Five Pillars of Pain-Free Living: Stress

The third pillar of pain-free living that I would like to share with you is ‘Stress’.

2020 has been an incredibly challenging and uncertain year for us all. Anxiety, repressed anger, low self-esteem and lack of control are all common causes of stress, and may well be feelings you have experienced yourself over the last few months. 

Whilst a little pressure can help push us to achieve our goals and stay motivated, if chronic stress sets in, it can have hugely detrimental effects on both our mental and physical well-being. 

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

William James

What does stress ‘look like’?

You may have experienced some or all of these common stress symptoms:

  • Tiredness
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Indigestion/heartburn
  • Headache
  • Anger
  • Palpitations
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Impatience 
  • IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)
  • Difficulty sleeping

If you have, then you’re not alone! A UK-wide stress study conducted by the Mental Health Foundation (thought to be the largest and most comprehensive stress survey ever carried out) found that nearly three-quarters of us felt overwhelmed or unable to cope at some point. 

Unhealthy demands placed upon us at work and home are often to blame, as well as a society that is yet to fully recognise stress and mental health problems as seriously as physical ones. Fortunately, there have been many campaigns by celebrities and employers to try to rectify this.

The adverse effects of stress

Our stress hormones trigger our body’s fight or flight response, which is designed to protect us in an emergency, by preparing us to act quickly. If these stress responses are firing day after day, this can put our health and mental well-being at serious risk. 

When we are stressed, our muscles tense up to protect themselves from the injury of a perceived threat. As the feelings of stress subside, our muscles can relax again. If we are frequently under stress though, our muscles will remain tense, causing jaw ache, headaches, shoulder and back pain. An unhealthy cycle can develop, where tight muscles discourage us from exercising, and we instead turn to pain relief to try to ease our niggles.

Did you know that the immune system is stimulated when we are stressed?

In the short term, this can help us to avoid infections and help to heal wounds. Over time though, stress weakens our immune system, leaving us susceptible to cold sores and warts, as well as viruses, such as the common cold and flu. A weakened immune system also means that healing time is longer and more drawn out.

Chronic stress can also make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep, affect libido and fertility, and increase blood pressure and the risk of a heart attack. We’re also more likely to turn to caffeine, alcohol and processed, sugary foods when we feel tired and overwhelmed, which in the long run can make us feel sluggish and down.

Also, if you are stressed, you may clench your jaw or grind your teeth. Remember that your teeth are not normally supposed to touch, so you can easily double-check whether your jaw is relaxed!

So, how can we improve our stress levels?

Dealing with stress often involves regaining an element of control over your life. Try to look out for the signs of chronic stress setting in and use some of these top ten tips to combat it:

  1. Keep moving! Whether it’s gentle stretches or regular exercise, try to keep those muscles relaxed. 
  2. Get plenty of fresh air, especially at this time of year.
  3. Connect with people and talk about your worries and anxieties. What’s that the age-old saying? “A problem shared is a problem halved”.
  4. Jot it all down. This could be in the form of to-do lists to help you feel organised and to get all the “noise” out of your head. Alternatively, you may wish to try journaling to release frustrations and anger or capture positive thoughts, such as what you have to be grateful for.
  5. Don’t strive for perfection; it will only run you into the ground and sap your energy.
  6. Be present and mindful. Don’t let negative feelings overwhelm you and look for the beautiful in the ordinary!
  7. Have confidence in yourself.
  8. Focus on your breathing. Never underestimate the restorative power of a few deep breaths.
  9. Relax before bed. Ensure you have some separation between work and personal time in an evening. Try your best to go to bed at a sensible time and create a peaceful, relaxing sleep environment to help you get the ultimate slumber! You can read more about this on my recent ‘Sleep’ blog!
  10. Take some well-deserved ‘me’ time. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so make sure you take some time for yourself and do something that you enjoy.

“Breath is the power behind all things…. I breathe in and know that good things will happen.”

Tao Porchon-Lynch