How to deal with stress at a time of unease

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Jane Muston, Clinical Director at Vita Health Group, unpicks the mental health impact of a second lockdown and offers her advice on managing stress.

2020 has been a very unsettling year for us all. Most of us have, very naturally, felt fear and experienced stress and anxiety at some time over the last nine months due to the pandemic. And finding ways to tap into our reservoirs of resilience and pull ourselves through has taken a great deal of our emotional energy, not to mention, the fact that we will need to draw upon them once more as we go into a second lockdown.

In the seven months plus since the beginning of the first lockdown, mental health charities have experienced unprecedented levels of people seeking help and advice. Yet (perhaps surprisingly) the number of people looking for support from the NHS fell dramatically. In fact, we did our own survey at the start of lockdown and found that nearly two-thirds of people were feeling anxious about Covid-19, yet only 8% had contacted their GP about their anxiety*.

I analysed this research at the time and found it to be worrying for a number of reasons; primarily because if people in lockdown were avoiding seeing a doctor (either for fear of being asked to attend the surgery or because they don’t want to waste their GP’s time), the number of those who may become high risk cases in the future could increase significantly, ultimately putting more strain on the NHS and leaving many vulnerable people in a very concerning situation.

We are only too aware of how important management and prevention is when it comes to mental health issues. And with today marking National Stress Awareness Day, and given the fact we are going into another lockdown, it is perhaps more important than ever to recognise the importance of mental health support, talk about what can be done to reduce stress and anxiety and signpost anyone struggling to suitable support.

I am pleased to say that there is a great deal of work taking place now looking into stress and anxiety and fortunately more resources than ever to help people. However, unfortunately there is still a great deal of work to do around mental health stigma. People are still afraid to talk about it, don’t know how to ask for help and many people still struggle to know how to comfort someone who is directly affected.

With this in mind, we want to ask people to commit to being more aware of their stress levels (and indeed those of others around them) this Stress Awareness Day. And most importantly we want people to talk about stress awareness and break down the stigmas associated with it. Here are our five tips:

Identify your stress triggers

Everyone experiences stress. It is a normal reaction and our body’s way of protecting itself from harm. However, excessive or constant stress over a long period of time, can cause long-term harm to our own health.

We experience two main types of stress – acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is the body’s reaction to a perceived threat and is also known as the fight-or-flight response. Only when it occurs more frequently or more intensely can it trigger other health-related issues.

Whereas chronic stress is an accumulation of acute stressors. Generally, this stress builds up over time and its effects are more problematic and cause longer-lasting issues.

Taking note of increased stress levels and actively trying to reduce them is an integral part of the journey to good mental health. Identifying the things that are causing you to feel stressed, will enable you to implement focused management and prevention techniques. One of the easiest ways to pinpoint stressors is to keep a stress journal. Write down feelings of frustration, anxiety and overwhelm as you recognise them. Rating the extremity of your feelings on a scale of 1-10 will help you identify patterns and find the source.

Be pragmatic about what you can control

We are living through uncertain times and each of us is dealing with a new reality. It’s ok to feel uneasy but be pragmatic about what you can and cannot control. It’s also important to learn to accept you can only do your best with the information that’s provided to you. This is particularly relevant if you are a parent who has needed to (and may have to again) juggle school closures, work and home life.

We undertook research in September which explored the impact of the pandemic on parents**. We found mums and dads were needing to plug an additional two-working days a month into childcare as a direct result of coronavirus. This was mainly as a result of staggering pick-up and drop-off times, washing school uniform more regularly and standing in for the lack of wrap-around care available.

No matter who you are, turning your mind towards acceptance and compassion could greatly improve your ability to navigate this difficult situation.

Dedicate guilt-free time to yourself

Taking some time for yourself to deal with feelings of overwhelm in the right way is incredibly important. It can be counterproductive to push through without acknowledging the challenges you’re facing. Remember, dedicating time to yourself doesn’t mean you don’t want to spend time with your family, rather you are simply recognising the need to process thoughts and recharge so you can relish the time you do have with them more. It may sound simple, but start off by telling people – your partner, your family and friends, or your employer – what you need. This transparent conversation will open the opportunity to take that much needed time out.

Seek professional help

The key thing that I need to make clear here is that the NHS is still very much open for business, lockdown or not. Our NHS services, in particular our GPs, are here to help everyone, and people must never feel that they are wasting their GPs time by contacting them about their mental health concerns. It is important that people do reach out to their GP, or other available support, if they have any fears around the current situation impacting their stress levels, quality of life or their ability to carry out day to day activities within the current restrictions. Seeking help and talking about how you are feeling is a positive step to managing your mental health.

Using our VitaMinds service*** people can refer themselves via our website without needing to travel to their GP practice or have any face to face contact at all. Not only is the service totally free and 100% private and secure, but everything can be done over the phone or online, from initial consultation to treatment.

Break down barriers

No one should ever be afraid of admitting how they feel. Talking about mental health is ever so important and by just one person being open, they can encourage others to do so too. This is something we can all play our part in too, from asking someone we work with how they are, to supporting a loved one going through a hard time, to admitting to ourselves that we are struggling. The more we open up this dialogue, the better.

Certainly, we are facing uncertain times, but for those struggling we want to stress that there is support available. For those who feel that they need that extra layer of support, I encourage them to reach out to their family, friends, GP, or other available support quickly. This is a positive step to managing your mental health.

We have included a number of support services below too:

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Vita is an award-winning, CQC registered healthcare provider