Thursday, 25 September 2014

Feature on Stress, The Ecologist

Feeling the Strain?
In this age of austerity people are resorting to anti-depressant drugs in their hoards – all having in common the desire to rid themselves of understandable stress and anxiety. Phoebe Doyle writes of less obtrusive methods for easing our inner-turmoil.
Over-worked? Feeling skint? Jobless? Hopeless?
If none of these apply to you then congratulations, but you must be feeling lonely, up there in the ever-diminishing minority. For the rest of us the gravitational pull of our demanding modern lives is seeing more and more of us hyped-up and collapsing flat-out as casualties of stress. Research conducted by The Stroke Association earlier this year found that 1 in 7 of us feel our stress levels are “out of control”. It’s also estimated that 75% of us feel stress to a greater or lesser degree at least once every fortnight.
Stress can be a particularly cruel and burdensome emotion as there’s a ‘vicious circle’ element frequently at play; we feel stressed over a particular circumstance, we subsequently experience physical reactions to this (e.g. stomach upsets, palpitations, headaches, tightenings in the chest) all of which intensify and lead to amplified stress levels.
Whilst anti-depressants may be, unfortunately quite literally, a life saver for those who sufferer severely from stress and depression, their potential for addiction and side effects mean they should be far from the first port of call. Exercise and talking; two things we all do to varying degrees, have proven track records in getting the stressed-out more fit, focussed and ultimately better equipped to face the challenges everyday life unremittingly hurls their way.
It’s Good to Talk

“The key thing to understand about stress is that it’s a primitive reaction to threat, activated as part of the ‘fight or flight’ response that helped us deal with genuine threats to our life like marauding lions or aggressive enemy tribes”, explains Wellbeing Coach Dan Roberts (www.danroberts.com).Therapists like Dan believe firmly that understanding what happens when our body’s enter the stressed state can help us in the fight against it. Dan illuminates us on the biological experience; “when our brain perceives threat it readies us for action by flooding our bloodstream with stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline - raising our heartbeat, making our breathing fast and shallow and a host of other physiological changes.”

Of course, in 2011 the majority of the threats we chance upon are not to our life, but ‘psychosocial’. These might be major stressors such as redundancy, debt, familial conflict or divorce, or a constant drip-drip effect of minor stressors like an unsupportive work environment, a cantankerous boss, raising small children, living in a noisy neighbourhood – Dan’s seen with his clients that, “after a while, these accumulate until we can’t cope and we experience chronic stress as a result.”
 

How Talking Therapy Works
“The most effective talking therapy for stress is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)”, says Dan, who explains further; “that’s because you need to understand that it’s not the situation itself (work environment, boss or demanding kids) that is stressing you, but your thoughts and beliefs about that situation. When people are stressed, they commonly think things like, ‘I can’t stand it’, or ‘I just cannot cope with this.’ So they exaggerate the challenges they are facing and underestimate their resilience – their ability to deal with those challenges in a practical, problem-solving manner.” CBT helps to change the way the client thinks about and perceives specific aspects of their lives, and aids them in re-assessing their own coping capabilities.

Through two-way discussions Dan works with stressed clients by helping them understand that, however unpleasant or demanding the situation they are in, by modifying their negative, unhelpful thoughts and replacing them with more positive, realistic ones, they can significantly reduce their stress levels.
 

 Give yourself a good talking to. Some tips…

-Dan says that perfectionism is a common trait in stressed-out people. So if you are very stressed about work, say, take a step back and ask yourself: “Am I a perfectionist? Does everything have to be done to a very high standard? And if so, is that really helpful?”
-Dan advises clients to acknowledge that in reality perfectionists are often not as productive or effective as they could be, because they exhaust themselves in pursuit of impossibly high standards. Tell yourself; “aim for good enough”. This will make life a whole lot easier!

-Watch out for ‘should statements’. These are a common way we stress ourselves out, thinking things like “I should have handled that meeting better,” or “I shouldn’t be so bothered by my husband’s messiness.”
-Also watch out for statements containing “must”, “have to” and “ought to”, because they all place strong demands on us to be better, happier, cleverer, richer, skinnier… Try replacing them with “I wish”, “I would like”, “I would prefer” or “I hope”, which will make your thoughts less demanding and help stop you beating yourself up or driving yourself so hard.
 

