. Choose what goes into your mind.
Summary and three quick tips for dealing with stress
To summarise: Stress happens to most of us and it can be a motivator, but if it’s affecting you physically and mentally then it’s time to do something about it. Deal with the stuff that’s in your control, let go of what’s out of your control, be proactive about managing stress, and get help to work through stuff when you need it.
To wrap up, here are my three main tips for dealing with stress:
- Stress isn’t just about what’s going on in your head – physical symptoms are common as well, so know the signs and deal with stress early because the longer it goes on for, the more damage it does to you.
- Get to the root cause of what is going on – take the time to really understand why you’re feeling stressed and know that it might be due to multiple factors; don’t try to just stick a Band-Aid on your symptoms, but instead address the underlying causes.
- Focus on what really matters – don’t let stuff distract you from what is most important to you in life.
As always, let’s finish up by reflecting on a quote related to this week’s topic. This is a quote from Robert Eliot; take a moment to reflect on this quote in relation to the topic of dealing with stress and consider what it means to you. The quote is:
“Rule number one is, don’t sweat the small stuff. Rule number two is, it’s all small stuff.”Robert Eliot
So, that’s it for this week! Thanks for joining me again. New podcast episodes and blog posts are released every Monday morning (Australian time), and each Friday morning you can read the weekly Mental Health Talk newsletter which is full of general stuff about health and wellbeing (along with some fun stuff), so please subscribe via the website. For more content, go to:
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Next week I’ll be talking about self-talk – what it is, why it matters and how to work through the things that you think and feel so that you can be more positive and self-confident. I hope you’ll join me again for that episode. Until then, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – you get back what you give out!
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2019 Jeremy Godwin.