Mission of Dr Amy Imms for the last 6 years has been helping both individuals and workplaces with identifying what contributes to stress and burnout.
Her interest in stress management began to grow during her early years in medical school, but really took hold after noticing how people around her – colleagues and loved ones alike, were struggling, even in careers which they were skilled and enthusiastic about. To Dr Imms, the ability to manage stress directly impacts how well people can thrive within their careers, create a healthy work/life balance, and strengthen all kinds of interpersonal relationships.
Why Do We Feel Stress?
We have all felt stressed at some point in our lives – but do we really understand what it is, the different ways it affects us, and why we experience it?
Dr Imms explains that stress arises as a response to a ‘threat’, whether it be physical with ‘fight or flight’ mode, or psychological with things like anxiety and worry. This response triggers physiological changes within our bodies; for example, our heart rate increases, and our blood supply gets diverted to our muscles and brain – places which the body feels are more helpful in dealing with the perceived ‘threat’. These changes are indeed helpful with physical threats, such as if you are crossing the road and a car is coming towards you at speed, where you’d need that ‘fight or flight’ response in order to think and react quickly.
However, in terms of daily life, a lot of the stressors that we feel are of the psychological kind, which render the physical responses to non-physical stressors useless. This is what leads to anxiety, burnout and other negative impacts when exposed to long-term stress. Reproduction without written permission strictly prohibited.
In addition to triggering anxiety, cortisol, a hormone released by your adrenal glands as a response to stress, can heighten the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. There are also shorter-term effects such as headaches and muscle tension. Alongside the effects on our bodies, there are also ‘secondary effects or unhealthy coping mechanisms which we can fall into with serious health impacts such as drinking, smoking and binge behaviours.
“There’s an impact on our mental health if we have stress that goes on for a long period of time. People can experience anxiety, depression or burnout, which can trigger behaviours that may lead to an eating disorder or excessive compulsive disorder, amongst others. All these things can start when long-term stress is not well managed.”
How Stress Can Affect Our Relationships
Similar to the ‘secondary effects’ that can occur on a personal level as a result of stress, that is, drinking, smoking and binge behaviours, stress can also cause ‘secondary consequences’ amidst one’s relationships. “Marriages and partnerships can be affected. People with children have reported that they can feel a disconnection with them” says Dr Imms, “then there’s work and friends… the consequences of burnout are often fatigue. Burnout can leave people feeling more irritable, with less patience and compassion than they might normally have. This results in increased conflicts and miscommunications, and the combination of all those things can be disastrous on relationships.”
Where does stress come from?
- Overwhelming pressures and responsibilities
- Excessive workload
- Big life changes such as splitting up with a long-term partner, moving house or starting a new job
- Periods of uncertainty or poor health
- Lack of a support system
- Anticipating an upcoming big event, such as your wedding or an important sports event.
What Can We Do to Manage Stress and Strengthen Relationships
The first thing we must do in order to improve our relationships during times of stress is to actually acknowledge that we might have a problem. This seems like an obvious and easy step, but because we have grown accustomed to normalising stress, it can prove a challenge to know when you are at your limit. “Ask yourself ‘is this different to my normal?’” advises Dr Imms.
Once you have noticed a change – you have to try and identify the cause. It could be from work, home, a period of uncertainty… Once you know, this will help you to find the right kind of support to help manage it. Stressors are always bound to pop up, so eventually, as you practise being self-aware and mindful as to the triggers, the signs will become more obvious.
What Is the Difference Between Burnout and Stress?
Burnout is the term we use to describe a long-term build-up of stress, which can result in extreme depletion of energy and drop in mood. It is a response to stress, and not a mental illness such as depression or anxiety, though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously.
Top Tips For Managing Stress
Research has shown that there are many things you can do to help manage stress. Including improving aspects of your health and wellbeing. Ensuring you eat a healthy balanced diet, including good hydration is essential and, of course, making efforts to maintain a good work/life balance.
Dr Imms chose to expand on the following areas of stress management:
It’s all about communication
Keeping open communications about your feelings is, really, the backbone of most relationships. However, if you are on the other side and someone close to you is struggling, gentle questioning and checking in – just being there and providing a safe space to talk about things when they are ready is the best thing you can do. After all, communication goes both ways – and something as small as just being there for them is likely to make a big difference. However, if you yourself don’t have the mental capacity to deal with their issues on top of your own – don’t compromise your boundaries.
You can still show them they are not going through things alone and support them by encouraging them to speak to a trusted friend or therapist.
