Stress: How to De-Stress without Doing Less

BOOK: Stress: How to De-Stress without Doing Less
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STRESS
HOW TO DE-STRESS
WITHOUT DOING LESS
Dr Kate Middleton

Copyright © 2009 Kate Middleton

This edition copyright © 2009 Lion Hudson

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

A Lion Book
an imprint of
Lion Hudson plc
Wilkinson House, Jordan Hill Road,
Oxford OX2 8DR, England
www.lionhudson.com

ISBN 978 0 7459 5373 1 (UK)

ISBN 978 0 8254 7919 9 (US)

ISBN 978 0 7459 5997 9 (epub)

ISBN 978 0 7459 5996 2 (Kindle)

ISBN 978 0 7459 5998 6 (pdf)

Distributed by:
UK: Marston Book Services, PO Box 269, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4YN
USA: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 814 N. Franklin Street, Chicago, IL 60610
USA Christian Market: Kregel Publications, PO Box 2607, Grand Rapids,
MI 49501

First electronic edition 2011

All rights reserved

Cover image: Roy Morsch/Zefa/Corbis

A catalogue record for this book is available
from the British Library

Contents
Introduction

In my job I work with all kinds of different people, in lots of different situations – in their workplace, in schools, in the community, at work and at home. As I share in people's lives, I come across a variety of issues. Listening to them as they talk about their journeys, the things they have been through and the difficulties they are struggling with, has given me the opportunity and the privilege of sharing in many people's experiences of what their own emotions can lead them to. I have learned a lot – far more than I ever learned in any of my years of formal studying – about what the things life throws at normal people can push them to: the extremes of emotions, difficulties with addictions, traumatic memories, and difficult and unhelpful beliefs about themselves and the world around them.

Writing this book has given me another opportunity to share some of the insights I have gained in my work. But if I am honest, writing
this
book has been very different for one key reason. Although I understand them very well, on the whole the issues I have covered in my previous books have been things that I do not struggle with myself. They are things I have learned about through sharing the experiences of others, through witnessing their struggles and applying the theory and fact that I already knew. This issue, however, is one that I readily confess I face day to day, like so many other people – and no doubt like you, seeing as you are reading this book.

Stress is a modern-day plague, something that very few of us escape – something that we probably all have to think about as it follows us every day. Stress is always there in the background, lurking behind us, following throughout our lives and ready to hit at moments we least expect it. Stress can take many forms and come from many sources. Like a lot of people, I am someone who likes to fill life with many different things. I like to achieve things, to accomplish things, to fit plenty into my days. Too easily I see things that need doing and take on the responsibility of doing them! But my own experience, starting with life as a medical student years ago, has taught me (though I have not been quick to learn it!) that if I do want to push myself that hard and achieve the things I aim for, I must not forget to make sure I handle stress well.

Stress can often be an unwanted companion along the road of life. We may not like it but it's there! Too many people I have worked with have had months or years stolen by stress, or are facing the risk that they might have to give up things they love or stifle something of the person they are, because stress is having too serious an impact on them. We have to be sensible where stress is concerned. Finding the balance of how much we really can squeeze into life means we have to learn how to fight stress in the best way possible.

This book is about how to deal with stress – how to reduce it where we can and live with it when we can't (we may as well accept it is unlikely to vanish completely). It is about how to stop stress from taking over our lives and ultimately taking bits of our lives from us. So join me on a lifelong journey of fighting this battle – negotiating with stress and trying to come out as the winner!

PART 1
Understanding stress

WHAT IS STRESS AND HOW MIGHT IT AFFECT YOU?

1 Why worry about stress?

Stress, it seems, is everywhere! In fact, in my job, if there is one thing that ordinary people ask me about more than any other – people of all ages, from all walks of life, people working, people bringing up children, people with worries for themselves and people who are worried about others – it's stress! It doesn't take long if you are reading the daily papers, scanning the news channels or reading reports on the internet to find something referring to stress – something that has triggered stress, the impact stress has on a situation or on certain people, the medical or psychological impact of stress… Stress has become something that almost everyone seems to be concerned about, yet, at the same time, something that we all feel we are at the mercy of. If you get a group of friends together to chat about how their life is going, it won't be long before stress comes up. Stress is a key issue in the workplace, where managers are expected to think about how the jobs they give people impact on them in terms of stress. It is discussed at schools, where teachers now often find they need to introduce programmes designed to help pupils cope with stress, as well as teaching them the usual subjects. Even very young children are not immune, with recent findings that even pre-school children can be affected by stress, leading some nursery schools to introduce yoga and
relaxation classes for toddlers. As one mum said to me recently, ‘How stressed can you be by four years old?'

