People who get in touch with Birmingham Counselling Services often bring stress as one of their issues, and ask for help in dealing with it. What can come as a surprise is learning that we all need a certain level of stress in order to function efficiently – adrenalin is an important element of our inborn survival kit. However, too much stress can be as damaging as too little and it is healthy to recognise that and to take steps to address it.
There are things we can do to help ourselves avoid stress building up in the first place, a much better strategy than trying to reduce it once we are experiencing it. This really is a situation where prevention is better than cure, and some ideas for prevention are listed below. The list is by no means exclusive. If you reflect on it (you need to allow some time for this) you will be able identify for yourself things which work for you. Some examples:
Allow yourself to have fun, without feeling guilty:
If you are in paid work, make sure that you finish at a reasonable time whenever possible so that you have some space and time to live the rest of your life.
Every week, try to timetable some space for exercise, – walking (with a dog? I borrow my neighbour’s,), a sport (it doesn’t have to be competitive, it doesn’t have to be a team game), some yoga, some aerobics (find a TV programme or a YouTube exercise video – you don’t have to join a gym).
Other activities – gardening, if that’s a pleasure for you, painting & drawing, knitting (not only for women) & other crafts, decorating, car maintenance, singing, reading for pleasure & not for work or study, the list is endless.
Go to a film.
Have a meal with a friend.
Try something (almost anything) new.
You know what interests you, so go for it – it needn’t cost anything.
Take some control of how you spend your time.
Take care of your health:
Too much stress can affect both our physical and our mental health. It can undermine our immune system. A pre-existing medical condition can be aggravated if our stress levels prevent us from following professional advice. Poor diet can make us vulnerable to stress, while maintaining a healthy diet can help us to resist the health risks from stress. Exercise is important too.
Take some exercise:
Everybody knows that we all need exercise and that most of us don’t do enough. Paying for gym membership and buying the kit doesn’t count, unfortunately – we need to go to the gym regularly and use the kit, or we have wasted our money. But we don’t need to do any of that. Brisk walking is one of the best forms of exercise there is, swimming is excellent, cycling is very popular even if we can’t all win the Tour De France. Team sports suit many people, but working out to an exercise video in a private place can be just as good. Borrow a child’s skipping rope, join a beginners’ tap-dancing class, get an allotment and start digging. There is a lot of bending and stretching in spring-cleaning and decorating – not a frequent event but one we can take advantage of when it’s appropriate. Walk to the next bus stop, park your car at the far end of the supermarket car park, leave your car at home for short journeys, use public transport, climb stairs instead of using lifts or escalators – once you start thinking about it there are numerous ways of fitting some exercise into your day. Take some control of your level of activity.
Watch your diet:
Many of us are concerned about our weight, usually because we fear we are too heavy. Healthy eating at home can help us lose weight – many people who are highly stressed take no time out for exercise and frequently eat foods high in carbohydrates and refined sugars because these foods can give a quick energy boost and are easily accessible as pre-prepared meals. Many people who are stressed find that they gain weight more easily than those who are able to take time out now and then. Planning ahead can be helpful in arranging to eat healthily. Try to plan your meals at home every week, and do the bulk of your food shopping weekly. This way you should have a reasonable supply of fresh healthy foods at home and you don’t have to worry about what you are going to to eat when you get there. (It can also work out cheaper than shopping every day.) Eating healthily doesn’t mean that you need to prepare a complicated three course meal. You don’t even have to cook, especially in summer when there are so many fresh fruits and vegetables available. A simple balanced diet will contain protein, (meat, fish, cheese, eggs, pulses, etc.), complex carbohydrates (whole grain bread, rice & pasta, potatoes & other root vegetables), fibre, vitamins and mineral traces (fruits and vegetables), and not too much fat (butter, chips, crisps, fried foods, chocolate – you know). You can find lots of information and healthy recipes online. And it’s fine to have a take-away or go out for a curry with friends – this is all part of learning to relax. Just don’t do it every night, as both your health and your bank balance will suffer.
Take some control of your diet.
Try to manage your money:
Worrying about financial issues is one of the greatest stressors we can have, and it must be one of the most common. Everybody worries sometimes about paying the rent/mortgage and the utility bills, the cost of children’s shoes, keeping up with friends whose social lives seem so much more interesting than ours. Learning to live within our means can be difficult and frustrating and feel very unfair, especially when we are bombarded with images of apparent affluence and luxury. Sometimes we just have to come to terms with the difference between what we would like and what we need, as do our friends and relations, in particular our teenage children.
This is not the place for detailed information about drawing up a realistic budget, and there is a lot of free, sensible, in-depth support available. A good place to start is the National Debtline, a free telephone, email and internet service whose staff will not sit in judgment – they are there to help you. So is your bank manager, although that might be more difficult to accept.
This is an area where taking control can seem more difficult. We often have no control over what money comes in and very little over what goes out, and this can be the most stressful element of all. We do have control over whether we open the brown envelopes which come in the post, and over whether we go on a rather silly spending spree, buying things we neither want nor need.
It is very important to remember that money is finite, that it can be all used up. This is difficult if we shop with a small piece of plastic, whose spending limit is far greater than our total resources. You could do worse than going back to paying for things in cash – there is nothing like it for raising awareness of where your money is going. This you can take control of.
Many people find help, support and comfort in the practice of a religious faith.
Others practise meditation and mindfulness, activities which derive from Buddhism but are not restricted to its followers.
Yoga has already been mentioned as exercise in a previous article. It can also have a profoundly meditative, contemplative element which brings with it peace of mind – the opposite of stress.
There is an old prayer, the gist of which is worth holding on to, whether or not we address it to some external power. It asks for courage to change things we can change, serenity to accept things we cannot change, and wisdom to know the difference. In one way this is also about taking control of some things in our lives, an expression which must be sounding familiar by now.
My observation of myself and my reactions is that I feel most stressed when I believe that my life is totally out of my control, that I am being swept along by things that are more powerful than I am. The image in my mind is of trying to swim across a river and of being swept downstream, away from where I want to be.
To continue this metaphor, sometimes there is a bridge just a short way upstream which I haven’t noticed, so obsessed with my struggle have I become . . . This leads to my last point:
Ask For Support
I have already touched on this. Families and friends can help, although if your stress is affecting them or you need more confidentiality it might be difficult to approach them. There are professionals who are trained to offer help and support as you work through your difficulties, and some of them work here at Birmingham Counselling Services. You are encouraged to get in touch with us to check out what we can offer: 0121 314 9903 and www.BirminghamCounsellingServices.co.uk We really do look forward to hearing from you.