Over Easter I was luck enough to get away, abroad for almost two weeks. I came home feeling refreshed, energised and most importantly relaxed. It prompted me to take some time to reflect and understand what exactly it was about the holiday which had improved my stress levels.

Signs of Stress

Personally I have always struggled with spotting the signs of stress in myself. I don’t know whether it has been me being in denial (is stress associated with weakness?) Whether I genuinely didn’t feel stressed at the time. Or have I just been too busy on the treadmill of life to pause, take a moment and reflect. Or perhaps a combination of all of the above.

In the work I do now I highlight the importance of understanding your own stress signature. Having an awareness makes it easier to recognise so that you can take action, early. I now know my key signs are:

An achy jaw (from clenching my teeth- I never actually catch myself doing this!), headaches, racing heart and forgetting things. My two top tips would be:

Top Tips to Understand your Stress Signature
  1. Ask someone who knows you very well “what do I do when I am stressed?”
  2. Take a moment half way through your day to pause. Scan your body. How do you feel? Are you holding tension anywhere?

The more we can do tip 2 especially, the more it helps us to understand how we are. Helping us to do something about it much sooner. Because, stress can be managed if you’re able to recognise the signs. And the good news is, building health habits can also work to prevent stress too.

My reflections on what helped

On reflection these were I felt the biggest contributors to feeling calm, relaxed and in control after the break away.

  • ran every other day. Only for around 30 minutes in a morning as the sun came up. It was beautiful. And while I can’t replicate those stunning views back home, I can reap the benefits of feeling energised and awake for the day ahead. Also taking the pressure off it being a daily activity. I don’t want running to feel a chore, I need to make it something I looked forward to like when I was away.

 

  • For the first time in at least 6 years, since my eldest was born, I read a fiction book. (I actually got through 3 fiction books!) I love reading but busy lifestyles mean by the time it’s bedtime I’m just too tired to read. I’m not sure if the reading was an effect of being de-stressed though as well because I was able to immerse myself in the books without being distracted with my own thoughts or ‘to do’ list.

 

  • There was no rushing. It was so lovely to not have to be anywhere for a certain time. The only thing we had to time keep for was a restaurant! We had all day to be prepared for that. Not rushing around meant there was more time to just relax which worked wonders in switching off that sympathetic nervous system!
Implementing these in every day life

I am very aware that in a perfect world I would take those 3 things and implement them day today. However in the real world it’s simply not possible. But what I can do is take learnings from these 3 and try to embed them in my day to day in a different way. So here is my thinking:

  • Running I can aim to run 3-4 times each week. It may take a bit of planning on timings and fitting it around other commitments but there is absolutely no reason why I can’t take 30 minutes to run. While I know I can run for longer and I can probably run more frequently I find the pressure starts to mount on the activity, the bigger I make the commitment. When I went away I took my running gear but set no running ‘target’, not even to run, at all! And it was enjoyable and I felt good when I did do it. So the key for me is to keep the expectations low so that I can enjoy the activity without it becoming a chore.

 

  • Reading is just something I will not be able to start again at this point in my life. There are too many demands and even if I had the time, I’m usually too tired or my mind is elsewhere. What I have learned though is it was time to do something that I love. And that also enabled me TO switch off. I’ve always enjoyed painting, calligraphy, anything arty and crafty. So having something which I can have to hand and pull out regularly would work much better. I’ve seen the importance of distraction into a hobby and will do this more often. Just setting a side time each week for me.

 

  • Oooh it would be lovely if I could commit to not rushing around. But with a busy household with 2 young children, a dog and a husband there is always something that needs doing or places to be. But I can manage that time and our commitments a little better. I can allow for more ‘flex’ time in my work diary rather than running back to back appointments or even a little time before picking the girls up from school just to take a pause. Even if it’s just 15 minutes for cuppa. On weekends I can say no to things rather than saying yes to everything. Or if I have had a busy weekend I can protect the ‘down time’ of a quieter weekend the following weekend. Again it takes commitment from me and planning but I absolutely do not need to feel I’m rushing around to the levels I have been.

 

Switching off the sympathetic nervous system

The sympathetic nervous system is our body’s fight or flight mode. It protects us, it keeps us safe and it can help us to feel motivated and be productive. However in today’s busy world we are often triggering the system more than is necessary to keep us safe. When this triggering is persistent and prolonged it can lead to the development of mental health conditions and also burnout. It is therefore really important that we are able to learn to switch off the sympathetic nervous system.

To do this we need to signal to the brain that we are safe.

  • Doing the things you love
  • Walking
  • Spending time with others
  • Laughing
  • Humming and singing
  • Keeping active
  • Time with our pets

These are all ways which help to switch off the fight or flight mode when it no longer serves us. Think about what you can do yourself to manage your stress proactively and how can you bring some of the above into your everyday?

Lowering those stress levels help a healthy heart, it is beneficial to our physical health, our mental wellbeing, and also our relationships.

If you would like to find out more, or are interested in holding a workshop in your workplace, why not get in touch.

Jennifer.rawlinson@flourishinmind.co.uk

Check out our workplace stress resources here.