You may have been aware that last week was Mental Health Awareness Week here in New Zealand. Did you participate in any way, either in your workplace or outside of work? Globally, we are seeing a rise in mental health problems, in particular stress, depression and anxiety. With increasing pressure and constant demand in both our personal an
d professional lives, we need to explore ways to proactively manage stress in a way that is positive our overall wellbeing.
What is stress?
Stress can be defined as the adverse inner reaction that people experience when they are exposed to excessive pressure. When pressure becomes excessive, our own inner reactions and the belief we cannot handle the level of pressure, can cause us emotional and mental overwhelm. The skills we have to manage our inner reactions are referred to as ‘intrapersonal skills’ and if we lack these skills, stress will continue to create a sense of overwhelm which can cause more severe physical and mental health problems. Whilst stress and burnout are not mental illnesses, both are mental health-related problems that can escalate into mental illnesses if not addressed.
Does stress cause burnout?
Different scientific studies have proven time and time again that burnout is not the result of a single event, but rather a question of lifestyle choices and long-term exposure to stress. There are five distinct phases of burnout, and the earlier you spot the warning signs, the more likely you are able to prevent it. Are you worried you might be at risk of, or experiencing burnout, but unsure of the signs? Some of the symptoms to look for include (but are not limited to):
· Exhaustion, feeling emotionally and physically depleted
· Frequent illnesses and physical symptoms including headaches, changes in appetite, increased susceptibility to colds/flu, stomach problems or changes in sleep/insomnia
· Feeling overwhelmed
· Depression and anxiety
· Withdrawn or socially isolated
· Thoughts about running away or escaping the on-going demands, responsibilities and pressures of work and life
· Substance abuse (as a means to escape or numb emotional turmoil)
What can we do to help reduce stress and burnout?
When it comes to reducing stress, we should be striving for sustainable solutions sought at the earliest opportunity, to address problems before they escalate into anything more serious. Pressure and stress, both at work and in life is unavoidable, but burnout is preventable. Here are 10 simple steps you could take to help reduce your level of stress:
1. Exercise, even as little as 10 minutes per day can make a difference! Exercise is great for both our physical health, but also our emotional and mental health too. If you can combine your exercise with getting out in nature, even better!
2. Prioritise sleep. Our bodies undisputedly need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to perform at their best, and healthy sleep habits are essential to our wellbeing. Establishing a bedtime ritual can help, as well as banning smartphones from the bedroom, avoiding caffeine in the evening and switching off devices at least one-hour prior to bedtime.
3. Nutrition plays an important role – ensure you consume the nutrients your body needs through eating healthy, nutritious food (not junk).
4. Breathe. Nothing downregulates the production of stress hormones better than the quality of your breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing (inhaling and your lower abdomen expands then exhaling and your tummy contracts), communicates to every cell in your body that you are safe, as oppose to short, sharp, shallow breathing. So taking some time each day to focus on your breathe (or as often as you can) can help reduce feelings of stress.
5. ‘Unplug’ more often.
6. Be aware of your thoughts and how they might affect your feelings of stress. Is there a better way to think about your response to a given situation? And does telling yourself you are stressed make you feel more stressed? The story we tells ourselves can hugely influence our subsequent feelings and behaviours.
7. Explore meditation/mindfulness to help us ‘be present’ in the moment.
8. Have an awareness of the tension you might be carrying in your body. You might like to try some Progressive Muscle Relaxation techniques or book yourself a therapeutic or relaxation massage.
9. Stay connected. Sometimes a problem shared is a problem halved, so reach out to friends and family through stressful times.
10. Seek further guidance from a professional or explore learning about how you can enhance your intrapersonal skills to better manage stress and avoid burnout.
As we look for ways to reduce stress and other mental health problems among people in our communities and workplaces, the approach needs to be comprehensive and proactive. The more we understand what stress is and how it affects us (physically, emotionally and mentally), the more likely we are able to manage it in a way that is positive for our wellbeing.
Rebekah Dawson is an Organisational Psychologist and works for Progress People in corporate wellbeing. If you would like further information or if you are interested in accessing a free 30-minute online training session on stress reduction, please click here.