April is Stress Awareness Month. Now in its 27th year it is an opportunity to pause and take stock about how we manage the stress in our personal and professional lives and how to reduce the unhelpful impact that stress can have on our lives. 

Enduring high levels of stress is known to be linked to anxiety and depression, and in some cases self harm and suicide. That is why it is so important that we understand the stress factors, how we respond to stress and most helpfully, what we do to develop approaches to manage this stress.   

There is no right or wrong in experiencing or managing stress. Each of us will respond differently to situations and experiences, and sometimes have different responses to the same situation. The important thing is to become aware of the feelings, sensations and thought patterns to help us address our stress. 

Some things that work for me;

  1. Practising gratitude and noticing – each morning, before getting out of bed I identify at least three things that I am grateful for or looking forward to in the day ahead. I do the same before going to sleep and on a weekly basis I record people or experiences that I am grateful for. I started this practise of gratitude at a particularly low point in my life and have found over the last three years that it makes a significant difference to my wellbeing. I also take great delight finding new things: whether it be street art, the sun rising over Tower Bridge (see picture), blue plaques or a new route to walk the dog. I try hard to not be looking down at my phone as I walk but this continues to be work in progress.
  2. Listening to the signals – it took me a long time to realise how loudly my body tells me when I am feeling stress. My eczema gets worse, my appetite goes all over the place, the voice of self-doubt gets louder and I get a physical feeling that something bad is going to happen. Whilst I have always felt these things, I didn't - and don't – always notice them in the moment. But increasingly I try to take time to consciously recognise the symptoms, think about what is happening and why, and if there is anything I can do to manage or remove the stressors.
  3. Reduce or remove stressors I am in control of – for example, I don't like being late for other people and I always try not to be. However I'm also one of those people that doesn't naturally factor in travel time to their schedule which means I have spent a lot of years putting myself under undue stress. This kind of stress can become acute if you have an important meeting, a speaking presentation etc. It is a simple thing that I am trying – with the help of my brilliant assistant – to design out of my schedule and my life by ensuring sufficient travel time in the calendar and sticking to it.
  4. Talking carefully and specifically about stress – I try very deliberately to only say something has been stressful if it has actually been stressful. Of course this is an inexact science because what’s stressful for one person might not be as stressful for another. In conversation with my partner if the response to how has you day been is 'stressful', we will tend to revisit and check whether it really has, and quite often reflect that stressful isn't the right word to describe the experience. And that helps.
  5. Leaving the phone at home – over the last few years I have made conscious decisions about times when I will not have my phone with me including if we go out for Sunday lunch, or walking the dog. I try not to use it except for navigation when walking around London – it is dangerous and not noticing lampposts or cars because I am absorbed in email or instagram is stressful. I always try to have some days without it on holidays. In February I accepted a challenge not to use my phone for four consecutive days and it was a liberating experience. I recommend it.
  6. Exercise – I try to build as much walking, running, swimming and cycling into my week as possible because it helps me process information, work things through and sometimes only focus on the job in hand. Horse riding is my favourite thing ever and it provides brilliant distraction. When riding I often think of nothing but what is beneath me (the horse hopefully not the ground!), what is in front of me (a big track to canter across or a jump I want to go over not through!) and the feeling of being at one with the horse. If you can find something that takes you out of the moment and transports you elsewhere, bingo!
  7. Build walking into my work schedule – lots of work is conversations. Lots of good quality conversations can happen while walking particularly when the weather is good. For those of us who are office based walking and talking can bring multiple benefits.
  8. Sleep – I would love to get more. I tend to wake too early but over time I have learnt to accept that it is what it is, and getting stressed about the lack of sleep will not help. Until a few years ago I used to have my phone in the room for something to do when I wake up. I now purposefully leave it out of the room and have learnt a number of meditation techniques to try and get back to sleep. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
  9. Drinking less alcohol – like many of us I like a beer or a glass of wine. At times of stress it is easy to have a drink and British culture still supports alcohol for celebration and commiseration. Alcohol is also self-medication. But it isn’t a great one as it easily affects my sleep (see above), it definitely makes me want unhealthy food and makes me tired. All of which can contribute to my sense of stress. My personality is a bit all or nothing so over the last year I have made a conscious plan each month about when I will have a drink so I don't slip into the easy rhythm of having a drink to unwind or manage stress. I am using the Dry January app which is a year long tracker with the aim of having at least 200 drink free days this year.
  10. And of course talking – I have learnt as I get older that my parents were generally right! And their advice was always that things are always worse when you bottle them up. As I have got older I am pretty good at seeking advice and counsel from friends, family, colleagues, coaches and mentors when I need it. Seeking help from a person I trust to ask the right questions and give feedback (even if I don’t want to hear it!) enables me to reach my own solutions and conclusions. I haven’t always found it easy asking for help: culturally there is so much more we can do to promote a culture where seeking and giving help is seen as – and feels like – the right thing to do.

Managing stress is unique to each and every one of us. People often say stress is an inevitable part of modern living. And to some extent of course it is, but we are not designed to be on high alert 24/7. It isn't good for our bodies or minds, and it is within the power of us all to take time to understand our stressors and responses to them, and to keep trying to get better at taking active steps that work for us. 

Learning to understand and manage my stress is a journey. I owe it to myself and those around me to continually get better at it. Stress Awareness Month has given me the opportunity to pause and reflect. I hope you take the opportunity too. 

Check out the video about which we made for the month. What are your favourite ways to destress? Make sure to email your clips and images to media@mhfaengland.org to be included in our next video.

You can find some #AddressYourStress resources here: http://bit.ly/2TVkeLu