April is Stress Awareness Month. Now in its 30th 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.

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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.

On the MHFA England Mental Health First Aid course, we learn about The Stress Container. We use the term Stress Container to explain how we experience stress, recognising the stressors in our lives and how to manage them. Here are ten things I have learned about managing mine:
  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 practice of gratitude at a particularly low point in my life and have found it makes a significant difference to my wellbeing. I also take great delight in 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 consciously try to 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. Reducing or removing 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. The pandemic and doing so much from one place made me realise how much stress being late caused and I am now trying – with the help of my brilliant colleague at work – to design lateness 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 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. Reducing screen time – 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 coffee or Sunday lunch, or to walk the dog. I always try to have some days without it when I am on leave from work. Last year I accepted a challenge to not use my phone for four consecutive days. It was a liberating experience. I recommend it.
  6. Setting aside time for self-care – 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 a 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!). If you can find something that takes you out of the moment and transports you elsewhere, bingo!
  7. Build walking into my work schedule – A big part 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 desk-based walking and talking can bring multiple benefits.
  8. Sleeping well – I would love to get more sleep. I tend to wake too early but over time I have learnt to accept that it is what it is. 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 outside the room and have learnt a number of meditation techniques to try and get back to sleep. I increasingly pay attention to my bedtime routines to create the best opportunity for me to sleep well. The Sleep Charity has great information about sleep.
  9. Drinking less alcohol – Like many of us I like a beer or a glass of wine. At times of celebration and of stress, it can be tempting and easy to have a drink – sometimes using alcohol as 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 few years 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 250 drink-free days in 2022.
  10. Sharing how you feel – I have learnt as I got older that my parents were generally right! And their advice was always that things always seem worse when you bottle them up. I am pretty good at seeking counsel from friends, family, colleagues and mentors. 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. I haven’t always found it easy asking for help: 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 gives all of us a chance to pause and reflect.

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