April is stress awareness month. Here Mental Health First Aid instructor, Andy Elwood, explains more about stress and the purpose of Stress Awareness Month.
Established in 1992, Stress Awareness Month aims to raise awareness of the causes of stress and ways to combat it. It’s organised by the Stress Management Society (SMS)and has a different theme every year. This year the focus is on the ACT model: Action Changes Things (#actnow).
Taking action is really important. We’re all subject to stress. Having this focus every April is really important as it’s a way of getting information out and raising awareness. The more we normalise the conversation about this, the more knowledge we have and the more interaction we have, the greater perspective we can get from other people. Instead of this one-way monologue in our head which says, “I need to get on with this. Everybody is dealing with this, it’s not just me. I need to sort this out myself.” Or possibly even less helpful thinking, like “there’s something wrong with me if I can’t manage everything that’s going on”.
So, this year I’m really pleased that there’s a focus on the link to mental health and what stress really is. And the message is ‘there is no health without mental health’. Mental health and physical health are two sides of the same coin.
The strapline of the SMS is ‘moving from distress to de-stress’ which is a useful way of looking at things. When talking about stress, SMS uses the analogy of a bridge. However, if there’s too much traffic or weight on the bridge, either over time, or possibly all of a sudden, the bridge can collapse, no matter how strong it is.
A bridge collapse can take many forms, whether it’s a mental emotional breakdown or presenting in physical ways such as cardiovascular disease or higher blood pressure.
How to spot signs of stress
SMS outlines four different ways stress might present itself. And these are things we might notice in ourselves or in others.
Cognitive function – you might see a change in, or develop memory problems. Maybe you’re not remembering everything as well as you used to. Or you see that a work colleague, who usually has all the facts and figures at the front of their mind, may not appear as on top of things as usual.
Impaired judgement – you or someone you know may not be able to concentrate as well as usual. It’s often described as brain fog. When there are just too many inputs which affects clear thinking. People may procrastinate, make poor decisions, display bad judgement or make a poor choice. They might start many tasks but not complete many of them.
Poor self-esteem – we display a lot of self-doubt in our thinking. Language becomes negative: “I’m always getting those things wrong” or “Oh, it’s me, I’m stupid”. We might pick up on this negative self-talk.
So, a lot of the signs and symptoms of stress, will show up the same way as for someone experiencing poor mental health.
Emotional changes – feeling down or low mood or more moody may be another sign. We may argue or feel more irritable or we may notice feelings of panic, cynicism, anxiety and feeling overwhelmed in others.
In my experience, a lot of people won’t use the word ‘overwhelmed’. But it may present in other ways. They may say they’re feeling things are getting out of control, they’re feeling trapped, they feel like they haven’t any choices, things are just too much for them. So, we may hear that type of language instead. They may become more irritable with people both at work and at home. Maybe someone who is usually a can-do person, starts putting up barriers, stopping projects, stopping ideas, stopping changes. These are all signs to look out for.
The final straw…
Some people wear a mask at work, but they might fly off the handle about trivial things at home. So, irritability is another thing to look out for as well as people being close to tears or actually crying without really knowing why. We may see people feeling really emotional and getting upset at little things and making mountains out of mole hills. A minor thing may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. When someone’s stress container is feeling really full to the brim, it just takes any little thing just to tip it over and it’s overflowing. So, that last little car or bicycle that comes on the bridge will just be the last bit of weight that’ll break the bridge.
Invest time in yourself
This is all about self-care, making some time and space for yourself to do something that you enjoy. The more of those you can combine into one activity, the more bang for your buck you’ll get out of it, the better you’ll feel afterwards for even a short investment. If we could try to find about an hour a week for ourselves, that’s a bit of a guideline. And that can be broken up then to maybe doing an activity once a week.
It can be a few minutes each day. Choose a time that suits you, whether it’s first thing in the morning, last thing at night. Or for many of us that are working in a practice environment, getting a bit of a break in the middle of the day, especially if it’s been a bad morning. So, get outside for lunch, get some fresh air, chat to someone different.
I’m hearing more and more, having a break from social media and tech is one of the things that people do for themselves. Whether that’s over the weekend, or when they’re on holiday, possibly just at lunchtime, it’s your choice how you enact that.
One of the main immediate stress reduction techniques proven by research is exercise. For some people, depending on how many signs and symptoms you’re showing going on the punch bag and getting rid of that frustration would be a good thing. For other people yoga or walking the dog are good exercise. Whatever works for you.
Talking to someone else is another. A problem shared is a problem halved. And if you’re supporting someone, pay attention to your listening skills. When someone’s talking, it’s about them, it’s not about us. We want to listen with two ears and one mouth. Let them get it off their chest. That reduces the stress that they’re feeling.
Getting a good night’s sleep is great for stress relief. Perhaps try getting to bed a little bit earlier and recognising the importance of that. It’s not just about the quantity of sleep, it’s about the quality. Things that help with that are less alcohol and less caffeine later in the day; having a room at a comfortable temperature; just keeping your bedroom for sleeping and intimacy, not trying to do work there. Also, reduce screen time before bed.
Finally, some kind of mindfulness or relaxation. That could be a yoga session, a hot bath, a cold shower or doing a hobby that you love. Whatever it is, losing your mind in that, focusing on that takes your mind off all the stress enough to get a break from it.
A little bit of stress is helpful and our brain is wired to actually look out for that as it can help us recognise a threat and fires off our fight or flight response. That can be really helpful if it’s a couple of times a week, but in our 24/7 lifestyle, we can feel like we’re on a constant hamster wheel. When it’s getting fired off too often and over too long a period – that’s when problems can develop for us. The good news is that we can do something about this by employing some of the techniques I discussed above. Take a pause, acknowledge that this is happening to you and then choose ways of managing it that work for you.
If you’d like to hear more about this topic and you’re going to the British Dental Conference and Dentistry Show on 12th and 13th May, ‘How can I keep myself mentally fit?’ is one of the Big Questions being posed and answered during a session at Practice Plan’s Dental Business Theatre. The Practice Plan team will also be at Stand K50 so, why not come along and say hello.
Andy Elwood is a Mental Health First Aid instructor and an ambassador for Movember. He creates safety and trust by sharing his own vulnerability and gives a unique ‘behind the scenes’ insight into life and death situations from his 20 years’ experience working in the emergency services as a paramedic on search and rescue helicopters.