How many times have you thought to yourself “I’m stressed” but not spoken to anyone about it? According to research by mentalhealth.org.uk, 74 percent of people in the UK reported feeling so stressed they were overwhelmed or unable to cope at some point in the past year – and it seems it’s more of a female issue, as 81 percent of women said this, compared to 67 percent of men. Here, we delve into the reasons behind stress and how to identify our triggers so we can deal with it calmly before the emotions bubble over – plus, we give you the tools you need to banish stress in no time at all.
So, why do women in particular struggle with stress? “We all deal with stress at some point in our lives, but for many women, this stress is unfortunately permanent,” says Ray Sadoun, a London-based mental health and addiction recovery specialist (okrehab.org). “Women with children have to be either a stay-at-home mum or a working mother, and both of these options can be incredibly stressful. Some women find that staying at home isolates them from society, yet working makes it harder for them to spend quality time with their children. Women without children are likely to feel stressed due to the pressure put on women to run a household and settle down with a family.”
Aside from children, we women tend to have more stress put on us from other directions too. For example, have you considered how much emotional labour you’ve taken on? This ranges from being the only one who remembers to organise sending out birthday cards to taking on more than your fair share of household responsibilities. In fact, it turns out that women aged between 35-54, who are likely to be juggling many roles, including mother, homemaker, carer for elderly parents and sometimes breadwinner, experience significantly higher stress than men, according to the latest Health and Safety Executive figures.
Can you catch stress?
Dr Courtney Raspin, founder of Altum Health (altumhealth.co.uk), thinks so. “Emotions are contagious,” she says. “Just like the flu, we can actually ‘catch’ and absorb what others are feeling. It’s a remarkable ability we have as human beings, as we are hard wired to empathise with those around us. Connecting with others and caring for them is key to our survival, so it makes sense we can take on other people’s positive and negative feelings. When those around us are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, our instinct is to be alerted to this and to respond as if these are cues of danger. This can mean your body goes into a fight or flight response in attempt to manage these cues, just as if you were experiencing your own stress. And yes, second-hand stress can affect your body just like your own, causing your heart to beat faster, your blood pressure to increase, and in the long run, negatively affect your physical and emotional health. It’s essential we look out for this and protect ourselves, and those around us.”
So, how can you identify if you’re dealing with your own stress, or someone else’s?
“If you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed and tense, the first thing to do is to try and locate the triggers for this,” says Dr Raspin. “Are your own stressful feelings due to your personal pressures, or could you be absorbing other people’s distress? Simply identifying whether this is ‘your stuff’ or ‘their stuff’ can help you feel more in control and devise a plan to help you move forward.”
If it is ‘your stuff’ that’s causing you stress, try to find out what your personal triggers are, especially if you aren’t going through a major upheaval. “The first thing to do is assess your daily habits and emotions,” says David Brudö, co-founder and CEO of mental wellbeing app Remente (remente.com). “Do you always feel stressed when you’re running late or stuck in traffic? Do you feel overwhelmed when you‘re at work? Once you identify the source, you can take positive action and deal with stress much more easily, such as attending stress management courses, reading about techniques to reduce stress and downloading apps designed to help.” Read the tips in our panel to discover more ways of managing and minimising daily stress levels.
If you’ve identified that your stress is due to other people’s behaviour, you need to make a conscious decision about how to deal with it – this will help you feel more in control and less affected by them. “If you have a friend, family member or colleague who is usually relaxed but is going through a tough time, it’s reasonable to try to help,” says Dr Raspin. “But if you have a constantly negative person around you, somebody who relentlessly sees the negative and rejects all solutions, it might be in your best interest to step away and protect yourself from this toxicity.”
Struggling to maintain boundaries? “Be careful that you don‘t continue to take on other people’s problems,” says Dr Raspin. “We all know that allowing someone to touch us in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable is bad, but many of us struggle to keep emotional boundaries in place. Pay attention when your body tells you that someone is violating your emotional space. Demands on your time and energy, a lack of respect for your own wishes, not taking ‘no’ for an answer, and constantly putting your needs aside to deal with theirs are all signs that your emotional boundaries might be being pushed. If you find that you are being bombarded by negativity, it may be time to separate yourself from the source. This may mean you advising them to seek help elsewhere. This can feel mean, but it’s essential to maintain your own mental health.”
One final note from Dr Raspin: “It’s frustrating wanting to help and not being able to. We can end up getting angry with ourselves and with others for draining us. Neither of these responses is good for our own stress levels. Remember that your instinct to help makes you a kind person. It takes time to learn healthy boundaries, and it’s essential you forgive yourself if you allow those boundaries to be violated. When you feel angry with that stressed person, try to remember that they are suffering, too. Keeping this in mind can help reduce your own feelings of anger and in turn, reduce your stress levels.”
How to manage stress
Niels Eék, psychologist and co-founder of Remente, reveals his top tips for minimising overwhelm
Create manageable ‘to-do’ lists
It can be difficult to keep track so that things seem to spiral out of control. Break tasks down into small and manageable components. This will help you concentrate on the task at hand without losing focus and procrastinating.
Once you identify the source of your stress, decide if it is in your power to change it. If the issue is outside of your control, you should accept that you can‘t change the situation, and instead concentrate on positive action you can take.
Exercising will help control the ‘fight or flight‘ hormones that get triggered by stress. Taking a walk will help clear your thoughts and give you perspective.
Take some me time
It can be difficult to find time to do activities you enjoy. Set aside a few evenings a week to do something you love, as that will decrease your stress levels.
Minimise bad habits
Turning to drinking and other unhealthy patterns doesn‘t help you address, or deal with, what is causing the stress. Instead, do something else you enjoy and return to your problems when you feel calmer.
Your stress-free toolkit
Try these super speedy tricks to turn the pressure into peace
“Deep breaths are essential to get the mind thinking clearly and for the body to slow down,” says life coach and speaker Rasheed Ogunlaru (rasaru.com). “Put your hands behind your head, stand tall and take three slow, very deep breaths from your stomach. You’ll start to feel the air in your lungs and feel yourself calming down.”
- Try word play
“Think of a word that makes you feel calm and when you get stressed just say or think of the word,” says Ogunlaru. “This brief second or two may just give you that moment to catch your breath, bite your lip, let it go, or walk away.”
- Laugh out loud
The age-old adage ‘laughter is the best medicine’ might just be true; with numerous studies showing it can have a positive effect on stress-busting hormones. Other studies have shown it may help reduce heart disease and enhance learning and memory. Even more reasons to be happy!
- Take a sniff
According to a study by Newcastle’s Northumbria University, breathing in the aroma of lavender has a sedative effect, slowing reactions and reducing agitation. Add one drop of essential oil to a hankie and inhale the calm!
- Think of a loved one
“Imagine a loved one smiling at you,” says therapist Ann Finnemore (gettingyouthere.co.uk). “Our reaction is to smile back and when we do, we release both physical and emotional stress.”
- Press pause
“Let the moment that has triggered you pass. Take a step back and change perspective,” says Ogunlaru. “Sometimes we are too close to events, so stepping into another room or changing your chair can help you see things differently.”
- Eat a mindful meal
“Look at your fork before it goes in your mouth: notice the shape, the texture, the smell,” says psychotherapist Dr Christian Buckland. “Being present can take us away from a stressful situation and look at it in a calm manner.”