So, just how big an issue is ‘stress'?

Are media reports highlighting a genuine problem, or are we just making too big a deal out of something that decades ago people would just have got on with? Are stress levels really rising, and how should we be responding to the apparent tidal wave of related problems? Concerns over rising stress levels in the UK have even led to warnings from politicians of a ‘epidemic of mental distress'. Should we be concerned?

There is certainly plenty of evidence showing apparent problems linked to or caused by stress. Research shows that one in three adults feels stressed every day, with younger adults feeling the pressure most – around half of people in their early twenties say that they feel under pressure most days. Stress has been linked to all kinds of physical problems including heart disease, problems with skin conditions such as eczema, and sleep problems. One study even found that women working in stressful jobs were more likely to start the menopause earlier than their more chilled-out colleagues.

Stress has also been linked to problems with mental health and emotional illnesses such as anxiety and depression. One study looking at a group of people in their early thirties found that work stress was related to the start of problems with depression and anxiety in 45 per cent of cases. The people studied worked in a wide variety of professions, but all reported stresses such as long hours, lack of control over their work and tight deadlines. About one person in four develops a new problem with anxiety or depression in any
given year, but it seems the risk is doubled if you work in a high-pressure job.

Stress in the workplace is one of the big issues that we see discussed in the press. The reason for this is clear. Government statistics in the UK say that around one in five workers say they feel extremely stressed while at work, with about 14 per cent saying that they feel their work stress is making them ill. This equates to around 5 million people who are unwell as a result of work stress. Work-related stress accounted for an estimated 13.5 million lost working days in Britain in one year alone (2007–2008). The same trend is seen in other countries. In Australia stress costs more to the economy than any other illness, and figures from the US suggest that around $300 billion ($7,500 per employee) is spent every year on stress-related issues. This cost comes from compensation claims, absenteeism and lost productivity, because even when people are at work, stress can seriously affect the work that they do – or don't do. The term ‘presenteeism' describes those who are at work but are not working effectively because of stress. We've all had days like that, where you feel as if you have run around all day like a headless chicken but actually accomplished next to nothing! One study reports that on average, Australian adults lose six working days every year through presenteeism. Meanwhile, workers across the world are working longer hours and feeling under more pressure than in previous decades. A report looking at workers from thirty different countries found that one fifth of those workers report feeling very high levels of stress.

The impact of this stress is not something to take lightly. One study following a group of civil servants over a period of 12 years found those who reported that their job was stressful
were 70 per cent more likely to develop heart disease than those who were stress-free. In fact, three quarters of executives admit that their stress adversely affects not just their work performance but also their home life and relationships. 65 per cent of Americans admit they lose sleep every night due to stress, and depression linked to stress is predicted to be the number one occupational illness of the twenty-first century. These are statistics and reports that are really worrying if you take the time to think about them, especially as many of us, if we're honest, live lives where stress is a daily reality, not just at work but throughout our lives as we juggle many different responsibilities. For example, mothers seem to be at particular risk, especially those who balance work with looking after young children. Research reports that globally one in four mothers who work full-time as well as look after children report feeling stressed every day.

Young people and stress

It isn't just adults who are struggling with stress. Stress seems to be an issue right from the start of childhood. Some experts claim that growing up in the UK places far too much pressure on children – pressure that is suggested to be behind the growing numbers of emotional and mental health problems such as eating disorders, self harm, serious depression and even suicidal behaviour among increasingly young children and teens. Those working within schools report clearly the impact that testing and exams can have on even very young children (the first formal tests – SATS – starting at just seven years old). Problems with exam stress in school children have led to special campaigns from charities such as ChildLine, and many bodies are concerned about the effect that exam
worries have on young children. Although government ministers in the UK have been quick to point out that SATS at this age are not formal exams, many teachers and parents are concerned about the obvious anxiety and stress that they produce in children, particularly those who are vulnerable or who may be ‘coached' or pushed by anxious parents or teachers concerned about league tables.

