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The stress survival guide: how to cope with the worry and loss that are unavoidable.


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In This Essay

For many of us, stress might feel like a natural state – especially during a pandemic.  However, there are methods to mitigate the most severe symptoms, whether via support, sleep, or extreme self-care. 

 At a time when the epidemic has intensified all of life’s pressures – and knowledge of burnout, both at home and at work, has never been higher – stress may appear to be our default state. For the majority of us, these times of stress pass fast. Even severe stress may be transient, and when given the opportunity to recuperate, we typically do. “However, emotional resilience alone will not fix all problems,” says Rachel Boyd, a spokesperson for the mental health charity Mind. “Some sources of stress are really difficult to cope with, even when we are feeling well.” 

Numerous everyday issues have been exacerbated by the epidemic and its economic and social effects. Those who are experiencing financial difficulties, health problems, or caregiver duties, in particular, may feel as though there is no end in sight. However, even if stress appears to be a necessary component of your circumstances and you lack the option or means to alter them, there are methods to support yourself. 

 

Consider your stress level. 

Short-term bursts of stress may be overcome without detrimental consequences and can even be beneficial, according to Victoria Zamperoni, senior research officer at the Mental Health Foundation. “However, when stress is really acute, regular, or chronic, you begin to see its knock-on consequences… and the threshold will be unique for each individual.” 

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University makes a distinction between positive, acceptable, and toxic stress (the categories refer to the consequences on the body, not the stressful event or experience itself – though context, intensity, and length are essential). Without proper support, a toxic stress response can occur as a result of severe, frequent, or chronic adversity – and the health consequences can build and last a lifetime. 

When your circumstance becomes overwhelming, safeguarding your health and well-being may seem trivial, if not impossible. However, it is critical to take whatever precautions are possible. Continuous stress can contribute to or worsen the development of a variety of major health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, heart disease and heart attacks, and stroke. It weakens your present-day memory, reasoning, and judgement, and has been related to the development of sadness, anxiety, and even Alzheimer’s disease. 

“Stress is a significant bodily effect that should be addressed seriously,” Zamperoni adds. “If someone is having difficulty, they should seek assistance.” 

 

Keep an eye on the broader picture 

“Stress is frequently a natural reaction to adversity that no amount of resilience or self-care can overcome,” Boyd adds. Much extended stress is caused by poverty, financial hardship, and health problems, and is compounded by benefit and support service cuts. Thus, any study of coping mechanisms must recognise that the solution is systemic societal change, such as welfare reform, stronger labour regulations, and increased support and resources for carers. 

Women in their middle years bear the brunt of the strain, frequently working full-time while simultaneously caring for small children and ageing parents. “It is unjust to place sole responsibility for health on the person,” Zamperoni asserts. “At the same time, social transformation is frequently delayed – and individuals do require resources to depend upon in the meantime.” 

 

 

 Identify options that are appropriate for you 

 

According to Zamperoni, everyone’s experience of stress is unique. “Stressors can vary according to your surroundings, your history and present, and your social or economic condition.” 

Even heredity influences our stress response, which means that borrowing tactics from others will not necessarily assist you; the key is to develop your own. Every Mind Matters, an online application developed by Public Health England, assists individuals in developing a personalised “mind plan.” 

“While you may say, ‘I’m going to have to learn to deal,’ there are particular things that would assist,” says Paul Gilbert, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Compassionate Mind Foundation. “What helps you with your old relatives will not necessarily benefit you on a Covid ward. Different pressures necessitate distinct responses.” 

Approach your tension with an open mind: what causes it and what relieves it? Boyd recommends spending time alone or with a buddy reflecting on your personal experiences. “You may be astonished to discover how much you’re juggling at once.” 

 

 

 Do not overlook the fundamentals 

We are all aware of the benefits of activity, diet, and sleep, but taking action is not always simple, especially when finances are limited. These may appear to be basic remedies in urgent situations. However, they might intensify your perception of your situation or assist you in coping. “A good night’s sleep makes a world of difference, which sounds corny – but it’s true,” Zamperoni explains. 

Given that stress is partially physiological, Gilbert contends that maintaining physical health is critical for managing our reaction. Even breathing is critical: “Get your body into a much more grounded stance.” 

If the prospect of taking on this task overwhelms you, Boyd advises starting with what feels comfortable and taking little steps at a time: “Start with one or two things that seem doable before going on to other ideas.” Simple tasks such as maintaining an indoor pot plant or counting the birds visible from your window can assist.” Developing a regular regimen increases one’s sense of control. 

If scheduling time for sleep or exercise feels self-indulgent when others rely on you, reframe it as what you need to do in order to be an effective provider or caretaker. 

 

 

Surround yourself with supportive individuals 

Not only does soliciting assistance ease your weight, it also makes your condition more bearable. Individuals’ biological responses to stress are controlled by heredity – over which we have no control – and by the presence of supporting relationships, over which we do have influence. 

The perception that others care about us triggers the brain’s “soothing mechanism,” Gilbert explains. Even if we are unable to remove ourselves from the stressor, we may still experience a sense of “social safety” by seeking assistance from others “rather than attempting to deal with the threat on our own,” Gilbert explains. 

A 2018 systematic review of caregiver coping techniques discovered that problem-focused responses — actions that alter the connection between the person and their environments, such as time and labour reduction – were associated with reduced psychological distress and more positive results. 