Get Fighting Fit
Chartered Psychologist Paul Russell from The University of Bolton says; “Being active and exercising is one of the most natural and effectives ways of managing stress. Exercising is not about running the Marathon des Sabes, a 150 mile run across the desert, it is about working at your own level and doing something you enjoy.”
Ronnie Burgess is a Personal Trainer (www.happyexercising.co.uk ) who insists that exercise can be viewed as “meditation in motion”. It’s time to ourselves; for reflection, for self-nurturing, it’s telling ourselves “you’re worth it”. Ronnie says; “Being active can boost your feel-good endorphins and distract you from daily worries. Virtually any form of exercise, from aerobics to weightlifting, can act as a stress reliever”
Exercise has long been proven as a fast way to release our body’s own feel-good chemicals. “It also allows you to feel a great sense of achievement and pride when you achieve your goals. It will boost your self -confidence and this will make you feel positive in many different aspects of your life. When you exercise you will naturally feel more alert, positive, energetic, and proactive, and you can take this approach into other areas of your life”, Paul tells us.
Mental health charity Mind (www.mind.org.uk) now run a research-driven programme encouraging exercise. They’ve concluded that a supervised and substantial fitness schedule can be equally as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression. The scheme, named Ecominds,  currently has 130 projects across the country offering great activities (for free) from gardening and horticulture to rambling and even surfing. All especially designed to boost positive mental health and reduce stress.
Camilla Swain from Ecominds gives us some hard facts; “In 2005, 27.7 million antidepressant prescriptions were written in England, at a cost of £338 million to the public health service. Outdoor exercise, however is a proven treatment that is free of unpleasant side-effects, and offers a cost-effective and natural addition to existing treatments.” Clear to see why she deems the Ecominds scheme as crucial.
Getting fit; getting out. Some tips…
-Paul says firstly you’ve got to pick an activity that you’re going to enjoy. Once you’ve decided on the activity select a start date, and stick to it.
-Get outside. Mind have researched into what they call ‘Green Exercise’; that’s activities that include gardening, walking groups, conservation work, running or cycling. They’ve found that  90% of people who took part in this ‘green exercise’ said that it was the combination of nature and exercise that boosted their mood. 90% said that the ‘green exercise’ had benefited their physical health and 94% commented that it had improved their mental health.
-Make friends. Embark on activities that can be sociable too. Camilla says; “Contacts formed with other people during outdoor activities can reduce isolation, help develop support networks and improve social skills. Overall this will benefit mental health, enrich quality of life and reduce vulnerability to depression”.
-Set yourself realistic and motivating goals about what you are going to achieve. Make sure that these goals start off small and gradually get more challenging as you achieve them.
-If there might be reasons why you think you might miss an exercise session think of ways of overcoming those obstacles.
And finally…
We’ve learnt that calming and curing stress doesn’t always need to resort in prescriptions and addictive medications that could leave you feeling rougher than ever. These experts believe quite simply in talking and walking some more, on getting out there and, well… living. Who’d have thought it? Sounds too simple. But then perhaps it’s the complex, the complicated and the downright difficult that got us into this predicament of stress levels reaching record heights. So give it a go, get your walking boots on, seek a therapist if needed, and put on your ‘can do’ hat.
BOX OUT
Some facts about stress
·         Stress can have a negative effect on blood pressure, causing it to rise
·         More children and teenagers than ever before are reporting feelings of stress
·         Stress can affect the immune system
·         Anxiety attacks are typically the result of a build-up of stress
·         Stress can contribute to or cause other health problems such as alcohol or drug abuse
Still stressed? Let’s try and console you!
Not all stress is bad…
Experts tend to agree that a certain amount of stress is normal and healthy. In certain situations (interviews, preparing a work presentation, in a rush to meet a deadline) our body needs to go into a heightened sense of adrenalin (which is a result of stress) in order to be motivated fully. Without any stress we can become lethargic or even lazy.
This stress that’s good for us though should only be extremely short-lived. The danger is when stressed is experienced severely, regularly or even constantly. This is un-healthy and requires action.
You can visit www.mind.org.uk/ecominds to find an Ecominds project near you.

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