Do you have a tendency to wait until you’re about to snap, or edging towards burnout before taking a much-needed breather?
As Dr Alex George shared with his 1.9m followers on Instagram recently: “Recognising when you are becoming stressed and acting on it, is so important”.
The A&E doctor and former Love Island contestant, who became a youth mental health ambassador earlier this year, said: “I am aware I need a break” – so he took a week off work. “Never be ashamed to take a break when you need it. I believe it’s a sign of self-awareness and ultimately strength,” Dr George added.
April is Stress Awareness Month, and after what’s been an exceptionally tough year, Dr George’s reminder to check in on how we’re doing is certainly an important one.
Think about the day-to-day pace
Of course, we can’t always just take holidays whenever we feel like it – that’s simply not realistic. But, if we’re always an inch away from breaking point when we finally get round to relaxing, it might be time to readdress how we’re approaching the day-to-day.
“We need to be pacing more all along,” says Alivia Rose, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). Stress and anxiety are things we need to manage daily. “Burnout only happens when we build up to the point where we haven’t recognised the signals, and the anxiety reaches a point where we haven’t addressed the signals, so it’s quite a discipline to keep on top of this.”
Spotting the signs
So, the first key is recognising those signs, says Rose. “If you’re anxious, you’ll notice that you’re not breathing all the way down into your tummy – you’re breathing higher up in your chest. Also you’ll notice you’re more reactive, so things will fluster you or you’ll react more, you might be more irritated, you might want to weep. These are the little flags and clues.”
It’s useful to remember that stress and anxiety aren’t exclusively ‘bad’, however. “We mustn’t demonise any emotions – there are no ‘bad’ emotions per se, rather feelings are important signals that give us information,” says Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist and author (drmegarroll.com).
They can become problematic if they go unmanaged for too long or build up to overwhelming levels. But remembering that they’re a normal part of life, and no one can avoid them 100% of the time, can be extremely helpful – especially if worrying about getting anxious becomes a source of stress in itself!
As Rose points out, when our anxiety levels rise, “we tend to speed up. That’s what naturally happens – we get faster”. There are helpful ways to intercept this, though.
“We can start to breath more deeply, get away from our desk, go outside, go to nature – nature’s amazingly important for calming anxiety,” says Rose. “One of the other things is feeling your feet – I know this sounds funny; surely everyone feels their feet – but really feeling your feet firmly on the ground brings anxiety down. Because anxiety works upwards – it goes up and out and then we can go into panic mode. But if we come into our bodies, put our feet firmly on the ground and deepen our breathing, you will start to calm.
A stress-friendly lifestyle
It’s about building stress-management into your daily lifestyle too, whether that’s with hobbies, exercise, eating well, reading before bed – however that looks for you. Normalise taking lunch breaks and screen breaks and blocking off time in your diary just for yourself.
Habits stick best when they’re things we feel authentically aligned with, so don’t get caught up with what you ‘should’ be doing, or what Instagram is telling you.
“Without a doubt, it’s much better when a health behaviour or approach fits with you, your personality and your life, otherwise it’s very trying and exhausting to maintain,” says Dr Arroll.
“There’s a deep misconception that getting fit, eating healthily or creating new habits should be painful (the ‘no-pain-no-gain’ perspective).
If we think about it logically, how could we ever maintain these behaviours if they are so at odds with our innate traits and daily lives?
“Developing new habits can be effortful – there’s no doubt it takes some effort and motivation to create change in our life, but the process should be rewarding, and much more carrot than stick. Focus on you, what works for you, not what anyone or everyone is doing on social media or trends. Usually, the simplest, back-to-basic changes are the ones that bring the most joy and so can last a lifetime.”
A sense of control
Once we get into the habit of recognising our stress and proactively managing it, building healthier boundaries, recognising our limits and learning to say ‘no’ all start to become easier.
We can’t control everything – but being aware of what we do have control over and embracing that as a healthy choice for ourselves, can make a big difference. “I have a thing – before the pandemic – where I used to go for a cup of coffee for an hour and I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m on holiday’, and it completely changed my mindset,” says Rose. “It was only an hour, but actually, just thinking in this moment, ‘I’m on holiday’, did something to me – it calmed me down.”