Posted: 9 April 2018
Karen Morse, National Mental Health Lead at Skills for Care talks about stress in today's busy world and the help and support available.
“Bye then…thanks, take care”.
It’s my usual sign off when I’ve spoken to someone, “take care”. It feels like a nice thing to say to round off a call, and I do mean it, but it’s not particularly helpful. There’s so much more I could say, so this blog is giving me that opportunity.
Stress Awareness Month is a time to reflect on how we and our colleagues, friends and families are coping. Most of us feel far more competent and comfortable dealing with a cut finger than a colleague we find in tears in the kitchen.
According to MIND, 16 million people will experience mental ill-health this year, citing stress as a major factor. While stress is useful strategy in terms of our biology, helping us to identify threats, sometimes we’re unable to turn it off when the threat goes away. For some of us, stress becomes a way of life, making us vulnerable to depressive and physical illnesses.
Most of us know the signs that we’re stressed. The day that begins with a sense of ‘overwhelm’ – a long to-do list with competing priorities, staring at the screen, wondering where to begin. Over-sensitivity to criticism, feeling angry at the injustice while at the same time losing confidence.
Motivation might be low, even though we seem to be working constantly. Judgement might suffer, decisions hard to make. We work through the break. We feel tired and low. We perhaps drink or eat more, and too frequently, to lift our mood or side-line it.
There’s also pressure in today’s world not to admit to this. Leading an instagrammable life, alongside work cultures where long hours are a badge of honour. I recently heard about HALT! which started with Alcoholics Anonymous as a way for people to recognise vulnerability to self-harm, and stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely (or late) and Tired. Some health trusts have adopted this as a strategy to reduce stress by recognising these factors and encouraging a culture of self-care and taking breaks.
What can we do?
At the very basic level, two things. We can try to change things in our environment that lead to stress, and we can try to increase our resilience.
Most of us aren’t that good at reducing demands. We do things for our children that they can do for themselves. We feel uncomfortable telling a line manager that we’ve got too much to do. We don’t delegate tasks when we could. We put off things we should do even though they’re a priority. Yet negotiation and action around such things is beneficial, as is prioritisation, not just to us personally, but to the quality of our relationships, friendships and work.
We do have some good resources here at Skills for Care, for supporting resilience in the workplace. We all need to talk about stress to make sure that we can disclose freely, and negotiate demands.
First of all, we need to understand that some stress is beneficial. There’s the thrill of ‘being in the zone’: working hard and feeling the deadline, but able to produce high quality work. At some points however, stress can give rise to negative experiences: self-esteem is low, poor confidence in our ability to produce something, procrastination, low energy and enthusiasm. This is different for all of us, so recognising your personal tipping point is important. I have a very visible sign – a rash breaks out on my hands, and that’s quite common, to have physical markers.
The central foundation to provide the optimal level of stress, i.e. one that doesn’t harm us, is self-care. I’ve recently been using a self-care planner to reduce the stress I’ve felt. It’s nice to plan three self-care must-do’s every week, and I now know where my tipping point is. The rash has gone already.
There are lots of ways to reduce the effects of stress. Fresh air and green spaces are cited by many studies to have a positive impact on mental health. So has breathing. Ok, that sounds a bit trite, but many of us don’t breathe deeply enough, or slowly enough, to trigger those hormones that counteract stress. There has been a rise in the popularity of mindfulness, with smartphone apps such as Headspace, Breathe and Calm.
We’re living in a time where the pressures are great, the flow of information constant, and the pace of life is hectic.
But, to end on a positive note, we understand mental health much better, awareness and support is very much in the spotlight, and there are some great resources to provide help.
Be kind to each other, and take care.