APRIL marks the beginning of Stress Awareness Month and it couldn’t be more timely – especially as we start the transition out of lockdown and into a new normality after one of the most stressful years of our lives.

I often speak to my grandparents and elderly patients about what their “secrets” to living longer in good health could be, and the number of times I hear them say, “we didn’t have the stressful lifestyles you all have”, baffles me. They too had the jobs, families, hardships as well as the same challenges as we do, but why do we sink in the stress to such an extent?

I even hear young kids use the word “stress” a lot – and it does worry me. I believe we are living through a stress epidemic and its effects both short and long term could be detrimental to our health and wellbeing if not tackled early.

“Stress” is a word that is often used flippantly. It actually describes the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure. It is a personal reaction to very personal sets of circumstances and life events which often can’t be controlled – but what can be controlled is how we choose to react to these situations.

Signs of stress include feeling anxious, scared, sad, irritable, angry, frustrated and even aggressive. If these feelings are allowed to go on for a prolonged period of time, they go on to create physical symptoms such as headaches, gut issues, sweats, palpitations, hyperventilating episodes, aches and pains, insomnia and even memory problems. People with profound stress can become more detached from their loved ones, lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed, develop problems with intimacy and can even turn to self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. It is a slippery slope but one that is very easy to go down. It is therefore really important that we raise awareness of how serious stress can be and to take action if you recognise it is impacting on your quality of life.

I hear “stress” in most of my consultations these days. It is at the root of most problems – mental or physical – and is causing people to take a lot of time off work. Whether it’s domestic issues, financial pressures, work-related problems or health-related concerns, stress locks us into negative loop cycles. The first step therefore is to check-in with yourself and honestly ask yourself, are you happy?

This past year has forced us to slow down in many ways, which has been positive for some as it has disrupted the fast-paced cycle of life we have become accustomed to. However, it has also led to fatigue and uncertainty for many.

A good way to check in is to start the day strong. Ask yourself how you are feeling. If you find you are constantly using the words “stressed” or “fed-up”, there is an issue and this must not be allowed to go on any longer. Speak to someone about what is going on, whether this be a friend, a relative, your partner or your doctor. Seeking help should not be seen as a weakness but a marker of strength.

We all have areas of our lifestyles we could improve on because nobody is perfect, so as we start to transition back to normality, review your own lifestyle. What we put into our bodies has an impact not just on our physical health but also on our emotional and mental wellbeing. If we only eat beige foods all the time, we will feel flat. Diversity of foods is what is best so incorporating a colourful rainbow plate at every meal time will start to make you feel better. Especially as we come into the summer months, eat seasonal fruits and plenty of salads and start enjoying the longer, brighter and warmer weather.

The winter slump makes everyone less active but exercise is one of the best stress-busters and it doesn’t need to be fancy. Perhaps it’s a brisk walk around the block, going for a run or even a dance around the kitchen – movement is key and can energise you, sending endorphins around the system.

Many of us have tried our best to stay connected with others but now that restrictions are easing, I would encourage – when and if you are ready – to make plans with your loved ones. A problem shared is a problem halved and seeing people in real life again will be a welcome source of joy.

Stillness in this very busy and loud world can be hard to find, however learning to meditate or practice mindfulness can significantly reduce mental load and stress. The NHS website has many links and resources you can use as well as apps such as CALM or headspace. Even something as simple as lying on the grass and watching the clouds can be a mindful experience where you are focusing on breathing and grounding yourself to relax.

If you feel you have perhaps developed or nurtured some habits to get through a difficult time, be kind to yourself. It is reversible and support is available. Rates of alcohol and drug dependence have increased over this pandemic but there is plenty of help that can be offered via your GP.

Lastly let’s not forget the power of sleep. Insomnia has impacted people the most over these past 12 months. Stress has been the major cause but reviewing your sleep routine could give you clues into how well you are coping with your current pressures. By trying to create an evening routine that will aid good sleep, you’ll find yourself better at coping with some of the other issues going on. Again, if this is a serious problem, do speak to your own GP.

Stress is a growing issue but it is something we can do a lot about. It is important to recognise the signs early to prevent its inevitable long-term harm.