If stress is stemming from work, for example, then you’ll know to go to human resources, or your manager and talk about some of the challenges you are facing – if you feel comfortable doing this. As mentioned before, the stigma surrounding these issues often makes it difficult for many people to reach out. Society tends to impose this ‘worker bee’ ideal that connects our perceived strength with how much we are able to handle and encourage us to push through. Many people suffer in silence.
If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to anyone at work, go to a trusted friend, family, or a GP/therapist. “Having just one person that you can open up to can act as a catalyst for you and give you the confidence to seek the help that you need” explains Dr Imms – and remember, there’s never anything weak about needing help.
Setting (digital) boundaries
Making sure to really be off work when you’re off work is key to managing your stress levels. It can be easy to drift into worrying about work on days off or during holidays – especially when we are always connected via technology. We build a habit out of checking our emails and conversations, and we tend to feel the need to respond once we have seen something – “it doesn’t help that these activities come with dopamine hits” laughs Dr Imms, “our brain encourages us to check anything that comes through”.
Turning notifications off when you’re not working and reminding colleagues of your work hours, so they don’t expect a reply when you are out of the office, are all ways to protect your work boundaries, and reduce stress with some rest and relaxation.
Dr Imms also explains how many of us tend to spend a lot of their mental energy thinking about the past or future rather than living in the now, and even more so when we are stressed out. This can create a detachment from ‘the now’, either emotional or physical, or both.
You will likely have heard of the concept of ‘practicing mindfulness’ to help you relieve stress numerous times before – and this might cause you to roll your eyes; but practising just 5-20 minutes of mindfulness a day can make us more present and reintroduce a sense of calmness into our lives. It doesn’t mean adding any ritual-type meditative practices to your day, it can be simply listening to the sounds around you, or really focusing on ‘mundane’ tasks like washing dishes or brushing your teeth. Just being present in ‘the now’ rather than letting your mind wander into the past or future can be an effective stress reliever.
Another mindfulness exercise is to try a grounding strategy such as looking for three things you can see, hear and feel wherever you are, advises Dr Imms. “Anything that’s using your senses to engage in what’s actually going on around you gives your brain a little bit of distance from whatever you’re stressed about”.
Stress builds up over long periods of time, and unfortunately there aren’t any quick fixes to it. But even if you don’t see results right away, if you try to make a habit out of using mindfulness exercises – over time, you may feel the benefit.
Exercise, hobbies and activities
Most people are aware that exercise is one of the most effective ways of managing stress. Extensive research has shown that regular exercise gives us all-round support to our health, both mentally and physically.
Exercise is key in relieving stress, however, if you find that you are low on energy due to stress, you may find your motivation for exercise reduced. When you feel like this, don’t give up on exercise but rather scale it down because the benefits of exercise will help you.
For example, if you are a keen swimmer and on good form would usually swim 50 lengths, just aim for 25 when you are feeling less energised. The same applies to any other form of exercise, whether it be running or cycling, etc. If you feel you can’t cope with fast paced exercise, then a gentler alternative form of exercise such as walking, yoga, Pilates or tai chi will still give you stress relieving benefits.
Apart from exercise, another way to bring our stress levels down a notch is to engage in hobbies or things that give us feelings of fulfilment such as gardening, cooking, DIY, or any social pursuit or activity. It can help you to feel psychologically happier to connect yourself to activities which make you feel good and give you a sense of achievement.
So, to recap, stress is a natural reaction to things that our body perceives as dangerous and can be helpful in situations where we need ‘fight or flight’ reactions. Nowadays however, most stressors arise from situations that present themselves where we don’t need our ‘fight or flight’ reactions. When left unmanaged, stress can build up and effect our physical and mental health, facilitate unhealthy coping mechanisms and binge behaviours, and can affect the way we interact with others – putting a strain on our interpersonal relationships. A lack of energy and increased irritability may cause us to withdraw and isolate, but this only heightens the problem and leaves us essentially suffering in silence.
There are multiple things we can do in order to alleviate stress, but unfortunately there are no ‘quick fixes’ or ‘one size fits all’ methods. Regular exercise and a good balanced diet are key. Maintaining a good work/life balance, setting and sticking to personal and digital boundaries, practising mindfulness and being open with others about your struggles are all things that can help unload stress, but the stigmatisation of mental illnesses makes the latter a difficult thing to do for most people. Everyone, even people who we think always seem to ‘have it together’, are affected by stress.
If you are worried about someone who is struggling, keep lines of communication open and encourage them to seek out support. We have to work together to de-stigmatise the effects of stress and poor mental health and remember that asking for help from others does not mean we are less capable.
How Thrive4Life can help!
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