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Stress – Is it the new normal?

Stress is now so common that it’s almost become acceptable. In fact, for many, daily stress is a normal occurrence both at home and in their working environment, and we’ve forgotten what life is like without it. This is dangerous because we’re ignoring a warning signal that something is wrong. It’s like driving a car at high speed down a motorway while the oil light is flashing empty and waiting for an accident or breakdown to happen.

As humans, we’re great at adapting to things that happen repeatedly overtime. We do this by forming habits that require less conscious thought and therefore less energy. This skill has helped us to survive as a species and flourish in the most extreme environments. However, when we’re repeating negative behaviours, such habits can become destructive because they happen at a level below our conscious awareness. Examples of such detrimental habits include smoking, social withdrawal, drinking and denial.

The physical, mental and financial cost of stress

While acute stress can actually enhance immunity and memory in the short term, chronic stress (over a prolonged period of time) has the opposite effect. It lowers immune response making you more susceptible to illness and disease, impairs cognitive functioning (in particular memory), and causes untold relationship damage through motivating high anxiety, withdrawn and aggressive behaviour.

The most measurable impact of this is in the workplace, where high stress can be linked back to lost working days and reduced productivity. Today, stress is responsible for 13 million lost working days every year[1] and is estimated to cost the UK £26 billion per year[2].

Three steps to managing stress

Stress can happen to anyone at anytime but it is within our control if we recognise it soon enough. Here are 3 simple steps you can start taking now, to avoid chronic stress and improve your overall physical and mental well-being:

1. Understand stress; what causes it and why we need some stress in our lives

2. Be self aware; don’t ignore the warning signs telling you to slow down and relax

3. Develop positive habits; there are many techniques to beat stress and you’ll have to find the one that works best for you. Once you do, practice this technique so it becomes a habit and part of your everyday life

Step 1: Understand stress

Stress is your body’s reaction to a perceived or actual threat and is manifested as bodily or mental tension. The threat that triggers this response may be physical (e.g. injury, lack of sleep, over-doing things), chemical (e.g. exposure to toxins, allergens, pollutants) or emotional (e.g. feeling of loneliness, inadequacy, overwhelm).

Stress has a very good reason for existence – it helps you survive by directing your energy to deal with danger. As such, it acts upon the autonomic nervous system. This system is independent of conscious thought and controls your organs and glands.

The autonomic nervous system divides into two sub-systems; the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. In short, the sympathetic mobilises your body for action and the parasympathetic does the opposite by calming and restoring your body. When we’re functioning optimally, the two are in balance and this is called homeostasis.

When the sympathetic nervous system is triggered by a potential threat, it leads to a surge of emotion and rush of adrenalin, which gives you a heightened sense of your surroundings. This aids you in making the fight or flight decision and requires a big amount of metabolic energy, which is why we feel so exhausted when we’re stressed.

However, don’t think that all stress is bad! In fact, positive stress (also known as eustress) can feel pleasant and be beneficial. Too little stress can quickly turn into boredom and a little stress helps improve performance and efficiency. Knowing how stressed you are and whether this is helping or hindering you is key.

Step 2: Be self-aware

Before you can manage stress, you need to acknowledge that you are stressed. Often, a giveaway is when someone asks you “what’s wrong” and you answer “nothing”? Emotions always involve a physiological response, which means that others pick up on this subtle body language change even before your conscious is aware there is a problem. So next time someone asks you “what’s wrong”, think about it before answering in denial . . .

Stress also has some clear physical and emotional signals. Physical signals include; a pounding heart, trembling, fidgeting, grinding teeth, dry mouth, excessive perspiration, difficulty digesting food, aching neck and lower back, constant headaches, frequent colds, cold hands and feet, insomnia and fatigue.

Emotional signals include; irritability, impulsiveness, urge to cry or to run and hide, inability to concentrate, loss of enthusiasm, jumpiness, high pitched laughter, choked voice and floating anxiety (i.e. fear without an obvious reason).

The best way to start becoming more self-aware is to check in with yourself at regular intervals. Programme a reminder in your phone to ask “how are you feeling?” a couple of times a day. You might find it helpful to write this down and start an emotional diary. If you do, make sure you note the triggers so that you can start to identify patterns and eliminate negative triggers whilst repeating exposure to the positive ones.

Step 3: Develop positive habits

Once you’re aware that you need to reduce your stress levels, there are a whole host of tools and techniques to try.  Make sure that you don’t add to your stress levels before you start though by taking on too many tools at the same time and feeling overwhelmed. Start with the techniques that are easy for you and try one at a time. Note down how you feel before and after and try repeating each for a month so you can start developing habits. The more you practice the easier it becomes and you’ll soon be doing these positive interventions without even thinking.

