Tuesday, 22 September 2020

What actually is stress?



What does  'stress' mean to you? What situations do you find stressful?

Stress means something different to us all. We all find different elements of our lives stressful. Something that causes me stress, you may take in your stride. There are those day to day stressors such as asking a child to get ready to leave the house when they are busy gaming, or the one-off sources of stress, such as giving a presentation to a roomful of people.  Many people, unlike me, take presenting in their stride, even finding it enjoyable. On the other hand, others may find entertaining family at Christmas very stressful, personally, I find that I can play to my strengths in that situation, using my organisational skills to ensure I am well prepared and, as I'm definitely not a perfectionist I can relax and 'roll-with-the-punches' when things don't go quite to plan or I forget to cook the stuffing ( I always forget something).

Stress is our natural, biological, physiological response to a potentially threatening situation. It's a response born out of our days as cave-man and cave-women when we had to deal with the very real threat of predators, or the collapse of the safe, warm shelter of our cave. The stress response is a survival instinct, designed to enable us to take one of a limited choice of actions, usually either flight (running away) or fight. Both of these responses require increased oxygen to our lungs and increased blood supply to our skeletal muscles to give us the strength and stamina needed. 

In order to achieve these goals, our brain releases stress hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) which stimulate physical changes to how our bodies work:

In the short term we don't need to digest our food (except sugars for energy), digestion can wait until after the situation is over, so blood is diverted away from our digestive system. This explains the nausea we experience with stress.

'Modern' parts of the brain including memory and language skills are not required in the short term so blood supply to these regions of the brain is redirected elsewhere. This explains the 'brain-fog', memory problems (e.g. in exams) and difficulties we can have finding the right words (e.g. when we are about to give a presentation). This probably also explains why we can always think of the best, wittiest retort for that unbelievably rude individual we encountered, several hours after the event.

Blood is also diverted away from our skin, resulting in the cold, clammy sensations we experience.

Our breathing becomes faster and shallower in order to get more oxygen into the lungs for transportation to our muscles.

Our heart rate and blood pressure increases in order to get more oxygenated blood to the muscles as quickly as possible.

Blood supply to the skeletal muscles (arms and legs) is increased to give them strength and stamina. 

In addition our blood clotting ability increases, sensitivity to pain decreases and our immune system (which protects us from disease) is also decreased.

Of course, in modern life, this stress response is frequently inappropriate. I've never yet encountered a tiger in my village and my house hasn't collapsed yet either (even the doors are withstanding the pre-teen door-slamming so far!). Fighting or running away won't help with stubborn children, exams or presentations. This means that when we experience stress, we don't usually burn off the physical aspects of the stress response and are left with the effects in our bodies for a long time. I'll look more at the longer term consequences of stress and how to manage stress in our daily lives in a future blog. But for now I'll just look at how we can manage our stress response at the time.

So, how can we reduce our stress response when we are in a situation that we find unpleasant and stressful? The easiest way to look at this is to look at aspects of the stress response.

Even as children we are told to take a few slow deep breaths. There is a good reason for this. If the stress response speeds up our breathing, taking a few slower, deeper breaths, can help to slow our breathing, helping us to regain control not only over our breathing but also over the rest of our body. As our breathing gets slower and deeper, our heart rate also slows down. Try it now. Take a few slow, deep breaths and notice how it makes you feel. Notice the rise and fall of your chest, notice your breathing rate and heart rate slowing down together, then notice your muscles begin to soften and relax.

Another way to slow and reduce our stress response is to force the language and memory regions of our brain to work. Reciting either in your head or out loud a poem; the lyrics of a song; girls names beginning with each letter of the alphabet; or anything else you can think of which requires both language and memory, helps to focus the mind, drawing attention back to language and memory, away from the primitive parts of our brain which focus only on survival rather than on reason and logic.

Awareness can help too. Sometimes, it can be helpful just to be aware of and understand your stress response. Understanding why you feel the way you do (nauseous; dizzy; cold and clammy; tense; rapid breathing and heartrate) can be enough to allow you to take a step back, observe your response objectively and allow it to dissipate while you focus simply on breathing slowly and steadily until the feelings pass and you are able to move forward with your day.

Physical activity can help us to feel better and 'burn off' that pent-up energy. The stress response is designed to enable a burst of strenuous physical activity. Therefore, physical activity can be very helpful in allowing our body to return to a state of rest and relaxation.

Complementary therapies such as massage, reflexology, and reiki can also help aid relaxation and reduce stress. Hypnotherapy and mindfulness are also widely and successfully used in stress management. Contact me today for more information about how I could help with any of these different therapies.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Making the Bank Holiday Different

Life in lock-down can mean that the days all begin to blur into one. If, like me, you already have absolutely no idea what day of the week it is, you may have only just realised that tomorrow is a bank holiday ! The start of the long Easter Weekend!

