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Coping with the stress of life

How are you feeling right now? Happy? Excited? Exhausted? Anxious? Fearful? Confused? Worried? Relieved? Tired? Stressed? Overwhelmed?

We’ve really been thrown for a loop over the last year or two. Each and every one of us has had to adapt, adjust and somehow learn to cope with a situation that seems to change by the day (and sometimes by the hour). It has tested our resilience like never before. And as much as we would like to think we are on top of things, the reality is we don’t know what the future brings. (Of course, that has always been the case even if we didn’t acknowledge it).

It doesn’t matter how much control we attempt to exert over our lives (which is exhausting in itself), we never know what’s around the corner.

Talking to my clients and friends, it is clear that everyone is frequently feeling stressed to some extent. Some are worried about finances, loved ones, getting sick. Others are nervous about what the future might look like. Then there are those who are busy, trying to juggle 10 things at once and trying to plan for the next week, month or year with no clarity around what might be possible.

Stress is never too far away, bubbling under the surface and it doesn’t take much for our bodies to flick the switch into fight or flight.

Don’t overlook the not-so-obvious stressors

Many of our stressors are obvious. They are right in front of us including bills to pay, deadlines, neighbours doing noisy renovations or long to-do lists.

But you may not realise that some stressors are more subtle but no less damaging to our health. These include things like lack of sleep, a poor diet, smoking, illness and even being overweight. They all result in changes to your biochemistry, increasing your stress hormones and causing knock-on effects. So even though you may not be “feeling stressed”, we may still see the effects of stress show up in your body somewhere.

So, how are you feeling right now?

Is stressed your “normal”?

Many of us live our days (maybe even our lives) in a state of stress. Stress is a term used to describe our physical and emotional response to our environment or the demands put on us (these are known as stressors). Our stress response can be positive and is, in fact, vital to our survival (e.g. pain when we are injured is our body’s stress response to remind us to protect that part of our body from further injury).

For the most part, our stress responses are designed to be short-term (think “fight or flight”) and then our body should return to its “pre-stressed” state (in naturopathy, we refer to this as “rest and digest”).

Unfortunately, problems arise when the constant stressors in our lives mean we never get a chance to “switch off” our physical and emotional responses to stress. We get so used to living in this state, it just becomes our “normal” without us even realising this.

Perhaps you recognise some of these signs and symptoms:

  • Depression or feeling stuck
  • anxiety or overwhelm
  • mood swings or irritability
  • inability to concentrate
  • upset digestion such as heartburn, bloating, constipation or diarrhoea
  • insomnia and/or fatigue
  • muscle tension or headaches
  • low immunity
  • feeling “wired but tired”

As a naturopath, I know that excess stress (or at least the way we respond to stress) worsens the health of almost every person I support. I see it in their symptoms and their pathology results.

Take this quick stress test to see how you score.

How can you support your stress response?

So what can you do to unwind, encourage your body to switch off its stress response, and get you back into resting and digesting? Here are some simple suggestions to help break the cycle, build your resilience and cope with life’s curveballs:

  1. Switch out of “work mode”. Change out of work clothes and turn off the electronic gadgets. (If you are working from home, get out of the house… i.e. leave “work”, go for a walk and arrive “home”).
  2. A warm bath (even if only for 10 minutes) is wonderfully relaxing. Add some epsom salts to sooth aching muscles or your favourite bath oil and put your favourite music on.
  3. Have a laugh. Keep a supply of your favourite funny movies or sitcoms for when your mood needs a lift.
  4. Play your favourite music and sing and dance as if no-one is watching.
  5. Indulge in a hobby you love (something where you might lose track of time) e.g. gardening, cooking, knitting, crosswords etc.
  6. Spend some quiet time with a good book…immerse yourself.
  7. Have a massage or pedicure.
  8. Catch up with friends so you feel connected (even if it has to be “virtual” although I think an old-fashioned phonecall is better).
  9. Meditate or simply practise some deep breathing.
  10. Enjoy a good cup of tea. The theanine in tea is very calming. Or, if you prefer, a calming herbal tea such as passionflower, chamomile or skullcap.
  11. Study something just for fun. This may sound counter-intuitive but doing a course just for pleasure can be great for your health. Maybe cooking, a language, photography, art, music or anything else that interests you. Just don’t get caught up in the need to be good at it.
  12. Get active. Gentle exercise is fantastic for unwinding so go for a walk, do a yoga class, walk the dog or find some other activity you enjoy and do it just for fun.
  13. Seek out some sunshine. There is nothing like feeling the sun on your face to help you relax. If you are not convinced, just have a look at how cats and dogs sprawl in the sunshine.
  14. Spend time in nature. Visit a beach or a park, take your shoes off, breathe deeply and “ground” yourself.
  15. Go to bed. Being sleep deprived is a huge stressor on your body.
  16. Say “no” to something. It can be very empowering and help you feel like you are in control of your life.
  17. Write a gratitude journal. Every day, write maybe, 5 things, that you are grateful for.
  18. Hug a loved-one…a partner, a pet, a friend (yes, this can be tricky in the era of social distancing).
  19. Volunteer to do something for someone else. Focussing on someone else’s needs can help to take your mind off your own troubles.
  20. Stop comparing yourself to others. You are who you are; a unique being. You are on your own path.
  21. Forgive yourself for not being perfect. None of us are, despite what we might like to believe, so cut yourself some slack.
  22. Spend some time revisiting your purpose i.e. your reason for being, your life goals. This can help you get out of the stress of the day to day and see the bigger picture.

These are all simple things you can do right now and they will make a difference in helping you to restore your nervous system. But don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find a counsellor, coach, or someone you can call on to be in your corner and help you navigate a way forward. This is something I do with many of my clients.

Want help with your health? Call me on 03 9620 9503 and let's have a chat about your best next step.
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