As women, we have to do so much, to be so much. We occupy a vast number of roles in life, and often feel that we need to juggle numerous conflicting demands on our time, energy and attention. Growing up, we were told that we could ‘have it all’. In reality, it feels that we simply have to ‘do it all’.
It can leave us feeling like we are failing at life somehow if we can’t manage the career, the family life, the relationships, the health, the personal growth, the home making and all the other things we are told we ‘should’ achieve. So we keep striving, determined to be strong and keep going.
But at what cost?
When you get to the end of your day, how do you feel? Are you relaxed and at peace, knowing that you had a productive, joyful, happy day? Or do you feel anxious and worried, thinking of all the things you didn’t get done, worrying about what tomorrow will bring?
When you are with loved ones, are you able to connect to them completely, and be fully in the moment with them? Or are you thinking of all the other things you have to do, or maybe ‘multi tasking’ while you are with them?
When morning comes, do you wake easily, and look forward to the day ahead? Or do you feel a sense of dread, and a need for another night’s sleep?
If you answered yes to the more negative questions above, you are not alone. A shocking number of us in the 21st century are living with the burden of stress in our lives. A survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation in 2018 revealed that 74% of adults in the UK report feeling overwhelmed by their life at some point. And of these, a whopping 81% were women. A third of the women in the survey shared that they had experienced suicidal thoughts as a result of the stress they felt. And 18% of women admitted that they had self harmed in some way as a way to manage their stress levels.
These statistics are shocking. Stress takes a massive toll on our entire lives. There is not one aspect of our being that isn’t affected when we experience overwhelming stress. The ripple effect of stress spills into home and work life, self esteem, relationships, finances, health, and overall quality of life.
Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing a range of tools that you can try to help you manage and reduce stress in your life.
Am I stressed?
Before we do that, however, it is important to know what to look out for. It is quite likely that, if you have been living with high levels of stress for a long time, that you don’t even realise that you are stressed. We humans are very good at adapting to our circumstances. What is the body giving us a warning sign can soon be seen as our normal. I, for example, accepted for over 30 years the fact that I had trouble sleeping, failing to see that it was a problem that needed addressing. It was only when I learned relaxation techniques and suddenly was able to sleep that I really noticed how dysfunctional my sleep patterns really were.
10 ‘everyday’ warning signs of stress
A stress headache, known as a tension headache, is characterised by a dull, mild to moderate pain that might feel like someone is squeezing your head. It tends to be felt in the forehead and temples. These can be short lived, or can last for days.
If you experience regular tension headaches, this is almost certainly a sign that you are stressed. You should speak to your GP to rule out any other potential causes, but it is also worth looking for ways to manage stress and relax your mind.
The occasional moment of insomnia can be annoying, but most people can withstand it. It could be that you ate too late, drank too much coffee, or simply have things on your mind. As long as you can get a good night’s sleep the following night, you will be ok.
If you struggle often with sleeplessness, however, this could be a sign that your mind is overwhelmed and you are stressed. While there may be medical reasons for insomnia, stress is a common factor in sleeplessness. The irony is that sleep is one of the body’s best defense against stress. The longer the sleeplessness goes on, the more vulnerable you are to stress, so try to nip it in the bud as soon as you can. This simple relaxation practice can help you to relax and ease your body and mind into sleep.
3 Tense muscles
I will always remember the moment I really noticed the impact stress was having on my body. My mother was in the hospital having had surgery to remove a tumor. I was going through the most tumultuous year of my life, having recently given up work due to a breakdown. My mother’s illness was one of the triggers for this.
After her operation, and at hearing that she was expected to make a full recovery, I had returned to my parents’ house with my father. As I waited for him to make me a coffee, I noticed a strange sensation. It felt as if someone was standing behind me lifting a backpack full of weights from my back. I hadn’t even noticed it was there, but I certainly noticed it leaving. I was shocked to realise just how much tension I had been holding in my back and shoulders, and how much relief I felt at its leaving.
When we don’t process the emotions in the mind, they find a way to get processed through the body. The tension in my muscles had been put there by my nervous system’s flight or fight response. The ‘threat’ of losing my mother was obviously a big one, so there was a lot of stress response happening. Because it took a long time for this threat to pass, the tension stayed there, and my mind and body simply adapted.
