Stress and wellbeing
Stress directly affects everyone's health. If you are living with a spinal cord injury, it is likely that you will face more stress during an ordinary day. Learning to minimise this stress will go a long way towards maximising your health.
What is stress?
Stress is difficult to define. The level of stress you are able to deal will be different from many other people. Part of this is due to your unique make-up; your personality and your health. This is also due to what has happened to you in your life. Our vulnerability to stressed may be increased by one significant event or an accumulation of events.
It is generally thought that stress is an emotional and physical reaction when there is a difference between the demands placed on you and the capacity that you have to cope.
If you a spinal cord injury, you would have experienced many kinds of situations that can cause stress. These may range from the initial accident, hospitalisation, the demands of rehabilitation, getting back home to managing the challenges of everyday frustrations and adjusting to changes.
This can create a range of reactions that may include feelings of sadness, anxiety depression and anger. Spinal cord injury is a significant change and can also make many people feel that their life is out of control. These reactions are completely understandable and normal.
The signs of stress
How can we recognise stress?
Common signs include:
- rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure
- shallow, rapid respirations
- muscle tension
- poor or disrupted sleep patterns
- tiredness, fatigue
- change in appetite, weight loss / weight gain
- increased irritability
- rumination, worry, anxiety
- poor concentration / memory
- difficulties making decisions
- feeling overwhelmed by minor problems
- moodiness, feeling sad, frustrated
- churning or "butterflies" in the stomach
- loss of enthusiasm, commitment and motivation
- loss of trust and goodwill
- sense of loss of control and confidence
What is problematic stress?
Life naturally contains stress, but if you are experiencing any of these signs, your stress levels have become problematic:
- changes in behaviour and performance
- decline in capacity for performing tasks
- feeling constantly exhausted
- problematic behaviours such as increase drug and alcohol use
- difficulty in relationships
Recognising and managing stress is important, as on-going stress can lead to health problems. When we feel under stress, our body kicks into high gear to deal with the threat. Our heartbeat, breathing rate and blood pressure increase. The longer we feel stressed, the greater the demand on our body. The more often we are placed under stress, the more often we have to use energy to cope. Eventually our bodies develop illnesses as a reaction to this stress.
How can I manage my stress?
To live well does not mean that you will never experience any stress. In fact, stress is not always a bad thing. However, if the frequency and intensity of stress is starting to affect your health, there are many successful stress management techniques available. It's just a matter of finding one suits you.
- Breathing exercises. These work quickly and can be done anywhere. Deep breathing oxygenates your blood, relaxes muscles and quietens your mind.
- Meditation. This uses some elements of breathing exercises but builds on these so that your mind focuses on "nothingness", calming unhelpful thoughts.
- Guided imagery. This is an exercise where you take yourself through a mental journey to a pleasurable place, leaving stress behind and relaxing the body.
- Massage. This can be helpful because your mind is closely linked to your sense of touch, and touch is essential for your mind's wellbeing. Massage also improves circulation and releases tension.
- Music therapy. Listening to music can lower blood pressure, relax your body and calm your mind.
- Physical activity. Exercise helps to reduce stress by helping your body to release endorphins, a "feel good" chemical, and lowering cortisol levels (cortisol is related to stress levels).
- Social support. A network of friends and family will help you lessen stress by providing support when you are feeling low or stressed.
- Distractions. A common and effective way to deal with stress is to think and do something else. TV, movies, music, video games and so on can all provide ways to break the cycle of worrying thoughts.
Long-term stress-busting techniques
- Try to keep things in pespective. Look at the big picture.
- Deal with distress by debriefing. Share your feelings with a trusted colleague, friend or family member.
- Practice tolerance and acceptance. Some things can be changed; other things cannot be changed.
- Time out. Get some regular time away from your everyday life. This can be quite brief and still be effective. Have fun with family or friends, or make time for and enjoy pleasant activities.
- I'm not alone. Keep and savour all your connections, professional and personal. Help develop a sense of community through goodwill and mutual respect.
- Time management. Set realistic goals and prioritise. Life is not a race.
- Take care of your body. Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get enough sleep.