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maintain a consistent sleep routine, get to bed early and down screens – The Irish Times

Got a lot on at work? Or maybe you’re worried about a loved one, about money, or you’ve had a fight with a friend? These are just some of the things that can make us feel stressed. It’s not a nice feeling.

“When we get stressed, we can have a physiological response. Hormones are released in our body, mainly cortisol, and that can change our heart rate,” says Jade Lawless, an accredited psychologist, counsellor and psychotherapist with the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

When the stressful issue is resolved, our stress can recede. If we experience stress repeatedly and over time, however, it can become quite chronic. An ongoing, high level of cortisol is bad for your health.

Constant, unrelenting stress means your boundaries and self-care have probably gone out the window.

“If you are constantly operating at that higher level of stress, you are more likely to experience burnout,” says Lawless. Burnout is recognised by the World Health Organisation as a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. Yikes.

Mind and body

Stress isn’t all in your head. It can have a very real impact on your body too. Tension, headache, insomnia, wakefulness, muscle ache and high blood pressure are just some of the ways in which stress can manifest.

“Chronic pain can be a symptom of prolonged stress,” says Lawless.

“On an emotional and psychological level, chronic stress can cause anxiety and depression, low mood, general dissatisfaction with life and just feeling really down,” she says.

“On a behavioural level, people might turn to things like substance use to deal with stress.” Alcohol, cigarettes and drugs will take a further toll on the body.

Small steps

April is stress awareness month and the theme this year is “little by little”, says Lawless.

“It’s about making small, manageable adjustments to prevent or combat stress. It’s about getting ahead of it by doing small, cumulative things that will benefit you in the long run. You might not think they make a difference, but they do,” she says.

However, don’t wait until you burn out to take action.

Phone a friend

If you are feeling worried or stressed, talk to somebody, says Lawless. We can try to regulate our feelings ourselves, but bouncing things off someone else can really help reduce our stress.

“Co-regulation is proven to be something that is really effective. One way we can co-regulate is by sharing what we are experiencing with a friend, a family member or an accredited therapist,” says Lawless. “Connect with someone else and be real about what you are experiencing.”

Slow down

When deadlines are mounting or household tasks are backing up, it can feel like the wheels are about to come off the cart. Try removing some things from your “to do” list.

You imagine and discuss a possible world where your problems are removed – you see yourself in a stress-free situation, and from there you can work towards that

—  Jade Lawless, accredited psychologist, counsellor

“Say ‘No’ where you need to say no. Set your own standards,” says Lawless. So what if that work report isn’t as perfect as you would like, or the whole house doesn’t get vacuumed before the in-laws visit?

“Prioritise what matters to you by making those small changes that will allow you to slow down. That can have a huge impact on managing your stress,” says Lawless.

Ask the ‘miracle question’

If you woke tomorrow and a miracle had happened where the things causing you stress had gone away, what would be different? Ask yourself that “miracle question”, says Lawless.

“Quite often it’s really small things,” she says. It could be a clean house, some exercise, more time with family. “So we look at how we build that into your life to reduce stress.

“You imagine and discuss a possible world where your problems are removed – you see yourself in a stress-free situation, and from there you can work towards that.

“If you are on a stressful path, not knowing what to do next, it can help you to reset or bring you back to yourself.”

Prioritise rest

Maintaining a consistent sleep routine, getting to bed early and downing screens well in advance will pay dividends, says Lawless.

The body has two nervous systems, she says – the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” nervous system controls our digestion, heart rate and immune system, while the sympathetic nervous system controls the “fight or flight” response we can have when we feel stressed.

“Paying attention to our physical health, our sleep, our breathing and connecting with nature – all of that makes the parasympathetic nervous system kick into action. That will reduce our stress response.”

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