Stress is part and parcel of our lives. Even the word itself is the same in several languages, including German (der Stress) and French (le stress). Although stress is common and normal, we all react differently to stressful life situations.
Stress can be activated by any events or challenges that happen in life. It doesn’t need to be one huge event such as a house move. Stress can be caused by lots of smaller, everyday demands. Any change can cause stress, including such happy events as a new baby, a wedding, a family party, or a job promotion. Other common stressful situations include being ill, unemployment, money worries, problems with neighbours, issues at work, trying to meet deadlines, coping with family relationship dynamics, and going through a break-up. People who retire can find it stressful to lose their daily structure and social network and may feel “useless” and at loose ends.
If you are an expat who has moved from country to country, you may find it easier and less stressful each time you move because you have developed a way of coping. On the other hand, each international move may leave you increasingly frayed and stressed as you anticipate the enormous changes coming your way. Your ability to cope with each expat move is altered by other things that are going on simultaneously. Perhaps you are moving and pregnant at the same time. Perhaps you have children who need new schools in your new country, or maybe you have taken a challenging career plunge.
How someone with stress feels
A stressed person feels tense and under pressure. They are emotional, frustrated or angry. They may burst into tears at small things. They may feel tired and struggle to get things done. They may jump from task to task, never quite managing to complete anything. They can suffer from poor sleep, headaches, backache, and neck and jaw ache. Changes in eating are common, with some people eating too little and others overeating. Some drink far too much alcohol, and others smoke a lot when they feel stressed.
Reactions to stress vary hugely among individuals. Even if we have dealt well with similar situations before, how we deal with stress now is coloured by other things going on in our lives. Our reaction to stress and our coping abilities are shaped by past experiences, self-esteem, personal internal strength and resilience, and our expectations.
Some people enjoy stress – they find it exhilarating to experience tension and pressure.
Recognise stress in yourself
Recognising that you are feeling stressed is a key step. This puts you in a good position to start helping yourself. People can fear making this first step – they believe that admitting they are stressed is the same as admitting that they have “failed.” This is not true. Stress is a normal reaction.
Tell A Trusted Friend
Tell those you trust how you are feeling. Some of your friends may already have noticed you are stressed and will be ready to empathise if you have a big and obvious event coming up (such as having a baby). But if you are struggling to juggle other, less obvious issues, certain friends may unhelpfully suggest you “get on with it.”
You cannot compare stress in one person with stress in another. Stress is how you feel when the demands made on you are hard to cope with.
Not Enough Time!
When you are stressed, it is easy to feel there is not enough time in the day and you have too many things to do. Try to slow down and plan. Don’t rush. Keep a list, but don’t constantly add new things to it – try to finish one list before you start another.
Try to develop an awareness of what you can control and what you can’t. Focus on what you can change in your life, and do not worry about what cannot be controlled.
It’s something we all hear about – exercise is good for mental and physical health. When you are stressed, it can feel like exercise would be wasted time. Start small with 10 minutes, and build up what you do. You could walk around town or your local park, go for a short swim in the lake, or take a bike ride. Dancing to your favourite music in the living room also counts as exercise! Feel you have achieved something when you make time for exercise.
Make Space For Enjoyment
Even if you feel you don’t deserve enjoyment and pleasure when you are stressed and have too much to deal with, try to create a time for happiness each day. This could be 15 minutes doing something you like, such as chatting with a friend on Skype, listening to music you love, restarting an old hobby such as playing an instrument, sketching in a notepad, re-reading a favourite novel, knitting, or looking out of the window while you drink your tea. Schedule your chosen activity in your calendar every day, and do not cancel or reschedule – this time is essential to your mental wellbeing.
Other activities like meditation, yoga, aromatherapy, and deep breathing exercises are frequently used to help cope with stress, and you may want to consider these.
Stress and Physical Health
Stress gets mentioned a lot as a possible cause of illnesses – stomach ulcers, migraines, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and skin rashes. The evidence is not clear-cut, and it is difficult to find strong, proven links. Having said that, people suffering stress do damage their physical health by drinking more alcohol, not exercising, overeating and putting on weight, eating unhealthy foods, smoking lots, and using drugs.
Stress and Mental Health
Strictly speaking, stress is not a mental illness. Normally, stress improves as the original situation or event settles, or you develop strategies for coping with stress. If you are constantly under stress with no resolution in sight, and if stress factors in your life aren’t improving or you feel you are getting worse, you should see your doctor. Other reasons to see your doctor include: not sleeping at all, getting palpitations, being exhausted all the time, being so overwhelmed you are unable to enjoy yourself, finding your concentration is getting worse, hyperventilating (over-breathing), finding it hard to breathe, or feeling low. Your doctor will need to consider whether you are suffering from anxiety, depression or another mental illness, and may suggest therapy such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) or prescription drugs. Drugs are not normally used for stress, but are a part of treatment for many people with depression or anxiety.
By Dr. Jahura Hossain
Born and brought up in London, Jahura is a U.K.-qualified doctor. She has worked in hospitals, general practice, public health, prison medicine, and the pharmaceutical industry.
© Copyright. Jahura Hossain. 2015. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without the express consent of the author.
Illustration by Laura Munteanu
Laura has studied journalism and advertising, and has been worked as a journalist and an illustrator. She has illustrated for magazines, websites, charity and diverse campaigns. She lives in Zurich with her husband and eight-year-old daughter