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April 28, 2008

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Stress management explained

Given that 30 per cent of GP appointments are used to discuss mental health problems1 it seems we are a more stressed-out nation than ever. Work has a huge effect on our stress levels, particularly daily stress, so employers need to be aware of the various ways in which they can improve the well-being of their workers. One often-overlooked approach is to use natural remedies, as Leila Abachi explains.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, half a million people experience so much stress at work that they believe it is making them ill, while four out of ten people can’t sleep at night for worrying about work, or family life.

It comes as no surprise, then, that stress is blamed for triggering up to 85 per cent of chronic illnesses — from sleeplessness, mild depression, and fatigue to skin irritations and digestive disorders. To some extent we all know when we are under too much pressure and what we should do about it — take a break, schedule leisure time, eat better, get things in perspective, etc. But actually doing these things can be a little more difficult.

We often only associate stress with a major trauma, or big event, but it can also be insidious — building up as we simply try to get on with our day. The HSE defines stress as “…the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures, or other types of demand placed upon them” but it’s not always a bad thing and is actually a perfectly natural part of living. Stress gets the adrenaline pumping, which can improve performance, whether at work, school, or on the sports field. The human body is designed to cope with a certain level of stress, believed to derive from primitive times when adrenaline helped cave-people cope with perceived danger by standing up to it or retreating — commonly known as the “fight or flight” reaction.

Today, we still benefit from this in-built mechanism but we have far fewer physical opportunities than our Stone-Age ancestors to relieve stressful situations. Consequently, too much stress can lead to physical, mental, and emotional problems. But of course, every individual is different, and coping levels and reactions can vary enormously — what is unbearable pressure for one can be stimulating and exciting for another.

For example, for some people the prospect of giving a presentation can be highly daunting, and they may fret about it for weeks, whereas someone else will accept the challenge, prepare their presentation, and give it without a worry. That doesn’t mean that the person who gets highly distressed is inadequate, or weak. They simply need support, coaching and encouragement, and they often surprise themselves when they then succeed.

Other influencing factors include the number of stresses in our life, fitness and energy levels, diet, self-confidence, knowledge of a situation and levels of control, and individual personality. The key is to identify an individual’s pressure threshold.

Too much of a bad thing

Healthy living is all about balance and, like anything in life, too much for too long is not good for our health. Excess stress can result in a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms, such as chronic fatigue, depression, and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), so it is obviously advantageous to keep it in check. (Anyone experiencing these symptoms should always seek advice from their GP.)

Since everyone is different, and this is a whole-body reaction, the outcome of regular, excessive pressures is not the same. The symptoms are unique to each individual, but outcomes commonly associated with excessive pressures include:

Physical symptoms:

– Difficulty falling asleep when your mind is racing;

– Tension headaches, and sometimes migraines;

– Digestive disorders;

– Dry, itchy, and irritated skin;

– Fatigue and exhaustion; and

– Neck, shoulder and back pain.

Emotional symptoms:

– Irritability;

– Loss of sense of humour;

– Aggression;

– Withdrawal;

– Tearfulness;

– Forgetfulness;

– Loss of concentration;

– Confusion; and

– Lack of interest.

Such symptoms, caused by excess stress, can spiral downwards into chronic ill health and anxiety. Feeling tired, miserable, and less able to cope makes you even more tired, miserable, and completely unable to cope. Fortunately, stress is most responsive to positive self-help and, as prevention is always better than cure, the most effective way to deal with stress is to deal with it early before it gets the better of you.

Help yourself

While some people turn to medication to help alleviate the symptoms of stress, others worry about possible side effects. For those operating in a safety-critical work environment, conventional medication may not be an option at all. Consequently, many people now prefer more natural ways of easing stress, such as plant-based remedies, the efficacy of some of which has been scientifically proved.2

Other simple, natural ways in which employees can help themselves stay calm and cope with daily stress include the following:

1 Cut out caffeine — it stimulates the production of adrenaline, and will only make you feel even more tense. Drink plenty of water instead to help flush out impurities and keep your energy up.

2 Try deep breathing — when we are nervous, our stressed breathing tends to be shallow and rapid, whereas we breathe more deeply and slowly when we are relaxed. Deeper breathing expels 70 per cent of the toxins in the body and can make you feel much calmer.

3 Exercise your way to inner calm — have you ever noticed how the world can look much brighter after some exercise? This is due to the ‘feel-good’ endorphins released after working out. Go for a brisk walk at lunchtime to get away from your desk and those thoughts of work, as well as getting your heart pumping.

4 Be a smiler, not a frowner — positive thinking and a willingness to accept that some things are outside our control are good ways to reduce tension. Laughter causes your body to release stress-reducing endorphins, which gives you an instant lift, and makes everything seem that little bit better.

5 Meditate your way to inner calm — meditation has been shown to boost the immune system, calm the mind, get rid of negative thoughts, and even fight disease. Just set aside five minutes each day and find a quiet space at work to sit and still the brain. Ignore thoughts coming into your mind and just let them drift out again. The more you practise meditation the quieter your thoughts will become.


1 The DWP revealed this fact in November last year, as part of its announcement that the Government is to treble the number of employment advisors in GP surgeries and pilot a new £8m advice and support service for smaller businesses as part of a new approach to help people with stress and other mental health conditions find and keep work. The measures underpin Dame Carol Black’s national strategy for mental health and work — see SHP April, News

2 Rescue Remedy™, a combination of five Bach™ Original Flower Remedies specially blended to help restore inner calm and manage daily stresses, was proved to be effective in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical trial, the results of which were published in Complementary Health Practice Review, 2007; 12:3-14. Those who took Rescue Remedy, as opposed to the placebo, experienced a statistically significant reduction in their levels of stress and anxiety in the high state anxiety treatment subgroup

Want to try?

At Safety & Health Expo this month, SHP will be offering all new subscribers to the magazine a Rescue Remedy stress management kit, which they can use themselves or keep in the workplace, to be shared by colleagues. Existing readers may also obtain a kit by donating to Jolly John’s campaign, which raises funds for The Stroke Association (see Mailshot and feature on p75 for more information). Stocks are limited. Always read the label.


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