If you notice your muscles are overly tense, this could definitely be stress related. This is one of the reasons that Yoga is such a powerful way to relieve stress, as it takes that tension out of the body.
This 45-minute practice will help you to reduce tension in your mind and body, and leave your body feeling stretched and relaxed
4 Loss of appetite
Another of the actions of the stress response is to shut down unnecessary functions in the body, conserving all the body’s energy for flight or fight. This can lead to a reduction in appetite, as the body’s need for food is shut down.
Our bodies can function without food for a few days, so in terms of the evolution of the human body, this is fine. The flight or fight response is only intended by nature to be a short-lived process. We see a threat. We fight it or run from it, and the threat is over. Remember that our nervous system evolved at a time when we had predators, and lived in a very different world. Our bodies have not altered to meet the vastly different stressors of 21st-century life.
If your appetite alters with no discernible cause, it may be a sign of stress. You should always get any changes to your appetite checked out as they may indicate other problems in the body, but it is also worth looking at stress in your life.
5 Digestive problems
As well as affecting your appetite, stress can also affect how your body deals with food. Another of the functions of the stress response is to force the body to reduce weight by eliminating as much from the body as it can. Therefore, erratic toilet habits and conditions such as IBS might be stress related. I have experienced this in my own life.
For years I put my digestive issues down to my choice of cider, but now I am pretty sure that stress was a contributory factor as well. Reflecting recently on that time of my life, i can see that it was a big, and very noticeable problem, in the time after my brother died. This was obviously a stressful time for me. I did drink a lot of alcohol, but I suspect that the IBS symptoms I experienced were definitely stress related.
Other digestive problems such as indigestion, reflux, and constipation could all be stress related. Again, any significant changes to your toilet habits or digestive system should be checked out with your doctor, but stress is also worth considering.
When you get stressed, your body goes into ‘flight or fight’ mode, and your mind and body gear up for action. Part of the stress response involves reducing the input of the logical mind, and relying on the emotions to guide decisions. This is useful when facing a threat to life, you don’t want to waste valuable seconds weighing up the pros and cons of fleeing from the tiger that wants to eat you! But it is not so helpful when the ‘threat’ your mind perceives is the fact that your kids have failed to tidy their bedrooms again! Regardless of the ‘threat’, the nervous system responds in the same way.
This leads to emotional outbursts that might, when you calm down later, leave you wondering who was that banshee who took over your body and yelled like that? It often leaves you with regrets and guilt over your actions and words, and may lead you to make decisions you will wish you hadn’t.
This is perfectly normal in a person who is experiencing stress, so please don’t feel bad. There are ways you can get on top of this. Learning to control your breath is a powerful aid to managing the emotions, as I remembered myself recently.
7 Feeling overwhelmed
As we can see from the survey mentioned above, many of us feel overwhelmed on a daily basis. We simply all have too much in our heads and on our to-do lists. We live in a world that tells us that we must always be doing, always be achieving, never good enough as we are. Financial worries, job insecurity, political machinations that we have no control over but affect our daily life, expectations, responsibilities, and so on.
It is no wonder we are stressed.
One of the best ways to reduce overwhelm is to look at the things on your to-do list, and critically evaluate their place in your life. What can you delegate? Can your kids take on a bit more responsibility for domestic chores? Do you have things that you have in your life out of habit, but that don’t ‘spark joy’, to quote Marie Kondo? Do you take on things for others that really ought to be their responsibility?
Creating boundaries, prioritising and letting go are powerful ways to reduce overwhelm in your life. I will explore these in a later blog post.
I have, in the past, referred to myself as ‘The Queen of Procrastination’. This is not a helpful label to adopt, so I don’t anymore.
I used to think that my Olympic level procrastination skills were a sign of weakness, failure, and laziness. In the last year, I have learned otherwise. The discovery that I have ADHD clarified a lot, but what I found equally significant was learning that procrastination is, in fact, a stress response. When we are faced with a task that seems overwhelming, we procrastinate.
This might take the form of doing a lot of ‘busy work’. This is work that gives us a sense of completion and achievement without actually achieving anything of significance. Or we might seek out pleasurable activities that give us a pleasant dopamine hit to reduce the stress and anxiety we feel (hello Facebook news feed and notifications!)
