Managing stress

There’s nothing new about stress. So much so that the stress response, or fight or flight response as it is perhaps more widely known, was first developed by our distant ancestors in response to threats which they encountered within their environment.

Some of those long ago threats may no longer be there but the response remains, being triggered by real and perceived threats to our health and wellbeing. And when the stress response kicks in it doesn’t really matter if it has been triggered by a speeding car hurtling towards you, being placed in a situation which triggers a phobia, or a repeating pattern which causes psychological distress. Whatever the cause, the stress response is real; flooding our system with substances such as adrenaline and cortisol and causing changes in areas such as heart rate, breathing and blood flow.

Whilst the stress response changes might be necessary in a sudden life or death situation, triggering those responses on a regular and ongoing basis can lead to permanent damage not only to the cardiovascular system, but also to areas such as eyesight, the immune system and digestion. That’s why stress management is so important; not simply to overcome the immediacy of response but also to prevent long term impacts on health.

It’s hardly surprising therefore that the whole of April has been devoted to stress awareness. First instigated in 1992, Stress Awareness Month seeks to raise awareness both of the impact of stress and potential ways of mitigating stress. For 2022 Stress Awareness Month has chosen the theme of community. It’s a particularly apt theme, following on as it does from two years in which lockdowns lead to isolation at work, at home, and in the community.

Studies have shown that isolation can lead to depression and stress. Conversely, socialising with others, having someone to talk to or enjoy activities with can help to reduce stress levels. That community feeling can come from anywhere. It might arise in the home or in the neighbourhood, in a social club or at work. To this end the charity Mates in Mind has launched a series of resources in tandem with Stress Awareness Month. These include a ‘Let’s talk stress’ factsheet to help facilitate open conversations about workplace stress and a ‘Managing and reducing Workplace stress’ handbook.

The handbook lists a number of causes of stress in the workplace including a lack of support from supervisors and colleagues. It also makes the valid point that stress can build up over time, especially when a succession of potentially small things are left unresolved. The handbook then goes on to highlight potential signs of stress before outlining steps which employers and colleagues can play in managing workplace stress and supporting individuals.

Those steps can be as simple as redesigning workflow to reduce points of stress or raising awareness of support mechanisms which are available when workloads become too heavy to manage. Whatever the pathway, the key to successful stress management comes from awareness coupled with open dialogue. Stress is a very real part of all our lives. Learning how to acknowledge, manage and mitigate it could help those lives to be longer, more healthy and more fulfilling.