To help you on your way, here are my top 5 tools to reducing stress:

1. Exercise

Exercise is a wonder activity. It has such a positive impact on body, mind and soul. Find a form of exercise that works for you and make it as easy to do as possible. For example, I know that running makes me feel a million times less stressed but I just can’t motivate myself in the morning. So, I systematically removed all the barriers until it got to the point where my motivation to run was matched by the energy required to get outside and do it. This meant leaving my running gear next to my bed, setting my alarm 10 minutes earlier, getting my (more motivated) husband to run with me and rewarding myself with a coffee later that morning.

Exercise doesn’t have to be high impact either. Start with walking and build up to a walk-run schedule or try meditating, yoga or tai chi.

2. Reframing

Remember when I said stress was a response to an actual or perceived threat? Well, the first thing you can do is start by removing a lot of the perceived threats by reframing them. Ask yourself, “what’s the worst that can happen?” and try freeze framing to step outside the emotion zone and look at the situation rationally. One of the quotes which has had the most profound impact on my life is from the Dalai Lama. I came across it when I bought his Little Book of Wisdom years ago, as I was trying to come to terms with my grandfather’s death. I’ve carried it with me ever since as a mantra.

If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.

3. Help others

Doing something for the benefit of someone else also helps to reframe a situation. It makes us realise that we’re not the only one with problems and often makes our problems pale into insignificance. It also gives us a sense of purpose. The happiest people are those who give selflessly to others, expecting nothing back in return.

4. Surround yourself with positive people

Women in general are different from men in the way they deal with stress. Men typically mirror the fight, flight pattern whereas women engage in fight, flight and befriend. Being around people gives us the social support we need. Identify those people who have a positive impact on your mood and make you laugh. Shared laughter has powerful benefits for your mental and physical wellbeing.

5. Eat and breathe healthily

Food, water and oxygen make up our fuel for life. Not drinking enough water can cause stress through dehydration. Drinking too much alcohol, smoking, drugs, binging on carbs and sugary foods – all these are short-term fixes with long-term consequences. We’re all bombarded with so many healthy eating messages these days that we all know what we should be eating. It’s not about depriving yourself of treats but having everything in moderation.

And don’t forget about the air you breathe. Recent research suggests that air pollution may lead to unhappiness while the converse is also true, the unhappier the citizens of a country, the more air pollution. Another great reason to get out into green space and fill your lungs with fresh air.

Goodbye to distress

So there you have it, 3 simple steps and 5 easy ways to use stress as a positive response and start improving your mental and physical well-being. We always love to hear your thoughts and what stress busting tips work for you, so please share them below with the Women Unlimited community. I would also recommend downloading Your Daily Bread’s “top 10 stress busters” book for free, and if you would like to come along to their event, see below in the bio box for more details.


[1] HSC, 2007

[2] MIND, 2011

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4 Comments
  1. Trisha Proud says

    A great blog and timely reminder that we all need to keep life in perceptive and have a strange sense of ‘work vs. life balance! I particularly love tip 4 “Surround yourself with positive people”……….because having lots of negative people around you is both mentality and physically draining! A really interesting read.

  2. Michelle Hawkins says

    Thank you for your comments Trisha – really glad to read you found it useful and interesting! I actually came across the 2013 results for the OECD Better Life Index yesterday (in which the UK ranks 10 in the world) and it has some interesting findings on work life balance. In case you want to red more, here’s a quick link to the summary http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/united-kingdom/

  3. Joanna Pieters says

    I really enjoyed this post, Michelle. Stress is s a fascinating combination of big picture and small details: the principle of not worrying about the things you can control or the things you can’t, and the immediate choice between sugar or fruit as a snack. I think you make a very interesting point about removing barriers: so many resources (time, money and energy) go into repeatedly getting round practical problems rather than solving them at the root. I find there’s often a close relationship between practical barriers and mental resistance, though! It’s curious how often we sabotage our own well-being.

  4. Jutta Nedden says

    Hi Michelle, I really enjoyed reading your post. Thank you for sharing your insights. I think stress is an ongoing topic for most of us. Juggling with your business, clients, networks, family and kids doesn’t leave a lot of space for yourself. For me, planning ahead is the best cure against feeling overwhelmed and being stressed in a negative sense. As soon as I start “drifting” along, I am getting drowned in my daily workload (which happens quite easily… -:-)…)