There have been numerous posts and blogs offering advice on how to survive lock-down and how to look after our mental health as well as posts advertising online resources for fun things to do or watch. I'm not going to tell you how to look after your mental health or the importance of routine, you've already heard and read about all that too many times. I am going to try to pull together a few of the resources and ideas that are available to help differentiate the weekend from the week. Maybe some of these ideas will help you to make the Bank Holiday Weekend feel a bit more like a holiday and less like just another 4 days in lock-down.

So, what would you normally do on a bank holiday weekend? A weekend away? Camping? Walking? Theatre or cinema? A meal out? See family and friends? With a bit of creativity and planning, many of these could be recreated at home.

We can't have a weekend away, but if you are feeling hardy and have a tent you could have a garden camp-out, don't forget the marshmallows and campfire songs (you may even be able to get your neighbours to join in....we did last weekend before the Queen's speech, it was lovely to see everyone laughing and having some fun) !! If, like me, April is a bit too chilly for camping, you can save this one for the end of May bank holiday weekend instead..

Walking/cycling:...well, we may not be able to go far afield, but we can still go out for exercise once a day so make the most of the opportunity to get out of your house and explore your local area...most of us don't know the area on our own doorstep as well as we know our favourite beauty spot, now's your chance to get to know your local area too. While you are out, pop into your local shop for supplies for some of your other activities.

Theatre: You can't go to the theatre, but the theatre has come home to us. Both musicals and stage plays can be watched on YouTube. Personally, I'm off to the theatre this afternoon to watch 'One Man, Two Guvnors' before it disappears at 7pm to be replaced with Jane Ayre. Don't forget the chocolate/sweets/ice cream/prosecco. Try these links for more information:



A meal out: Well, we may not be able to go out for a meal or a takeaway, but the meal can come to us. There are many pubs and restaurants trying to keep their businesses afloat and support their local communities by providing take-away meals. A quick search on the internet should help you find what is available in your local area. The closest to me in Copmanthorpe that I am aware of is Ye Old Sun Inn in Colton, where you can not only pick up a fabulous take-away but some essential groceries too (and some of Ashley's amazing chocolate). You can place your order by phone, then, when you collect, ring them from the car park and they will bring your order out to you. Many other pubs and restaurants are also offering take away services, but , as I don't know where you all live I'll leave it to you to have a look online. Now is a great time to support your local businesses.


Your favourite takeaway: If you are set on your favourite Indian/Chinese/Thai/Burger/Pizza you could use the extra time that most of us have to make your own using a simple recipe, let's face it there are a lot of fabulous recipes online. Alternatively you can see what your local supermarket can offer from their takeaway selection, picking up some marshmallows (for your camp fire), chocolates and ice cream (for the theatre) or popcorn (for your movie night) at the same time.

Movie night: This is one for NetFlix/Amazon prime/Now TV etc or maybe you could dig out some of your old favourite DVD's and start to watch them again. Maybe you could swap DVD's with some of your neighbours. Don't forget the takeaway and popcorn (see above!)

BBQ: This is still possible so long as you have the gas/charcoal you need and can get some supplies. The supermarkets are well stocked again now, but if you don't want to go to the big shops, your local butchers will be able to provide top quality meats and, again you will be supporting a small, local business. Your local greengrocers will be able to supply the vegetables for your kebabs and salad vegetables as well as fresh fruit to dip in melted chocolate for desert.

Family time: If you have the luxury of a garden, this is definitely the time to dig out those old garden games from the depths of the garage or garden shed, dust them off and start to play. Whether it is an ancient swing-ball set, hoop-la or a couple of tennis balls that you can throw at some tin cans, dig out what you have got and get creative to make some fun, silly games to play as a family. There are loads of ideas on the internet, here is one link (and a second one for card games), but a quick search will provide you with plenty of ideas.



Family time: To spend time with your wider family, and friends too, you can arrange a video call using WhatsApp/Zoom/Skype/Google hangouts etc. with a bit of planning you could organise a quiz, a bingo night or some silly games to play online.

And, of course, it's Easter, there will be eggs to hide, eggs to hunt for, eggs to paint and decorate....and chocolate to eat...

So there's a few ideas. What will you plan to do this weekend?

Personally, I'm off the the theatre this afternoon, racing around the world (on catch up) tomorrow, heading back to the theatre for Jesus Christ Superstar on Saturday or Sunday, enjoying a curry, catching up with family and friends via Zoom and playing games in the garden (swingball, football and badminton most likely). I'll save the camping until it's a bit warmer! Let me know what you get up to, it might give me some ideas for next weekend...