Of course, it isn't just exams that cause young people stress. Current culture means that teenagers in particular report feeling under pressure from many different perspectives, including romantic relationships and sex, issues such as drinking alcohol and taking drugs, family pressure and family breakdown, health worries and concerns over their future. Growing up seems to have become a barrage of one stress after another, and it seems that many young people are struggling to cope. Helping children to understand stress and the impact it has on us is becoming a vital part of parenting today, but with many parents themselves struggling under the weight of stress, few feel equipped to help teach their children how to cope. In fact, research suggests that if parents are themselves stressed, it has a direct impact on children who may be more prone to infections and illness as well as struggling to know how to cope with stress and anxiety themselves.

Non-work sources of stress

Meanwhile, for the adults, it isn't just work that is stressing us out. One study found that more than half of us admit that we are kept awake at night by worries about health risks and financial problems or concerns about world events such as climate change and terrorism. All this stress means that only
3 per cent of adults get the recommended amount of sleep. Changes to lifestyle, with us all tending to do less exercise and eat less healthily, have also had an impact on the way that stress affects us. Many adults admit that they feel they are simply not operating at their best because of the effect that stress has on them day to day. Stress seems to make us struggle with planning and organization, affect simple things such as memory and communication, and generally make our lives more difficult. In fact, among the various reports of how stress affects our health are some that seem to suggest it really does have an impact on how well our brains work, with research indicating that severe stress can even cause cells to die within the brain, affecting functions such as learning and memory.

All in all, reports about stress are enough to make you want to retire to a desert island in search of the ultimate stress-free ideal. Indeed, many people do that every year as they jet off on their holidays in search of a stress-free pocket of time in the middle of their stress-filled lives – though they might do well to read the research that places holidays among the most stressful experiences we can have in day-to-day life! As we work longer and longer hours, the ‘work hard, play hard' culture designed to help us cope with stress may actually be causing as many problems as it solves, with people struggling with exhaustion and resorting to alcohol and drugs in order to help them wind down and chase that stress-free idyll. Those in stressful and pressured professions are at an increased risk of struggling with problems such as addictions, and worries about the amount young professionals are drinking in particular are growing among health professionals and government ministers alike.

Why is stress such an important issue?

So, what is the most important message behind all the stories, claims and disputed ‘facts' that are reported about stress? Whatever the specific details are, stress seems to stop us from being able to operate at our best. And here is one fact that is not debated. Whereas mild stress can actually make us work better, someone placed under severe stress will not be able to work as well, as efficiently or as productively as someone who is not. Put simply, this kind of chronic, intense stress is at risk of stopping us from reaching our full potential. Much as we worry about the academic qualifications that children and young people achieve, the reality in our culture today is that how well they do in their chosen field of work may well be determined not by their ability but by how well they deal with stress. This means that in some working environments or schools, where people are, by definition, selected on the basis that they are highly able and clever, who enjoys the most success in the long term may well be predicted by looking at how those people respond to stressful situations and how well they cope with that stress.

Whether we like it or not, stress is a reality and, for most of us, something that we will have to learn to deal with. So, what can we do? Too often the response to someone struggling with stress is about how they can get out of that stressful environment, how they can remove or reduce sources of stress. But for many of us, our lifestyles and/or work produce sources of stress that are not optional. It is no good telling a stressed-out parent to stop spending so much time with their children! And for others, although they could stop doing the things that are causing them stress, that would mean giving up things that they actually love – things that make them who they are supposed to be. If we take someone
whose dream has always been to be a lawyer, and tell them that they need to give this job up because stress is making them ill, we take away from them part of who they are. We need to be sensible. Stress management may well mean making some changes to our lives. But we also need to find solutions for stress that don't just involve having to do a lot less. In the end, stress management is not about doing less; it is about learning how to cope better with the stress that is involved with being who we are, having the responsibilities that we have, and doing the kinds of things we like to do. So, if we want to be able to carry on pushing ourselves hard and keep getting the most we can out of life, we need to understand stress and be really good at dealing with it. That, in a nutshell, is what this book is about.

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