Five signs your body is reacting to stress and tips to overcome it.

Written by Lucie Ironman, Psychological Wellbeing Facilitator, Vita Health Group

Stress… It’s a word on everybody’s lips these days, isn’t it?

It’s something we all tend to experience from time to time and, often a small amount of stress can drive us to get things done as long as it is harnessed in the right way. In many ways, stress is just a necessary part of life.

However, what happens when we’re no longer to harness stress to our advantage? What happens when that feeling of stress becomes all-encompassing? What happens when it feels out of control? That’s the time when we need to recognise that it’s time to seek help.

The impact of stress: Mind

A recent study on the impact of stress and mental health as a result of the pandemic showed that a staggering 65% of people in the UK felt more stressed since the COVID-19 restrictions began in March 2020. This is certainly a massive uptick and very worrying.

Too much stress can affect our mood, our mental health and our relationships. It can make us feel anxious, on edge, irritable, and affect our self-esteem too. When we are stressed, we may find ourselves starting to withdraw from those around us. Often in this situation, the things that we find ‘pleasurable’ end up going to the bottom of the pile. But the key thing to remember, is that it’s those more pleasurable activities that allow us the breathing space we need to switch off from the stressors and ultimately recharge our batteries.

The impact of stress: Body

Stress can also have a big impact on how we feel physically, too. This is because stress triggers our fight or flight response, which is our body’s natural alarm system to danger.

When we feel threatened, our nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol). These get the body ready for emergency action so that we can increase our strength and stamina, enhance our focus and ensure we’re prepared to fight – or indeed flee – the danger ahead.

Here are five signs that our body is reacting to stress:

  1. Heart beat: When we experience stress, our heart beats quicker. This is mainly to pump our blood and oxygen to our arms and legs to either fight or run away;
  2. Breathing: Our breathing rate increases when we are stressed to take in more oxygen to build up a store of extra energy ready to fight or run away;
  3. Nausea: Our body wants to get rid of anything likely to slow us down as this might slow our survival. The body is prioritising fighting and flight, and as such our digestive system is no longer a priority;
  4. Light-headedness: When under intense stress, all the blood rushes from our head to our limbs to prioritise what is needed for survival;
  5. Tension: Our muscles are preparing to fight or run away.

In today’s world we are (fortunately) rarely faced with physical threats, and rather it’s a ‘hypothetical’ threat in the form of stress that triggers these reactions. Yet, that being said, as a result of human nature our bodies still tend to react in the same way, resulting in many of us feeling light headed, dry mouthed and with our heart racing. But what can be done?

The key to avoiding this reaction is to train our bodies to learn that these stressors do not need the aid of our flight or fight response, so that we can wind down the physical effects and manage the stress better.

There are various ways we can manage the physical symptoms of stress, for instance taking to exercise to burn off that extra energy, breathing exercises to induce calm and get rid of that excess oxygen and also mindfulness practices to help us focus on the present.

The main causes of stress

There are so many reasons that people can feel stressed, but certainly money tends to be one of the principal causes of stress in the UK (and indeed globally too). Perkbox’s UK financial wellbeing survey found that a staggering 61% of employed adults state that money is the factor that causes them the most stress in their lives. In fact, over a quarter of adults admitted to feeling stressed about their finances every single day.

If you’re struggling with stress as a result of money worries (or indeed stress in general), then consider the seven tips below:

  1. Get moving. Even a little regular exercise can help ease stress, boost your mood and energy, and improve your self-esteem. Aim for 30 minutes on most days, broken up into short 10-minute bursts if that’s easier.
  2. Practice a relaxation technique. Take time to relax each day and give your mind a break from the constant worrying. Meditating, breathing exercises, or other relaxation techniques are excellent ways to relieve stress and restore some balance to your life.
  3. Don’t skimp on sleep. Feeling tired will only increase your stress and negative thought patterns. Finding ways to improve your sleep during this difficult time will help both your mind and body.
  4. Boost your self-esteem. Rightly or wrongly, experiencing financial problems can cause you to feel like a failure and impact your self-esteem. But there are plenty of other, more rewarding ways to improve your sense of self-worth. Even when you’re struggling yourself, helping others by volunteering can increase your confidence and ease stress, anger, and anxiety. Or you could spend time in nature, learn a new skill, or enjoy the company of people who appreciate you for who you are, rather than for your bank balance.
  5. Eat well. A healthy diet rich in fruit, vegetables, and omega-3s can help support your mood and improve your energy and outlook. And you don’t have to spend a fortune; there are ways to eat well on a budget.
  6. Share your story. Turning a problem around and around in your head often leads to a dead end, or worse, increased feelings of stress and anxiety. You can help wrap your brain around a problem by sharing your story, which will give it a beginning, middle and an end. Sharing the weight of your thoughts with someone else, will help you reflect on it in a clearer and more logical way. Also consider writing your feelings down on paper. This can really help to rationalise how you are feeling.
  7. Stress bucket. A nice way to think about or stress is in the form of a ‘stress bucket’. We all have a stress bucket that is being dripped into with the many stressors around us. The key is to have an outlet for our stress, or our bucket will overflow, resulting in burnout, anxiety and overwhelm. You can put holes in your bucket by looking after yourself, practicing self-care, spending time with friends and family and focusing on the tips above. Remember you’re only human and there is only so much room in your stress bucket.

Try this today.

If you suddenly feel overwhelmed and stressed, you need to take a breather. You may feel your fight or flight response kick in, and as a result, you may not be able to concentrate or think things through. This is normal.

Just take a moment to concentrate on the here and now and take slow deep breaths (in through your nose and out through your mouth) for a couple of minutes.

Now use your five senses. What can you hear, what can you see, what can you smell, touch and taste? Relay these details back to yourself and be present. Notice what is around you.

Take a minute to get up. Have a quick change of scenery (perhaps get a glass of water) and then re-focus back on the task at hand.