If you notice that you procrastinate a lot, firstly forgive yourself. Beating yourself up over the things that you didn’t achieve never, in my experience, encourages you to achieve it well. It merely creates shame, anxiety and more procrastination inducing stress.
Take a look at what it is that you are trying to achieve. See if you can break it down into much smaller steps. So, for example, I want to write a book. I have procrastinated about this for 3 years. This year I am doing it.
I am not thinking about writing a book. I am writing a chapter. Then I am writing another chapter. And i am writing each chapter one word at a time. And I am accepting that not all the words are going to be good. That it is ok if I go back to it and decide that many of them are, in fact, rubbish. This is why we edit.
Look at what you have to do, and see what is the smallest unit of completion you can aim for. And do that.
Need to tidy a very messy room? Why not start by picking one thing up off the floor and putting it away?
Need to write a report? Try writing one section of it, and don’t worry about the rest until it is done?
Anything is possible if we just break it down and work one small step at a time. Take a deep breath, and take that first step. You will feel your stress level reducing with every step you take.
9 Lack of focus/distractibility
Again, this is a symptom of ADHD I really struggle with. But it is also a sign of stress and overwhelm (both of which are very common in the ADHD brain!)
When you have too much to do, you may be tempted to try to get everything done at once. This leads to the mythological thing that is multitasking. We think we are getting lots done by switching between tasks, but in reality, this switching impairs our progress and effectiveness significantly.
When tackling your tasks for the day, it is better to try to do one thing at a time. For example, right now I am writing this blog post. I have learned to my cost that I really cannot multitask. Therefore, this is the only thing I am allowing myself to work on. I use a browser extension to keep me from Facebook when I get frustrated with my progress. I am writing in 45-minute blocks, then taking 10-minute break. During the break, I am reconnecting mind and body either through movement or breathing deeply. Once I have finished this blog post, I will then move onto my next task. This ensures that I get things finished, and keeps the distracted ADHD squirrel in my brain at bay.
Sitting with your breath for a few minutes every day is a great way to train your brain to focus and let go of distractions. I have created the 5 Minute Breath mini programme which you can access free here. This will provide you with a 5 minute sitting practice you can try for 10 days. You might find that it transforms your ability to focus! It has worked wonders for mine.
10 Feeling a need to numb out
This is all too common in the modern world. We have so many ways we can numb out when life feels overwhelming. We don’t have to allow ourselves to feel anything if we don’t want to. There is a plethora of ways we can shut down the emotions. My numb out practices of choice have been alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, shopping, sex, TV, internet surfing, social media and loud music. Many of these things are not bad in and of themselves. It is when we turn to them in order to hide from how we feel that we have a problem.
If you are constantly looking for ways to numb your feelings, then you have feeling that you need to process. There is a powerful connection between body and mind. These emotions will not go away, but will, instead, manifest in the body. Gabor Mate’s book, ‘When the Body Says No’ paints a stark picture of what happens to our mental and physical health when we don’t deal with emotions, particularly stress.
Pay attention to your behaviour, and notice if you are numbing out. You may need professional help to deal with the root causes of your unhappiness, but I urge you to take this look. When you are able to process your emotions and begin to resolve the problems at their root, you will find life gets easier
Create Space to Breathe and Ease Stress in your Body and Mind
Learn to breathe well, to connect to your breath, and to learn to control your breath. It is one of the most powerful ways there is to reduce stress in your life. I have learned this myself through my own recovery from addiction, stress, overwhelm and numerous other difficulties. My breath always brings me back to me.
I love to share this gift, and teach strong, busy women like you how to breathe well. You will be amazed when you discover that this remarkable tool is at your disposal anytime you need it. You will be love how many of the problems listed above disappear or decrease when you start to breathe better.
In my powerful 6 week ‘Space to Breathe’ group programme, I will be teaching the basics of good breathing for increased health, happiness and wellbeing. Together we will learn to connect to the breath, increase lung capacity, and bring conscious awareness to your breath. This will allow you to gain greater control over your response to the world around you, and to your emotions.
Does this sound like something you’d be interested in?
Find out more about the 6 week Space to Breathe breath programme here