The mind affects physical conditions in the body such as stress and London being the busy city that it is can be a stressful place to live and work, people rushing, no time to stop and take in their surroundings, working often long hours juggling work and home life. Trying to find the time for a productive work-life balance and a healthy lifestyle is sometimes hard.
So what do such stressful events do to us, and what is classed as a stressful event?
Stress can help us generate the impetus to turn thought into action to ‘get things done’ and provide opportunities for development, however when poorly managed stress may result in negative health and safety outcomes. Work related stress can result in poor performance and, when prolonged, serious health problems. Short-term stress problems may include sleep disturbance, changes in mood, fatigue, headaches and stomach irritability, however more long term effects are associated with a wide range of mental and physical health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, sleep problems, back pain, chronic fatigue, digestive problems, autoimmune disease, poor immune function, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and peptic ulcers. An added effect is the emotional turmoil and potential decline in relationships with spouse and other family members.
Research into the area of positive psychology has shown “self perception of healthy people characterised by positive feelings about themselves, feelings of self control and an optimistic vision of the future may provide a driving force for resources not only to cope with everyday difficulties but also those which are especially stressful and even threatening for one’s existence” [Taylor et al, 2000].
How we think and/or feel can have effects on our behaviour and on the functioning of our bodies and our behaviour may likewise have an effect on how we think and feel. Research into the area of HIV has shown negative expectations of illness are associated with a faster onset of symptoms in people who had previously been asymptomatic and a faster progression towards death for those with an AIDS defining illness [Taylor et al, 2000]. Therefore positive states of mind may not only lead to a more profound sense of life but to a healthier existence.
A more positive outlook on life influences a person’s responses to stress; there may be more protective factors such as a larger social network of supportive friends and family allowing for more effective coping strategies plus it has been shown that physiological responses return faster to a normal state after a stressful event than someone with a more negative approach to life [Fredrickson, 2009]. Research into optimism has also shown that optimists had half the risk of suffering from coronary heart disease than those with a pessimistic attitude [Kubzanski et al, 2001].
Therefore how we think and feel is important.
One person may think something like ‘I will never be the same person I was’ leading to feelings of inadequacy and helplessness, their behaviour is to not do the things he or she used to do for fear of ‘making things worse’ or just because their feelings of hopelessness and low mood do not make the person feel motivated to try, this leads to a downward spiral of thoughts or feelings affecting behaviour.
A way to work with these thoughts and feelings is to keep a record of negative thoughts by completing a thoughts diary and then finding the evidence for or against this thought. This can take time but one way of looking at thoughts and feelings is that feelings are normally one word whereas thoughts are normally in sentences.
The next thing is to set goals! Goals don’t have to be big, in fact the smaller they are the better as then they become more reachable and setting [and obtaining] goals gives a person a feeling of control of their lives once more leading to increased self esteem and lift in mood.
Other ways of dealing with stress and feelings overwhelmed are to practice mindfulness and being in the moment, concentrating on one’s breathing and noticing how each breath is different whilst letting the thoughts come and go as ‘just thoughts’.
And finally looking at the core of the problem, is it an attitude of mind? Is work a problem that needs attention? Is family life supportive or disruptive? And what can be done to change things. Talking therapies may be helpful such as psychotherapy and coaching and other physical therapies such as chiropractic or massage. Sometimes the first step is the hardest but the most important.
Article by Nicola Williams, Counselling Psychologist.
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