Posted Tuesday 6 April 2021
As part of Stress Awareness Month this April, mental health nursing lecturer at Kingston University Martyn Keen looks at stress, why it is important to recognise it and talk about it, and how it can be managed effectively.
Hello and welcome to my brief journey through the enigma that is stress. As a mental health professional and lecturer at Kingston University, I wanted to share my musings on a concept that is endemic within our language and lives. This is not an academic or overtly psychological chat but rather my take on this issue and why we need to notice more, talk more, and do more for ourselves to successfully manage this phenomenon and achieve more healthy and successful lives and, the good news is, we can.
Stress has been ever present throughout human history but due to the growing complexities of our lifestyles it has increasingly been identified as a modern epidemic directly related to a range of serious mental and physical illnesses and described as one of the most challenging public health concerns of our lifetime.
Within our communities in universities much has been written on unmanageable stress experiences in students and staff. This has been an increasing issue for us before Covid-19 and often linked with the ever-growing pressure in our societies to succeed.
It's interesting to see those organisations with lower reported stress seem to create a culture of life balance and invest meaningfully in collaboratively mental health services. Others, where prestige is central, seem to fair less well. This perhaps gives us direction for the future. The pandemic may have taught us that we need to refocus on centres of human learning for our communities and on balance and growth rather than just academic success.
This year's Stress Awareness Month focus is about ‘regaining connectivity, certainty and control'. But what have these 3 c's got to do with stress? Well let's find out.
Okay let's start with the ‘what'. Stress is defined simply as the body's response to perceived threats. From crossing the road to undertaking exams to forgetting to let the cat out, we are faced with events every day that we interpret in different ways and this is key. Let's make it clear stress is not always a bad thing, it's just a thing. Consider your day, without managed stress you wouldn't even have got out of bed, so it's a powerful positive motivator. It's not events that create stress it's how we appraise and act on them that cause problems. The process is usually quick and subconscious, though by moving this to a conscious process and regaining a sense of connectivity, can be central to controlling it.
You may have seen much written about mindfulness, which is helpful to look at here. Mindfulness encourages us to stop in the moment, appreciate what we have, and consider how best to move forward. Simply training ourselves to notice when we feel uncomfortable, explore why, and consider what we do about this can break the beginning of cycles of persistent worry and ruminations – which brings me on to ‘certainty'.
We are facing the largest global event in our lifetime. A study of 2000 UK adults confirmed 65 per cent reported feeling increased levels of stress during the pandemic – leading to a significant sense of future uncertainty. If unchecked, unmanageable feelings of stress emerge and it's not hard to understand why feelings of panic, anxiety and depressive feelings grow. We live in an information age, from social media to human gossip which surrounds us with the notion that things are scary. A strategy to regain a sense of true certainty is to limit the exposure to this. Practical techniques such as limiting time on social media and choosing who to talk to and when have helped me enormously in managing this.
A person I knew with serious anxiety said the worse feeling was losing a sense of control. Stress fuels anxiety and creates these frightening experiences – we have all had those moments waking in the night trying to fix issues in our heads feeling overwhelmed with fear and dread. The trick here is to create your own plan of control. Techniques include breaking down tasks during a day, planning ahead, taking regular scheduled breaks and incorporating activity into your daily routines. An expert was asked what one thing you would say improves stress and the reply was quality sleep, so consider strategies of how you achieve this.
Talking more to others and sharing tips and strategies helps people and yourself not to feel alone and lastly, remember to breathe. Try stopping and regulating your breathing for one minute and see what happens. It's my go-to circuit breaker when I feel stressed and snaps me back to focus – I recommend it.
And there we have it, my thoughts. Ultimately this is a serious subject that affects us all and can have serious consequences if left unchecked. The good news is stress can be managed and even be a tool for motivation. However, if you feel stress is becoming a persistent and unmanageable presence in your life it is important to seek support. Your GP can be really helpful in getting a better understanding of what's happening and guiding you through a range of interventions that can really make a difference.
I hope this has helped somewhat, remember we are all amazing and do amazing things sometimes – we just need to remind ourselves of it. Take care.