April is Stress Awareness Month, which is an important opportunity for us to reflect on the ways in which stress can impact our mental health and wellbeing. After all, we may be aware of what stress is, but sometimes we struggle to identify the difference between acute, low-level stress and that which is more intense and prolonged. The former is a part of everyday life, but the latter can lead to mental ill-health or exacerbate conditions for someone already mentally unwell.
For this reason, it is extremely important to recognise when prolonged and intense levels of stress in our friends, family members, colleagues and even ourselves. We must also be mindful that what constitutes ‘prolonged and intense’ differs from person to person. Not everyone carries the same capacity when it comes to stress, and this is perfectly normal.
Once you can understand when you or someone you know is experiencing an overwhelming amount of stress, it is also crucial to know some of the ways that you can prevent this from having an effect on your mental health by taking some time to look after your wellbeing.
How stress affects your mental health
We all experience some level of stress at various stages of our lives. Work, studying, family and relationships are just a few of the factors that can contribute to stress. In some instances, the pressure will be acute, which means that it will last for a short period of time (for example, this might stem from receiving upsetting news, having a difficult experience or worrying about something imminent). In others, stress can be relatively low-level, such as navigating a tricky household or work task. However, there are many times when stress may be prolonged and intense, and under these circumstances it can have a particularly big impact on your mental health and wellbeing.
Intense and prolonged stress is a lot more common than many people realise—what you may think is simply light, acute stress could actually be something a lot more potent—and this type of stress can often lead to mental ill-health. According to a study by the Mental Health Foundation, which was conducted in 2018, over half of the adults who said they had been stressed also claimed to have experienced depression. Additionally, over 60% of respondents said that they had experienced anxiety as well.
On top of this, stress, even at an acute or low level, can exacerbate the mental ill-health of people who are already experiencing things like depression or anxiety. And it is worth remembering that it works both ways too; mental ill-health can cause stress just as much as stress can cause mental ill-health. Coping with the day-to-day symptoms of your mental ill-health can be extremely stressful.
Here are some of the ways that stress can affect you mentally:
- Difficulty paying attention
- Struggling to remember things
Tips to reduce stress to benefit your mental health
There are three types of stress that you will generally experience:
- Those with a practical solution
- Those that will get better in time
- Those that you cannot do anything about
Stress that will get better in time might include, for instance, an upcoming exam, whilst stress that you cannot do anything about could involve something like an illness. The only way to reduce these are through patience and/or changing your outlook on the situation. Therefore, if you want to quickly reduce your stress levels, it might be better to focus your attention solely on the first item on this list: stress where there may be a practical solution.
Examples of stress where there may be a practical solution could involve anything from an overwhelming workload to troubles in a friendship or even caring for someone unwell. It may be useful to sit down and make a list of some ways in which you can alleviate these stresses, such as speaking to someone you trust about the problem, asking for help from a friend or colleague, or taking some time out to care for your own wellbeing.
Furthermore, self-care is an excellent way of letting off some steam to improve your mental health and wellbeing—even if it is just on a temporary basis. It is useful to think of stress like a bucket. Imagine you’re carrying a bucket that contains everything contributing to your stress. Once it starts to fill up, you will need to drain some of the stress, or else it will become too difficult to carry. Remember: that bucket will come in different sizes for different people.
Here are a few ways that you can be kind to yourself, both physically and mentally, in order to alleviate stress:
- Be active—a little light exercise can go a long way. It’s one of the 5 steps to wellbeing!
- Avoid unhealthy habits—try to not overly rely on smoking, alcohol or caffeine as a coping mechanism
- Stress can lead to poor sleep, but it is important to get a good night’s rest. Make sure to go to bed at a sensible time, avoid using electronics beforehand and have a peaceful bedtime environment.
- Make sure to drink a lot of water and eat healthy meals at your usual, regular times
- Make some time to be social with friends and family; connecting to others is one of the other 5 steps to wellbeing.
- Get outdoors if you are feeling overwhelmed—this can be a short walk in a park, or visiting your local woods or nature reserve.
- Practice self-care. This could be a relaxing bath, doing yoga or allowing yourself some peace and quiet to meditate. But it could also be simply practicing a hobby!