We have all felt pressure in our daily lives – whether it’s personal or professional, or both, where there is too much to do, too much to worry about and higher than achievable expectations that we routinely place on ourselves. And never has that pressure – whether self-imposed or from external circumstances, being stronger than this New Year, after two years of pandemic uncertainty, which shows few signs of letting up.
The result is stress.
Stress, which in small amounts is beneficial to keeping us alert and more responsive but when it becomes too high, leads to fatigue, poor sleep, feeling on edge and potentially an inability to function normally. Not all stress is bad, there is even something called Eustress – which is the excitement we feel when watching a horror film or going on a rollercoaster ride. Not all of us like this feeling, but for those that do, it’s a voluntary stressor
But in general, stress is a physiological and psychological response to encountering a threat that we don’t feel that we have the resources to deal with. A stressor is the stimulus – the threat – that causes stress. This could be an exam or a driving test, moving job or home, the death of a loved one or the fear of Covid, a repeating pandemic that we have limited control over.
There are two main hormones involved in stress. Adrenaline, which triggers our fight or flight response, enabling us to prepare for vigorous or sudden action. An excess of Adrenaline creates a rapid heartbeat, a spike in blood pressure and an overall feeling of anxiety. Cortisol, which is also made in the adrenal glands, is produced to help us regulate our weight, appetite, blood pressure and glucose levels, but when we are under chronic stress, this can manifest itself as anxiety, headaches, brain fog, digestive issues and a weakened immune system.
In our everyday lives, most of us manage to self-regulate these hormones. We deal with the stressor and cope with the consequences. Some of us may use friends or talking therapies to share our burdens with, turn to meditation or mindfulness, ensure that we get plenty of sleep, fresh air and exercise, recognising that we will feel better in time with some self-care.
During the past two years, many people have not been able to regulate these two hormones as well as they may have done in the past. Given the fear, concern and lack of control over Covid – as well as tragically, possibly having lost loved ones to the virus – our Cortisol and Adrenaline levels have been running at an extremely high rate for a very long time.
Even when we feel that we have learned to manage some of the manifestations of this anxiety, the last couple of years have been constantly punctuated by lockdowns, working from home, social restrictions, fear for our own health and that of others, financial and relationship problems to mention just a few. It is not surprising that many people feel in a constant state of agitation.
So, how can we best manage these hormone spikes and the resulting anxiety moving forward?
1. The Four Keys to Coping
There are four main keys to keeping those stress hormones under control. Fresh air, good quality sleep, a healthy diet and exercise. Processed foods and poor sleep patterns both increase our Cortisol levels. And fresh air – even just a few minutes a day or opening a nearby window – improves cognitive function and decreases brain fog, as well as promoting Serotonin, a mod boosting hormone, essential to our well-being. Exercise of any sort increases Endorphins, the hormones responsible for increasing feelings of pleasure and happiness, as well as reducing emotional pain and discomfort.
2. And Breathe...
If you get a sudden surge of Adrenaline and you feel overwhelmed or panicky – and it can happen at any time to all of us – the quickest way to reduce this is to do a couple of rounds of a breathing exercise to bring calming oxygen back into our over-anxious minds. Try the 478 breathing technique. Breathe in for 4 beats, hold your breath for 7 beats and breathe out for 8 beats. Doing this just once or twice, and it can be done anywhere at any time, will significantly reduce the feelings of panic.
3. Supplement the Disruption
When we are stressed or anxious it is easy to disrupt healthy eating patterns. We forget to eat; we eat too many processed or comfort foods and we may eat too late in the evening or miss breakfast. Taking a supplement that includes Vitamin B, increasing the mood boosting hormones Dopamine and Serotonin, and adaptogens, like Rhodiola or Ashwagandha – plant-based sources that are proven to restore our minds and bodies to a healthy emotional balance – can really help.
Solgar has two versions of their Ultimate Calm supplement – a daily version which you can take long-term, to help you build resilience over time and one that can be used on a more occasional basis, when you are feeling overwhelmed.
4. Worry Windows
Try to take in your news on a need-to-know basis. Plan a couple of ‘worry windows’ a day, where you listen to the radio, read the papers or watch TV to catch up on the news. Don’t listen to rolling news, as it does nothing to keep our anxieties at bay and only get your information from trusted, reputable sources. Some of our biggest stressors derive from those, often through their own fear and lack of control, try and persuade you into believing their conspiracy theories and fake news, via social media. Limit your time on social media and block or mute those that you find distressing.
5. Keep in Touch
Do whatever you can to keep in touch with family and friends. While we may not be able to socialise in person as much as we are used to, a call – rather than a text message – has a personal and lovely touch and keeps friendships and family connections maintained. Use your instincts and your empathy to help others too, reach out when you can, perhaps to those more isolated or less fortunate than you. They will appreciate it and you’ll feel good about doing it – it releases the reward hormone Dopamine – so it’s a win/win solution for overcoming anxiety
About the author:
Jo Hemmings is a Behavioural Psychologist and a member of the British Psychological Society (BPS) the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) and the Association of Clinical Psychologists (ACP-UK).
She is also an Accredited and Organisational Coach with the Association of Coaching (AOC). She specialises in media and news analysis as well as being a dating and relationship coach and TV and radio personality. She was voted Dating Expert of the Year at the last UK Dating Awards in 2016.
With a degree from the University of Warwick and further training at the University of London, Jo is the UK’s best known and respected Behavioural Psychologists and was the UK’s first Dating Coach. She runs a private counselling and coaching practice in London.