They say a stressful day is a successful day — or is it?

Today we begin a new column by Michelle O’Connell, who has a passion for mental health education. Here she looks at the impact stress is having on people, and what they can do to combat it
They say a stressful day is a successful day — or is it?
"A survey of 1,000 Irish people found that two out of three participants had sometimes, often or always felt anxious, depressed or irritable, in the previous seven days... emotions directly linked to high-stress levels." Picture:istock

WE have cultivated an attitude in today’s society that “a stressful day is a successful day”. The label “stressed” is worn almost like a badge of honour, as evidence that we’re busy and productive and winning at life. Or are we?

A survey of 1,000 Irish people found that two out of three participants had sometimes, often or always felt anxious, depressed or irritable in the previous seven days — emotions directly linked to high-stress levels.

Stress, a.k.a. ‘fight or flight’, is defined as “a mismatch between demands and one’s perceived ability to cope with these demands.”

It originates physiologically from our days as cavemen/women. Fuelled by hormones called adrenaline and cortisol, this physical response enabled us to survive the bears that wanted to eat us for dinner!

Nowadays, stress still proves useful in certain situations. It keeps us safe, gets us out of bed in the morning, and helps us to meet those looming deadlines. Unfortunately, there is an increasing number of imaginary ‘bears’ lurking in the modern world; traffic, unread emails, and long to-do lists. These unnecessarily trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response when encountered; racing heart, increased blood pressure, sweaty palms, and reduced blood flow to digestive and reproductive organs.

Repeated activation causes chronic stress, which can be detrimental to our long-term health if allowed to progress. From depression and anxiety, to heart problems and irritable bowel, stress has a lot to answer for.

Here are some things to consider in relation to your stress this week:

Michelle O’Connell
Michelle O’Connell

BURNING IT OFF

With no ‘bears’ to run from, stress hormones need to be burned off via physical activity in order to get back into the ‘rest and digest’ mode, where the body can reset and rejuvenate. The best type of physical activity you can undertake is the one you enjoy the most, whether that’s a walk, run, dance, or swim.

Experiment with local classes, or create some accountability with a friend. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise five days a week is ideal, but remember that some is better than none. Start small, and build it up gradually.

REACHING THE ‘LAND OF NOD’

Sleep is vital to our wellbeing. It’s the body’s opportunity to rest, and the brain’s chance to process all that was encountered during the day. However, bedtime routines often look like this: check Facebook, check Instagram, reply to emails, keep phone on bedside locker in case of any notifications. Sound familiar?

Consider creating an evening routine that includes an hour set aside for an activity that you enjoy, such as reading, watching a film or journaling. This is time much better spent than mindlessly scrolling through newsfeeds.

Break the stress cycle, and create some protected time for rest. Consider investing in an old-fashioned alarm clock, and leaving that phone with the depleting blue light outside the door.

FILLING THE FUEL TANK

Ensure that the body has a constant source of energy to draw from. In particular, increase your intake of nutrients that are burned off most during the stress response. This can be done via natural food sources, or by taking a suitable supplement, but make sure and consult with your pharmacist first.

Wholegrain foods contain complex carbohydrates, which increase serotonin (a feel-good hormone in the brain) and stabilise blood sugars.

Vitamin C, found in oranges, strengthens the immune system which comes under attack in times of stress.

Magnesium becomes depleted during the stress response, and can be replenished by increasing our intake of fish, nuts and seeds. Omega 3, a key player in reducing inflammation in the body, is also found in these foods.

MIND YOUR MIND

We think nothing of renewing an un-used gym membership — consider investing in your mental wellbeing if your find that your stress is rooted in negative thought patterns, e.g. rumination or worry.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is an evidence-based course that positively changes how you relate to daily stress. Although not usually cheap, it’s an intensive eight-week programme that teaches you how to notice stress when it’s present, and to make informed decisions about how to proceed. With practice, we can learn to see the wood from the trees, and perhaps recognise the imaginary bears!

SELF-CARE IS NOT SELFISH

You simply cannot pour from an empty cup. You are no use to your partner, children, family, friends or colleagues if you’re burned out and exhausted, jumping from one stressful event to the next.

Regularly check in with yourself, and ask the question “am I running on empty?” If your answer is “yes”, then schedule time to recharge your batteries, without guilt. The benefits will also be reaped by your nearest and dearest.

ABOUT MICHELLE O’CONNELL

Michelle began her healthcare career as a community pharmacist in 2012, and has since expanded into pharmacy research and education.

She has just completed a PhD in the area of wellness education, publishing her findings in academic journals, and presenting at international conferences.

She has a particular passion for mental health education, and holds a Professional Diploma in the Teaching of Mindfulness-Based Interventions from the Mindfulness Centre for Professional Training in Ireland.

Michelle’s weekly column will explore a variety of physical and mental health topics.

Next week in WoW! March 20th read Michelle's column: Pregnancy Symptoms Bingo – Which Ones Have You Experienced?

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