Life doesn’t always run smoothly does it? When things seem to be getting out of hand, when our tenuous grip on the world’s handrail slips, when the best route forward is about as clear as the Leeds-Liverpool canal and when our mental health score dips into ‘over stressed’, it can be all too easy to let our health take a downward turn too.
For many, the daily realities of life that require our time and attention continue around us, even as the head-space that we have to deal with them feels like it’s shrunk. Having work, family and other commitments can help keep us on track but being too stressed can still leave us with far less inclination and motivation to look after ourselves than usual.
As a Physiotherapist I have to consider mental and physical health as one and the same. To complement this I have a keen interest in mental health and finding ways to keep ships on even keels fascinates me. Below are a few of my thoughts on managing your health through stressful times. They’re based on experience – personal and professional – and on reflective observation of the thousands of patients, with varying degrees of mental health issues, that have walked through my door.
Most of the time we pay scant attention to our breathing. Our ability to take air in and out is obviously essential for continued living but it can also be cleverly harnessed to both stress us and relax us.
When we’re stressed, we tend to breathe more shallowly and quickly. This means that we excessively utilise just the upper part of our lungs and keep the sympathetic – ‘fight & flight’ – part of our nervous system overactive with too rapid breaths. A lovely little trick for activating the opposite parasympathetic – calm & rest – part of our nervous system is to shift our focus onto our breathing. We can do this by making our ‘out’ breath last slightly longer than our ‘in’ breath. I know this as:
I’m sure that it has other names too.
In a nutshell, you breathe in for a count of 7 and then out for a count of 11, making sure that your lower ribs and belly expand outwards. And repeat. Close your eyes, find your heart beat, notice what your hands are doing and feel grounded by whatever part of you is touching the ground.
It’s easy for exercise to slide down the priority list when life gets tricky. Not only can time seem short but the motivation or enjoyment(?!) that usually gets us out the door can appear in short supply. Sometimes your normal routine is too much to contemplate when you’re over stressed. However, a smaller physical effort than you might usually consider can be doable.
I’ve been known to walk to the local Co-op at all hours for a quick stress buster. Not because I need something from the Co-op but because I can dream up an excuse to need something and can benefit from the ‘getting out’ that the objectively pointless trip provides.A Client
For some, the distraction that hard and/or long exercise provides can be a godsend. Providing you’re not overdoing it it’s likely that exercise is going to promote better mental health. Sometimes just getting outside can be hard enough, but it can be enough. For example, if your usual walk feels like too much then try simply getting out into your garden. Treat every bit of extra movement and time out in the elements as a stepping stone: keeping moving from one stone to the next and you’ll keep moving forward…
It’s easy for the treadmill pace to get cranked up when we’re stressed and we may not even notice that we’re running faster than is good for us. So force a pause. Do something different and for yourself; for 1 minute, 5 minutes, an hour or however long you think might be beneficial.
A client that I would normally see for sports injury reasons came to see me the other day for a massage. He recognised that “stuff was all getting a bit much and that I could offer some therapy” in a form that would help his head, as opposed to his usual more physical problems. We all have ‘stuff’ that needs doing that gets in the way of taking care of ourselves. It’s therefore especially important to work at and get good at noticing when the meter rises and when we could really benefit from taking a break.
And it’s good to talk. A trusted friend or family member can be a listening ear, a sounding board and a source of an alternative viewpoint. Do remember that a problem shared can be a problem halved.
A poor diet, too much alcohol and drug-use – both legal and non – can negatively affect mental health.
Some people deliberately avoid the pub and consume less alcohol when they know that stress levels are up. A personal technique is to buy more fruit and veg than I would normally. This works because an ingrained dislike of binning food will mean that I eat the fresh stuff first. I then have far less stomach space for the junk that occupies the ‘naughty’ cupboard. Not a system that would work for everyone 🙂 so find one that works for you.
There’s more and more evidence linking what we ingest with our health. With ignorance no longer a viable excuse, we can all pay more attention to what goes in.
Be a little bit kind to yourself when you know you’re stressed. Pay attention to the things that you do well and that you get right. It’s far harder to achieve these under stressful conditions so feel good about them. We all have things, tasks and situations e.g. relationships, kids, work etc that we struggle to deal with when life gets stressful.
Make any self-criticism constructive and do what you can to manage tasks and situations while you get back on track. Take a breath, find a sympathetic ear, get outside, put down the cake and find the truth in the situation you’re in.
You need both the restorative ‘slow-wave’ repair phases of sleep alongside the REM (Rapid-Eye-Movement) stage. There’s a world of science behind sleep, much of which we’re still finding out about. It is however generally accepted that stress can affect sleep and vice versa.
If you’re getting less than 6 hours a night then you’re probably missing out on some the sleep phases. Do what you can to give yourself the best chance of getting plenty of shut-eye. Avoid screens for at least an hour before bed and don’t keep your phone by your bed (get a clock). Avoid caffeine and sugary foods before bed, read a book, darken the room and kick the cat out if it’s disruptive. If you know you’ve a tendency to wake in the small hours then there’s a wealth of advice and techniques out there for how to drift off again. From apps to doing something boring to relaxation techniques and therapy, sleep is attainable.
Oh and exercise has been shown to promote better sleep too 🙂
What do you do to help you deal with stress? If you’ve any cool, interesting, alternative or just common-sense suggestions then pop them in a comment below – always interesting to hear how others manage!
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