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Managing Stress

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Learning how to manage stress is a skill. Like learning to ride a bike. And yet, we often bumble along ‘doing our best’, sometimes with positive outcomes but sometimes quite ineffectively. The problem is that stress itself effects how we move, think and feel, rendering us on the back foot to start with.

This Summer, Australians and our friends around the world have been shocked by the devastating fires throughout Australia. This has brought up a myriad of emotions and concerns. It has been traumatic and has created an urgency for many people in concern and worry for our future. Having multiple life stressor’s creates a higher risk for physical and psychological health problems. The following is a summary of stress and how to manage it.

What is stress?

Stress is not a condition on its own, but rather a response that the body has to circumstances (stressors) that require the ’flight or fight’ reaction. These stressors are essentially any situation that demands the body to respond to change. The stress response is designed to help the body adjust to the many  physical and emotional demands of  everyday life.  However, excessive stress hormone  production  contributes to the many physical, emotional and behavioural effects of stress.

Effects of stress

Stress affects physical, emotional and mental well being.  It influences the quality of your work, leisure, relationships and joy in living.

Physical signs of stress – headaches, restless sleep, muscle tightness & pain, indigestion & nausea, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dry mouth, cold hands and feet, skin problems, low immunity

Emotional signs of stress – inability to relax, crying & easily upset, fatigue, poor concentration, indecisiveness, recklessness, pacing & fidgeting, wringing hands and rushing

Behavioural signs of stress – feeling unable to cope, feeling overwhelmed, feeling exhausted, frustration, irritability, low self esteem, anxiety and depression.

The biochemistry of stress

When the body registers stress, the frontal lobes of the brain alerts the hypothalamus, which engages a feedback loop with the pituitary gland. This triggers release of the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Model proposes 3 phases the body goes through when adapting to stress.

1/ Alarm response: Normal body responses to stress with recovery.
2/Resistance: Cortisol continues to be produced once the stressor is removed. In this phase people may start to experience anxiety, insomnia, irritability, digestive changes and tension headaches.
3/ Exhaustion: A person will have ongoing fatigue, lowered immunity, depression and exhaustion.

When is help needed?

People can seek help when experiencing any of the physical, emotional or behavioural signs of stress. Learning strategies to manage the alarm phase of stress, especially if there are ongong stressors will make a huge difference in long term outcomes.

If you have anxiety, insomnia, digestive changes, irritability or tension headaches on a daily or weekly basis seeking help is important.

If you have endured stress for a long period of time and are experiencing fatigue, depression, low mood and lowered immune related illnesses seeking help is essential.

How can I manage my stress?

There are many strategies for managing stress. Exercise, time management, talking to someone, seeking help, diet changes, getting a good night sleep to name a few. Each one of these is designed to help combat stress by helping your body elicit the relaxation response.

Relaxation gives the inner reserves needed to be able to cope with life’s challenges and helps to reduce the adverse effects of stress. Relaxation is easy to learn, it costs nothing and readily available to you whenever you need it. Relaxation has physical, mental and emotional benefits. Relaxation is for a lifetime!

What is relaxation?

Relaxation involves the complex inter-relationship between body and mind. Just as stress produces a variety of specific changes, so does relaxation. Dr Herbert Benson of Harvard Medial School  called this the ‘relaxation response’.

It is understood that this relaxation response stimulates the brain’s  increased production of alpha waves. Alpha waves are large and slow contrasting with the shorter and faster beta waves that are produced by an active brain. Alpha waves allow the brain to quieten down and be more receptive to left and right hemisphere communication, which is essential for creative thinking.

Benefits of Relaxation therapy

Relaxation therapy helps to switch on the relaxation response which combats the effects of stress. It helps a person to live a more happy and healthy life with a higher degree of self awareness and self mastery.    Relaxation helps to increase physical and mental resilience to everyday pressure.

Physical benefits – brain wave patterns change. Muscles relax. Heart rate and blood pressure reduce. Improved digestion, circulation and breathing.

Emotional Benefits – less anxiety and mood lifts. Develop positive attitude and able to put challenges in perspective. Feel calmer, more composed & less reactive when things go wrong

Mental benefits – increased concentration, attention and memory. Greater clarity in thinking. Reduced negative thoughts and rumination. Better coping skills, more easily able to find solutions to problems

What is occupational therapy role in stress management?

Occupational therapists have a unique and important role to play in helping you learn ways to manage stress and cope with distress. Occupational therapists focus on how stress impacts your life and help you find ways to do these things with ease, despite the stress.

Occupational Therapists at Next Wave teach specific skills to combat stress, provide counselling, help with goal setting and activity scheduling. They empower you to make positive changes and listen to what your individual needs are.

Specific therapies they offer are relaxation training, massage, yoga, counselling, mindfulness, acceptance and commitment therapy and life style redesign.

Occupational therapists help you to engage in what is important and meaningful in our life.

If you or someone you know are experiencing mental or emotional distress or need help managing stress our occupational therapy counselling service is on hand to help. 

Written by Sasha Wray Principal Occupational Therapist, Naturopath and Acupressure Practitioner. Sasha is registered provider of Focused Psychological Therapy under Medicares Better Access Mental Health Initiative. People can access her services privately or via Medicare with a GP referral.

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