Even speaking with a trustworthy friend about your stress may help lessen it. “That is why, if you have something frightening to do, such as going to the hospital, having someone with you makes you better capable of coping,” Gilbert explains. 

Carers UK recommends attending a local support group to connect with others who are experiencing similar difficulties. Additionally, its online forum enables anonymous interactions for people who are uncomfortable discussing openly. 

 

Take control of your internal imprisonment 

While you may not be able to modify or escape your position, you can control your sense of being imprisoned by it. “Internal entrapment” refers to the tunnel vision caused by persistent negative and self-critical thoughts, which distorts perception and exacerbates our stress experience. “What looks to be the stressor isn’t always,” Gilbert explains. 

We may even be weakening ourselves via self-talk: “How stuck are you in your own mind?” Do you consider yourself to be a caring, helpful, empathic, validating self in your mind? Or, when confronted with a threat, do you begin to criticise and denigrate yourself?” 

Regardless of your circumstances, treating oneself with kindness will benefit you. Gilbert recommends taking as many breaks from your stressors as possible, doing breathing techniques, and practising acceptance. “If you tell yourself you can’t deal, you’re only adding to your stress, rather than saying, ‘OK, this is a terrible circumstance, it’s not my fault, and I’m going to find a way through.'” 

Gilbert adds that understanding the physical mechanisms at work can also help put stress into context. “It is not a problem with your decision-making ability or that you are just not capable.” 

 

Allow emotions to flow, but not the entangle 

Understandable frustrations, such as making a mistake or not getting a job, sometimes grow into a sense of “I’m worthless” or “Nobody will ever want to hire me.” “Deal with the feeling without succumbing to self-criticism,” Gilbert advises. 

Three concepts to familiarise yourself with our anger, anxiety, and grief. According to Gilbert, some stress may be a result of irreversible life changes: “If you learn to deal with the ‘big three,’ it helps you come to grips with them.” 

Similarly, emotional evasion is a well-documented risk factor for poor mental health. 

Recent UK-wide research of health and social care professionals discovered that individuals with positive coping methods reported greater levels of mental well-being, a higher quality of work-life, and reduced rates of burnout. There was a particularly substantial correlation for “active coping”: the process of utilising available internal resources to deal with a stressor. 

Those who used negative coping mechanisms fared worse, according to Paula McFadden, the study’s primary investigator and a senior lecturer in social work at Ulster University. “Things like venting can be therapeutic for individuals, but if they continue, they contribute to a loss in wellbeing.” 

Additionally, the study discovered a link between burnout and self-blame: “That’s an uncommon finding in a pandemic, given that it’s beyond of our control “

 

Take the most beneficial action possible 

At the best of circumstances, Gilbert notes, practising self-compassion is not always comfortable or easy. “People frequently say, ‘It’s about self-care.’ True, but the critical point is how you develop the bravery and knowledge to cope with your position… rather than doing the things that would make you feel better temporarily.” 

While courage may be required to end a relationship or care for an old parent, wisdom is required to discern what can be let go of or what to do next. Both may require time to mature, according to Gilbert. However, there are situations when the next step is just asking oneself, “What would be the most beneficial thing?” 

It may be going to bed early enough to have a decent night’s sleep – or acknowledging that you haven’t had enough sleep and are thus unable to work well. Shift workers frequently have to learn how to deal with fatigue, according to Gilbert. The trick is to be clear about the best method to manage your body and mind in order to get through, “and to avoid doing things that make it worse.” 

“At times, acknowledging that certain things are occurring to you that you can’t change right now might help you focus your time and energy more productively,” Boyd explains. “If you feel constrained by your circumstances… it may assist to concentrate on the areas in which you do have some control and influence.” 

 

 

 Investigate your employment possibilities 

If your anxieties are unrelated to your job – or even if they are – your employer may be able to assist you more. Ulster University’s research of health and social care professionals emphasised the critical role of employers in assisting employees through the pandemic’s demands and assisting them in recovering. 

“People faced so many additional constraints in their personal lives that it was frequently hard to combine homeschooling children, caring for ageing relatives, and holding down jobs. If companies let them work flexibly, it aided them in coping with workplace stress.” 

If modifications to your work schedule could reduce family stresses, it’s worth discussing with your boss – as is the supply of any technology or equipment that would make working from home simpler. 

Employers, on the other hand, must take the lead by instituting structural reforms to encourage employees to take breaks and vacations, to provide channels to professional psychological assistance, and to provide chances for additional recuperation time, if necessary. 

Even very simple things, such as open lines of communication and face-to-face contact with managers and coworkers, improved people’s work-related health and capacity to handle stress, the study found. “Even if just virtually, connectivity is critical,” McFadden argues. 

Indeed, the first step toward coping with the effects of long-term stress is to focus on what we can do individually to help ourselves and on what will work against us. “This is about employers and employees listening to one another in order to develop a shared understanding of what the workforce must do to assist them.” 

The research indicated that increased financing is required for the health and social care sectors. 

However, as the pandemic’s pressures mount, it is critical that we recognise that we are not functioning in a vacuum and do all possible to assist the workforce and one another. 

“It’s a critical message to companies and employees,” McFadden adds. “Create the conditions necessary for people to adopt these coping mechanisms.” 
 

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